Saturday, 23 August 2008

moth watch

into the car park at quarts moor at 8.30pm. mike and robin from the butterfly conservation are here for a moth watch - their first at this site - and the national trust warden for this area is here too.
and me - to see if there are any migrant moths pulled in by the lights,
(and to continue my fascination with how us humans choose to observe, record and understand 'nature').

extension cables, small generators, nets, 125w mercury vapour lights over containers full of egg boxes and perspex (the moths fall in, protected by the egg cartons), plastic collection pots. two moth lights set up - one in the woods and one on the edge of the car park.

we're alone yet entirely visible due to the power of the lights, overlooking the escarpment facing taunton, wellington and the m5, the light fades. the edges of the landscape dissolve, travelling and static lights mark routes and lines, pale clear sky, light leaking to the west, cold wind; moths prefer warm cloudy nights.

moths don't tend to eat once emerged, only the caterpillars feed. once airborne, they reproduce, hibernate, die or migrate. we tend to associate them with darkness, even horror, looping them in with bats rather than butterflies,
and watch them flapping awkwardly against the lightbulbs or windows, and wrongly assume they all eat clothes.
there is a nightly genocide going on below us now on the m5 - thousands of moths
drawn by headlights broken up on metal and glass. would we let this degree of destruction happen visibly to butterflies? or birds? right now, our culture doesn't see moths in the same light.

at the time the moths are supposed to emerge into the night, so do the cars.
they pull in and park up right beside each other one at a time. dogging, i guess. it's quiet, discreet, very present, 5 or 6 cars, more arrive, some leave.
the national trust warden says "there are more cars here at night than there are during the day" and jokes about shifting the car park charging hours from 9pm to 9am. the daytime face of the national trust looks incongruous here.

four very loud men in a spoilered car pull in next to us, lager cans, drum and bass, two come over to ask what we are doing - the incongruity of it all, i can't look at them in the eye, so loud. we can hear their car go all the way to taunton after they leave. these worlds are hard to reconcile: mike scoops a yellow underwing off the grass as the clumsy lads touch the bulb he asked them not to. there are heaps of empty lager cans an arms throw from any car park.

here we all are : hunched figures staring at bright light bulbs, white sheets spread, arms folded against the cold august night, casting giant shadows over the mysterious cars lined up on the other side. a vanity light, interior light, hazards flash, moths crash land on the sheet, drawn to the light in the dark, signals, calls, messages, acts of attraction, sex, things of the night, human watching, moth watching. there's a strange symmetry to all this that i can hardly hold in language -
the ecology of the rural car park.

mike and robin tenaciously stick to the task of recording and naming the moths that flutter in - they collect them in the plastic specimen pots, and they all go into a plastic bag to travel to houses where they are specifically identified and released alive later on. sometimes they get 90 different species up in the blackdowns, tonight it's more like 9. it seems harsh to my mind to take them away from here, yet i understand what they're doing. like all conservation, recording of species and proving of territory and activity seems to be a vital act in our culture - i wonder when and if it will not be so. one moment they are glints of a magic kind of light emerging out of the night, like the brimstone, all yellow and veined delicacy - we could see them and watch them go, why not ? - but then they are put inside an incomprehensible environment, and transported away from all things of their world. what are we, us humans?

yet there is a strange beguiling beauty to this collecting: standing in the woods by the moth trap with robin, we
intensively study a migrant moth sat still on the bottom of the trap in our torchlight - a rush veneer. the name lodges in me like the title of a favorite song, a dreamy surface, a foreign place. i want to release a single with this title, or use it as a pseudonym. this moth, nomophila noctuella (nocturnal name-lover?), has certainly arrived from france, or spain even, definitely from across the channel robin assures me. i kind of can't believe it, something so small carried on the wind all that way to 'fall' here whole, complete. what kind of language can i use? what kind of language does the moth use? what can we call knowledge? the rush veneer, here in our torchlight, is a kind of miracle. and in the clumsy beautiful attention of us human beings, there is a bewildering compassion and elegant connection.

on the way home, moths flap around in the car - they must have come in on our clothes - i can feel one moving around in my hair. the next day, it's flying around at the car windows, bidding escape. i pull over, and wind down the passenger window. it's a small pale moth - i have no idea what particular name it has been given by humans, but it's miles from home, no matter i hope - it flits off over a house.

later, i sit at home with a very old 'moths of the months' book that megan gave me. the list of names are entrancing, and i speak them quietly to myself over and over

northern swift
black arches
scalloped oak
july high-flier
frosted orange
buff ermine
pale tussock
beautiful carpet
the quaker
spring usher
the feathered thorn
lime hawk
waved umber
silver y
hummingbird hawk
scorched carpet
scarlet tiger
the dot

a list, like walt whitman's list of trees used to speak to dying soldiers in hospital (and spoken by bryan saner in goat island's performance 'it's an earthquake in my heart') or the angel who speaks to the dying man in wim wender's 'wings of desire' of life-ful things to bring him back to the world: along with the many other lists, collections and taxonomies made by humans, this list
draws the moths into my imaginative life.

List. n. A border; a boundary (obs.); a destination (Shake.). A catalogue, roll or enumeration. Desire; inclination; choice; heeling over. (thank you, dw)


Anonymous said...

that is lovely. i am sorry i didn't come and now after reading that even more so.
I too have grown to love moths since spending more times in woods with them, as a child they scared me.

Gregg Whelan said...

In Roger Deakin's Wildwood he too attends a moth watch, in Essex: 'I reflected on the minutes ticking by as the moths languished in the shadowy honeycomb of the egg boxes; an hour of our time might be ten years of theirs. Death is never far away from them. No wonder the Greeks called moths by the same name as the soul: psyche.'