The Moth Wood
In this, the first of our regular columns featuring inspirational Nature writing, Lorna Howarth introduces a sublime passage taken from Roger Deakin’s last book, Wildwood.
I BECAME AWARE of Roger Deakin’s superlative work by way of an administrational error here at Resurgence: we inadvertently asked two authors to review the same book, Roger being one of them. When I confessed the mistake to Roger his magnanimous response: “Do what you like with it!” and his good-humour meant that he soon became a member of our ‘A-List’ – those writers we really enjoy working with and whose work is of the utmost quality.
Soon after this episode, Roger published Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain, which I devoured in a couple of sittings. I became an immediate fan. Sadly, Roger died just after finishing his next book, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, so he never knew how well-received it was by literary critics and readers alike.
Roger has a number of books to his name, but I felt he was just getting into his stride as a Nature writer when he passed away. Whenever I read his words, I am transported to the diverse worlds he describes: I can smell the “swooning scent” of the bluebells; I can imagine the rook hoisting itself home to the “dark constellation of nests”. To me, Roger brings Nature writing alive by his words, his wit and his wisdom.
It was hard to choose a passage to present in this first column, but I’ve plumped for ‘The Moth Wood’, not just because it makes me chuckle every time I read it, but because the vernacular names are dying out as the moths themselves become rarer, and it is imperative that we remember them and care about them. LH
THE OTHERS WERE already there as I approached the shadow island of the grove in the dusk. Out in the meadow near the wood’s edge, in a little pool of pure white light, four men and a girl knelt in the grass around an outspread white sheet and a powerful mercury vapour lamp. In their intense concentration on the little arena inside the halo of light there was the unmistakable air of theatre. Clearly, they were at their devotions before some blinding vision, some deity. Closer up, as my eyes adjusted to the brilliance, I perceived that the dazzling aura was filled with the fluttering of a dozen or more moths.
It was a warm night, and the lamp’s brightness had the effect of blackening the night around us. Moths were emerging in a steady stream from the wood, and, as they approached the light, Joe, Ian or Philip could often identify them on the wing. We were all intent on them and alert for the slightest movement coming out of the darkness. It was like angling, and the total concentration on the fishing float: the way everything else just lifts away and you are left with a kind of meditation.
Over the summer, I had found myself growing more and more fascinated by the moths I encountered in woods, or flying in through my study window or door at night. Their names alone, as Joe and his colleagues added them to their growing list, were a kind of poetry: the willow beauty, the dingy footman, the clouded silver, the flame shoulder, the smoky angle shades, the dew moth. The moth we most desired that night was the white-spotted pinion, Cosima diffinis. It emerges from the pupa from late July to mid-September, and its larva feeds on elm leaves. Since Slough Grove is rich in resurrected elms, there was good reason to hope for the moth. A few days earlier the Essex Moth Group had set traps in the not-so-distant Chalkeney Wood and caught no fewer than eight white-spotted pinions, now scarce because of the effects of Dutch elm disease. If the white-spotted didn’t deign to appear, we would gladly have settled for the lesser-spotted pinion. Neither moth showed up, but there was no lack of excitement to punctuate the calm of the evening.
The first moth to fly in after I arrived was a sturdy little creature with dark-brown striated forewings. It settled on the sheet, quivering all over the way moths do, and Philip said ‘uncertain’. Joe wrote a note in his book, and I assumed they weren’t sure what it was, until they explained this actually was its name: the uncertain, a member of the Nocutuidae, like its relation, the anomalous. I asked Joe which moth he dreamt of seeing one fine night, and he chose the alchymist, a woodland denizen that feeds on oak and elm. Only fifteen have ever been recorded in Britain, including a solitary Essex sighting down the road in Colchester on 9th June 1875. He also mentioned a butterfly, the elusive white letter hairstreak, whose food plant is elm. He kept hoping it would turn up where the trees are regenerating, as in woods like Slough Grove. Joe had a list of the two to three hundred species we might reasonably hope to encounter at this time of year in Essex. On an average night’s moth-hunting in the summer, he would expect to see as many as eighty or a hundred of them. But some of his hunting grounds were particularly rich. At Stour Wood on the Wrabness shore of the Stour Estuary, an old chestnut and oak wood, Joe said he and others had captured 260 species in a single night in June.
Just then there was a sudden flurry of arrival: a common wainscot, several green carpets, a straw underwing, and two or three scorched carpets, which would most likely have been feeding as caterpillars on the spindle trees in the wood. The maple prominent that came in next would likewise have been feeding on the maple coppice. Many moths are christened only in Latin, but the lovely vernacular names date from the 17th century: one species that flocked to our trap that night was the relatively common setaceous Hebrew character, so named to denote the hieroglyphic on its forewing. ‘Setaceous’ is simply one of those specialist words used in the trade to mean ‘bristly’, just as ‘lunate’ means ‘crescent-shaped’ and ‘ocellate’ means ‘eye-like’. As our nocturnal callers arrived, the lepidopterists announced them like major-domos at a ball: “Large yellow underwing, iron prominent, lesser cream wave, brimstone moth, lime-speck pug.”
The night was cooling and dew was beginning to fall. A barn owl cried out in the wood and was answered by some muttering among the rooks. A clouded border fluttered in, then another moth with pale underwings and forewings shaded in tawny contours, two copies of the same map, “Isn’t this a dark spinach, Joe?” asked Philip. Joe peered at it closely and pronounced that it was, only an unusually dark shade. All moths have a tendency to vary their shades, and the subtle graduations of the dark spinach illustrated in one of Joe’s colour reference books enchanted me in their sheer artistry. From a delicate pale green to dark, the species can vary from one place to another. Hot weather can trigger the minor mutations that control these colour changes. Melanism is sometimes the result, as in the famous case of the peppered moth, Biston betularia, whose melanistic form, the black peppered moth, evolved during the Industrial Revolution from the original white-with-dark-brown-peppering to the all-black form known, somewhat like the spaghetti dish, as carbonaria in the blackened industrial regions of northern England, where it still forms the total population. “Not a bad moth, the dark spinach,” said Phil, half to himself, as he released the creature. “Not bad at all,” he sighed. The dark spinach had made quite an impression.
This is an edited extract taken from Wildwood, by Roger Deakin published by Penguin at £8.99, 2007. Copyright © Roger Deakin. www.penguin.co.uk.