This is a polyphemous moth, which you probably already knew. I see them once every few years, about as often as I see a praying mantis, so I think it's pretty cool to get a glimpse. They're big and green and special looking. I don't know where they live most of the time. The few times I've seen them it's been a misty morning, and they've been frozen still on the outside wall of a house or here on a fencepost under the eaves, waiting for their wings to dry off.
I'm fond of the polyphemous moth not only because they are beautiful and strange, but also because I associate them with the first realization that I could write. I was in college and had procrastinated an essay about art, of all things, until late at night the day before it was due. I had procrastinated because I had no idea what to say about art. I had dutifully gone to the art museum and looked at a bunch of paintings, and had read some art critic's meta-notes about ways of seeing, which I didn't really understand. And it was 11 PM and I hadn't started the essay and my roommates had rejected my attempts to come up with something, anything, we could do instead of writing this paper. So I poured a thermos of coffee and took my heavy old 1992 laptop and a blanket up to the roof of my dorm and, in a panic, I just blurted. I wrote about my uncle's farm in Vermont, and the starry skies there and how cold and clear and distant the stars looked when you tipped your head up in the country darkness. And how we woke in the morning to find a mist in the field and dozens of moths frozen on the farmhouse, big and exotic and fragile and beautiful. I wrote about how confusing it is to live in a world where sometimes the sky feels so thin and the stars so close that you feel like you could spin up and off the edge, with nothing to hold you on to the surface. And also where somehow there is mist and gentle protection for these eerie huge still mothwings. There was a painting I had seen that somehow captured both of those things, a protective atmosphere, with unseen moths lurking in the thick still air, and yet the clear dark pull of the cold universe, full of stars and blackness and nothing else. I drank my coffee and wrote without editing until I didn't have anything left to say, and then I went to sleep and woke up just in time to turn it in.
Always before I had written very self-consciously, following the rules of writing that I'd learned in school, about topic sentences and themes. I had tried to be clever and weave in a tidy little zing at the ending. And I had gotten pretty good grades and some compliments, but even on my decent A- papers the margins were full of suggestions and occasional circled words with question marks. But the essay about the moths, that I blurted out sitting alone in the dark, earned me my first plain old A. The professor just wrote, "A tour de force." I'd never had feedback like that. I feel embarrassed that I am still, 16 years later, stunned and touched and proud of it, but it was such a surprising and exciting event. The idea that writing something truthful and without artifice and imitation could work, somehow, was really exciting to me.
I'm still kind of afraid to write, or to
confess any sort of serious aspirations about writing. It's why I like
blogs so much -- there is permission to blurt, untidily. You don't have
to worry about when to follow the rules and when to break the rules
because there are no rules. You can't do it wrong. At least for me,
that's a really nice freedom to have.
Someone wrote to us and asked us for advice about blogging. I have thought of a few things to say, but mostly it is this: Tell us about the moths you saw that time, and then if those moths make you think about something else, tell us that, too. Write until you're done, and then hit publish and go to sleep.
[Update: oops! It's not a polyphemous moth. It's a luna moth. I knew that, but forgot. Here's a picture of a polyphemous moth. Totally different moth. Thanks to the reader who set me straight.]