Mothstorm
By: Matthew Battles | Categories: Spectacles

Heading out to take the dog for a last spin of the neighborhood last night, I swept the door open to confront a quiet storm of moths, diffuse and disordered, strobing in the kitchen’s ambient glow. I reached out and shut off the lights right away; we’ve learned that unless we plunge the room into darkness the moths will bustle in like a flock of Christmas carolers, early and unwelcome.

[A version of this post appeared on Gearfuse on December 1, 2010.]

In a few short years, the winter moth has become a signal phenomenon of the turning of the year in New England. Operophtera brumata is an invasive species in North America, having made its way to Massachusetts since appearing in Nova Scotia in the 1930s. Each year around the end of November, when proper insects seem to have died or shut themselves away in holes, the winter moths rise from bark and leaf litter — a shabby, slow-motion snow flurry in reverse, color of the grim slush that will soon rime the streets. The fliers are males; females are wingless. They meet to mate on the bark of trees a few feet from the ground; the eggs they produce now will hatch in the far-off warmer months, and the caterpillars — green apostrophes indistinguishable from the inchworms that are the offspring of many related moths — will spin a shaft of silk and sail off on the wind to make nuisances of themselves in the orchards, chewing up the new foliage.

Batting at the phantom moths, I hurried down the stairs with the dog skittering along behind, only to be brought short by a pair of eyes like two black holes bored in my neighbor’s lamplit woodwork. They belonged to a moonlight-hued opossum perched on the narrow rail of a wrought-iron front-porch banister. Glossy and still, it regarded me coolly. I knew that if I approached its eyes would pinch shut, its lips would flare in a beleaguered, toothy rictus, and it likely would fall right off its perch to the brick steps below.

The dog might have enjoyed the spectacle, but I would have felt guilty. Instead we turned away, moths swarming, dog companionating, possum watching, and me wondering and dreaming connections — all of us following the evolved signals of our several natures.

— image by entomart via Wikimedia.

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Matthew Battles, Hilobrow's cofounder, has written about language, history, and the natural world for many publications. When he makes poems, he puts them here. A fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, he's also the author of Library, An Unquiet History.