appetite

caterpillarsI couldn’t believe I spotted this crew again after finding them over a week ago. Their numbers are significantly diminished; they’ve likely lost siblings to bird poaching over time. But there they are, relocated to a new leaf, over halfway through devouring it.

I’m not familiar with these caterpillars, so I don’t know how how many more skins they’ll shed as they grow out of their tight coats, how much longer they’ll live as larvae before pupating, when and who they’ll become as adults. But they’ll certainly grind through another whole leaf or two, and more of them will likely become bird bait.

Insects have always been incidental to my woods-walks, interesting but not exactly the point. This year they’ve drawn me so deeply into their world, I almost pay more attention to these, the tiny crawlers and winged things, than the big feathered ones. And there are so. many. of them. Eating. And being eaten. The sheer force of appetites—from the caterpillars’ frantic leaf-munching, to the birds scouring the branches for larvae and insects to feed their own chicks, to the giant, two-legged naturalist cleaning all the ripe blueberries off the bushes—drive the woods through the months of July and August. These months, the birds quiet down and the atmosphere simmers in silence.

But if you listen very closely, you may just hear the chomp and munch of those millions of tiny jaws.

the weight

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If you follow me on Instagram, you may have noticed that I’ve recently taken up mothing as part of an(other) informal project: The Year of Insects. I’ve been dancing around the discipline for a while, kind’ve like I danced around painting: collecting equipment and instructional reading material and subscribing to blogs for years before I actually tried it for myself.

Out of all the esoteric entomological naturalist subjects—dragonflies, butterflies, beetles—I picked moths for some of the same reasons I enjoy birds. They’re relatively easy to find on any given outing, their paintjobs are stunning, and sometimes they hold still long enough for you to get a good look.

But mothing is not like birding.

For starters: to bird, you carry a pair of binoculars into bird habitat, look and listen for your quarry, and then watch to your heart’s content. To moth, you lure moths out of the darkness, with light or fermented (stinky) bait, and then you take photos or specimens before your visitors flit away.

To bird, you ordinarily go forth during the day. Mothing is a mostly nocturnal affair (to the chagrin of this morning glory).

With birds, what you see is what you get. There are about 900 species of birds in North America (daunting, but doable). Moths? Not so much. There are at least 12,000 moth species (and counting) on the continent. Even if you could remember the points of identification for all the local commoners (possibly thousands), there’s so much variation between individuals of the same species that I’m staring down years of moth-catching before I’ll get to moth-identifying.

On the plus side, this new hobby will hopefully exercise my ability to stay awake at late parties, even though my new idea of fun—swatting mosquitoes in the dark while I hang out with a cotton sheet and a headlamp in my front yard—may not yield thrilling party stories.

And yet, here is something that astonishes me: a bird in the hand feels like you’re holding nothing at all. Even a crow stands on your fist startlingly invisible to gravity. But a moth on your hand amplifies that same gravity—there’s no other explanation to how such a miniscule creature possesses such weight and warmth.

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This moth clambered up almost on purpose, drawing my attention to its presence in the world, the fact that it’s taking up space and oxygen, that it has weight and exerts force and appetite and progeny.

For some of you, that thought is maybe a little terrifying, which was not exactly my intent. Though maybe I should consider whether this moth means to deliver a greeting or a warning…

timberdoodle

Last week, I said to myself, “Enough is enough.” As in, enough pretending it’s too cold, and I don’t have the time, and probably nothing will be going on anyway, and spring will never actually come.

Enough sitting indoors. Enough twiddling my thumbs. Enough.

I said to myself, “It’s time.” Time to find spring, and the warmth, and the green things and the singing birds.

Time to get my pants dirty. Time to brave the ticks. Time to watch the timberdoodles.

Timberdoodle is another name for the bird formally known as a woodcock. I really like these birds. They’re mysterious, well-camouflaged. Funny looking, too, with enormous night-vision eyes placed near the back of its head for vigilance, and a long, narrow beak for probing leaves and soil for grubs. I’ve probably walked past hundreds and never even known they were present. I’ve seen only one in the wild, held two in my hands as wildlife rehab patients.

Seeing woodcocks is not difficult all the time, however. You just have to know when and where. When is early spring, March through May, fifteen minutes after sunset. Where is open, grassy fields close to woodlands, where the timberdoodles spend most of their time. I know of such a field.

meadowThis is what you will see, if you also know of such a field: First, since you should get there in time to watch the sun set, you’ll see the bluebirds, flitting from post to branch, scolding each other, and singing on barbed wire fences as if the answer to a sharp thing was, of course, a bird. And you will probably also see the gleaming white breast of a red-tailed hawk perched in an oak tree, surveying the meadow for one last meal before sundown. You may also see a hard mass of foam clinging to the branch of a tree—an ootheca, or egg case holding hundreds of praying mantis eggs that will hatch and yield perfect miniature mantids as the days warm up.

You’ll hear things too: the chorus of the spring peeper frogs chiming from the low pond behind the tree line; the sing-song voices of the bluebirds and the robins claiming each nook and cranny. As the sun sinks, the day birds will bicker for the best sleeping perches and then slowly fall silent. The frogs will intensify their songs to compete with the darkness that’ll otherwise obscure their presence.

The sun will set, though the sky will be bright. And you will hold very still.

The first thing you’ll hear as the darkness falls is a questioning, nasally voice. “Peent? Peent? Peent?” That’s the male woodcock, pushing through the tall grass to find a mate. But his question isn’t enough. So to be very sure she sees him, he’ll launch into the air, gaining altitude slowly like a heavy bomber, banking around great curves, twittering the whole way. He’s hard to see in the darkness, but if you’re fast, and carefully extrapolate his location from the flurry of twitters, you can land your binoculars on him and watch his long nose leading a body the size of your two fists, wings furiously blurred as he circles overhead.

Well, so. It’s a natural phenomenon that has happened every spring for millennia. Not such a big deal that I’m seeing it for the first time.

clouddotsBut I’ll tell you a secret. When I arrived at the meadow and found my seat next to a short pine sapling, I had the devil of a time just being there. It was as if I’d forgotten how to open up my heart outside. It was as if I actually preferred the screen in my hand, the people in my pocket to the fresh air and the golden sunlight on my eyelids and the company of all those wild things just as hungry for spring as I am. No offense to the people in my pocket.

I wasn’t actually seeing or hearing any of these delicious things that were happening around me. I had to sternly make myself zip up my phone, turn off the camera, listen and see. I hate that a long, cold winter and the accumulation of my own bad behavior now require so much effort for me to be present for things I love, for things I’ve never seen before.

Spring will keep whispering her “wake up” incantation to the birds and the bugs and the leaves and the buds, and to me. Enough walking around with my heart closed. I’m going to make damn sure I’m listening.