Nancy and I drive in her truck down Hardscrabble Road to Hollis Barrens. The sun casts an orangey-blue light as it sinks behind the adolescent mountains of western Maine as if it lives there. Along the road the foliage glows chartreuse, a heavenly illumination that makes you wish you were a landscape painter. This will be the darkest night of June, the best for hunting moths. On brighter nights, they’d never take our bait. Nocturnal feeders, they’re attracted to light; they want to swallow the full moon whole as if it were a flat communion host.
The woods of Hollis Barrens are thick with sound: the trill of gray tree frogs in the distance, the chirr of crickets and other night-calling insects. The last bird warbling before complete darkness is a Swainson s thrush, diva of the night. Its euphonious song—like notes from a glass flute—is an auf Wiedersehen before the next act, the whip-poor-will, who vainly repeats its name like a drunk. One hundred and seventeen times before it breaks, for a second, then resumes. Now I appreciate the James Thurber story I read two decades ago about the man driven to murder by the relentless plaint of the whip-poor-will.
In the woods, Nancy dips her paintbrush into the bucket of bait— a mash of bananas and beer—and slops it onto a gray birch. The mixture smells sweet and yeasty, makes me want to lick the tree, to singularly abide my desire. We bushwhack along, baiting trees that Nancy assures me she’ll remember when we make rounds later. In a patch of scrub oak, Nancy sets up the light trap, a purplish, fluorescent tube attached to a battery. The light compels moths toward a Plexiglas contraption, which tricks them into a 5-gallon pail. Some moths love sweet things; some romance the light. Still other species fly around aimlessly. For these lost souls, she sets a malaise trap, which is like a mist net for birds or a gill net for fish; it sweeps the air indiscriminately and catches all.
We sit. We slap mosquitoes. We whisper. After half an hour, we check the traps. Success! We have lured Synchlora aerata, a pinky nail-sized creature with pistachio-colored wings, “a tiny bead of pure life,” like Virginia Woolf s famous moth. Two squiggly lines, like the electrocardiogram of a faint heart, band its wings. Its black eyes bulge enormously, though they’re really wee dots the size of poppy seeds.
Ecpantheria scribonia is caught, too, an inch-long creature I recognize instantly as Cruella DeVil. Her big, furry thorax looks like a chic stole, which flutes into cape-like wings, ivory with black blotches. Artful in a monochromatic way, some of the spots have a white center. Cruella has an incongruously small head the size of a straight-pin knob, with downward-pointing handlebar antennae. Her legs, too, are spotted, as if she chose matching stockings for her evening out. In a certain slant of light, the spots show their true color: iridescent green.
Caripeta angustiorata reminds me of a fluffernutter sandwich, creamy peanut-butter wings streaked with marshmallow. And there is no ignoring Pachysphinx modesta, a huge moth the size of a hummingbird. What Pachysphinx lacks in color, it makes up for in size. He’s a dull lummox, crashing through the foliage in search of love and nectar: the Rodney Dangerfield of moths. I love the common names of moths, which promise a story: the unarmed wainscott (Leucania inermis), the brother (Raphiafrater), the blinded sphinx (Paonias exaecatus), the joyful holomelina (Holomelina laetà). Luna moths, cecropia moths, underwing moths, wasps and fireflies—which are not flies at all but beetles—fall into our trap. Its possible to collect over 100 different species in a night.
Nancy gingerly transfers the moths to killing jars—still labeled Earth Food, a brand of organic baby food—at the bottom of which she has placed cotton balls lightly soaked in ethyl acetate. It’s a careful mix: Too much liquid, and the specimen is soaked and ruined; too little, and the moth beats around in the jar, battering its fragile, dusty wings. In her office, Nancy will impale the moths on a straight pin, and, wings spread, their beauty impounded, they are sacrificed to the gods of science. Me, I just like sitting in the woods on warm, summer nights with Nancy, by the lavender light of the trap, waiting for moths to fly our way.