A flurry of moths

Operophtera brumata, for those following along at home

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 over and shut off the kitchen 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.

In a few short years, the winter moth has become a signal phenomenon of the turning of the year in New England. Old World natives, they’re an invasive species in North America, having made their way from Nova Scotia to Massachusetts over the last half of the twentieth century. Each year around the end of November, when proper insects seem to have died or shut themselves away in holes, they 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. The eggs they produce now will hatch in the far-off warmer months, and the caterpillars—green apostrophes indistinguishable from the inchworms that children love to adopt—will spin a shaft of silk and sail off on the wind to make nuisances of themselves in the orchards.

Batting at phantom moths, I hurried down the stairs with the dog skittering along behind, only to be brought short by another prodigy of nature: a pair of eyes like two black holes bored in my neighbor’s lamplit woodwork. It was an opossum, fat and moonlight-colored, 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 it would involuntarily “play possum”: 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 at it all and dreaming connections—like the others, following the evolved signals of an inner nature.

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