Insects

James A. Baggett

Our Dusty-Winged Friends

As barefoot boys growing up in Indiana in the 1960s, my brothers and I loved to spend our never-ending summer vacations catching bugs in great-big Miracle Whip jars. (I know.) Praying mantis. Cicadas. Lightning bugs. Crickets. Walking sticks. We’d be sure to pound holes in the lids of the jars with a hammer and nail so our entomological captives could breathe until we were done inspecting them up close and personal. I remember with great regret finding a Cecropia moth cocoon and stashing it in a not-quite-big-enough jar and leaving it on an out-of-reach shelf in the garage of our mid-century ranch. One day—too late—I discovered the spectacularly large and strikingly beautiful moth had unexpectedly emerged from its papery cocoon. Unable to properly unfurl its delicate new wings, they were permanently curled and crumpled up like a fist…even long after its untimely release. The mere thought of my mindless imprisonment still makes me shudder.

Despite my unintended cruelty, my interest in moths and butterflies has remained undaunted. Just yesterday I witnessed a female Monarch Butterfly as she miraculously located a stand of common milkweed in my front yard and carefully pressed the tip of her abdomen against the undersides of the leaves, leaving behind a single miniscule yellow-green egg the size of a single poppy seed. A pretty pair of Clouded Sulphur Butterflies flitted as high as a cottonwood tree in a private aerial pas de deux. A cheeky Red Admiral Butterfly suddenly alighted atop my good dog Finch’s shaggy head as he stood guard on the porch and it remained there nonchalantly opening and closing its wings for a delightfully long time. And then, in the waning evening light, I spotted a striking Sphinx Moth with a pair of chartreuse body stripes as it hovered and sipped the sweet nectar from my best friend and next-door neighbor Diana’s impressively pink and fragrant ‘Northern Lights’ azalea.

So it makes sense that I’ve always been obsessed with field guides, every field guide I can get my dirty hands on of flora and fauna near and far. I have a packed book shelf as pathetic proof. I especially treasure a 1903 green-bound reference to the moths of North America entitled The Moth Book by W.J. Holland, given to me for my birthday by my dear friend Candace. Sure, some of the pages are coming loose and the color-plate pages have faded a bit, but it’s definitely comprehensive…and desenigrating. Imagine my undownable delight when I recently discovered a new-and-improved field guide to our dusty-winged friends, the Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012). If you’ve ever stood outside on your front porch on a warm summer night studying the moths that have landed on your screen door—always hoping for the elusive Luna Moth—this is a reference book to keep within easy reach. Just like my beloved edition of the Peterson Field Guides to Birds passed along to me by my bird-loving father when I was not yet a teen, this impressive field guide is destined to become dog-eared by your bedside.