Dear London Pigeon,
I too have been seeking refuge from the news, though not in squirrel sex chases or violent great tit fights. Instead, I’ve been getting my consolation from larger moths, or to be even more specific, The Observer’s Book of Larger Moths.
The book is small and rectangular, clearly made to fit a capacious coat pocket and to be taken out into the field for purposes of identification. And it’s full of the most alluring names: Satin Lutestring, Ruby Tiger, Frosted Green, Pale Tussock, Peach-Blossom, Pebble Prominent and Chocolate-Tip.
These moths sound like a cross between rock star children and Farrow & Ball paint. My favourite, though, is Old Lady Moth, who looks just like Miss Havisham in her faded and decaying wedding robes, speckeldy-grey with fraying at the edges.
But the book’s soothing powers really come from the voice of its author, the mysteriously initialled R.L.E. Ford. The best way to convey this is to quote him. Here he is on the Fox Moth:
“It is virtually impossible to collect fully grown larvae in the autumn and keep them yourself through the winter.”
Don’t you love the way he says this? As if anyone reading this book might be about to attempt it. He then goes on in more detail: “The larvae pupate on the ground; often the cocoon will be under a flat stone or piece of tin lying on the ground. Larvae kept during the winter die, probably from a fungus disease, but now and then a collector succeeds in bringing a number through.”
Who are these collectors? Do they still exist? Are there collectors out there now, struggling to bring Fox Moth larvae through the winter? I hope so.
I’ve also learnt that the Oak Eggar Moth is one of the best species to watch “to see the females attracting the males by means of their scent glands” and that blowing cigarette smoke down a tube into a tree is a good way to collect insects. But the best story of all brings us back to the Old Lady Moth:
“Once, during an air raid in the last war, I disturbed a fine variety of Old Lady Moth from under some tiles I was replacing after a bombing. Unfortunately, as I was astride a coal-shed roof at the time, I could not give chase. I tried sugaring in the garden around, but the moth did not return.”
Reading this book is like diving into a lost world, in which people watched these fluttering creatures of the dusk with sincere and avid interest, a lifetime of natural knowledge at their fingertips.
I feel greedy for it, that world. I want my head to be filled with bands of yellowish colour in the hind wings, houses spun from leaves and brown cocoons made with coarse silk fibres. Sometimes, if I’m having trouble sleeping, I take it out and read a short paragraph to myself, luxuriating in the minutiae of its prose. It’s the exact opposite of a post-truth Trump tweet or a white paper on Brexit. It confounds the idea you can ever have enough of experts.
And next time I see a moth go by, I’ll reach for my book and see if I can identify it – infuse myself with some of Ford’s love and learning. That is, of course, provided it’s one of the larger varieties.