Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Identifying a moth by phone.

Polyphemus moth, Antheraea polyphemus, in laundry basket.


The interpreter was sketching on a drawing pad when the nature house phone rang.

“Interpreter,” he said.

WHAT?” It was a man.

"I’m a nature interpreter. Can I help you?”

ARE YOU A MOTH EXPERT?” The man had a loud voice, and sounded drunk. It was the holiday weekend. Everyone else was getting drunk in the sun while the interpreter manned the lonely nature house.

“Yes, I am a moth expert,” said the interpreter, which wasn’t true but might as well have been. There were generally only two or three different moth questions asked each year, each asked numerous times, and he knew the answers to those. He continued sketching, the shrew-mole he had found deceased at the edge of the parking lot that morning, which at this point required only that he scribble in the fur in varying densities to give the illusion of three dimensions.

WELL HAVE I GOT A MOTH FOR YOU!”

Drunk man has come across a Polyphemus moth, thought the interpreter. This was the number one moth question. Every year around this time people would phone about Polyphemus moths, or worse, bring them to the nature house in ice cream tubs containing leaves of iceberg lettuce, expecting their dramatic discovery to be met with an equally dramatic reaction.

IT IS LIKE HUGE, LIKE ABOUT AS BIG AS MY HAND, AND IT’S SITTING ON THE SIDE OF MY SHED. I LIVE ON COMSTOCK ROAD, DO YOU KNOW WHERE THAT IS?”

The interpreter knew where that was, but had no interest in going there. He asked, “Is the moth pale brown with spots that look like eyes on its back wings and smaller spots on its front wings?”

JUST A SEC, I’LL CHECK!”
The interpreter heard the phone clunk onto a surface and a door slam. He went back to his sketch and tried to make the eyes warmer.

HELLO?”

“Still here,” said the interpreter.

“EXACTLY WHAT YOU SAID! SPOTS THAT LOOK LIKE EYES ON THE BACK WINGS!”

“Very nice,” said the interpreter. “It’s a Polyphemus moth.”

“WOW. SO NOW WHAT DO WE DO?”

“About the moth?”

There was a pause. “OF COURSE ABOUT THE MOTH! CAN YOU SEND SOMEONE TO COME AND GET IT?”

“I don’t think that will be necessary,” said the interpreter. “Let’s just leave it alone and let it decide what it wants to do with itself.”

“YOU’RE NOT GOING TO COME AND GET IT?”

“No,” said the interpreter. “We don’t gather up moths for no particular reason. Polyphemus moths are relatively common. They’re not endangered, so we tend to leave them alone.”

“COMMON? I’VE NEVER SEEN ONE BEFORE IN MY WHOLE LIFE AND I AM FORTY-EIGHT YEARS OLD!”

And drunk, thought the interpreter. "It's a nocturnal animal, which is why you have never seen one before. Usually they find a better place to hide than this one did."

“DOESN’T IT NEED PROTECTING? WHAT IF SOMETHING ATTACKS IT?”

“Well, that’s what happens sometimes in nature, isn't it?” said the interpreter. “It’s quite likely it has already mated, or laid its eggs if it’s a female, and is just waiting to die anyway. Leave it alone, tomorrow it will be gone one way or another.”

BIG HELP YOU ARE!” The man hung up.

The interpreter scribbled out the image on his page. He couldn’t get it right. He couldn’t make the shrew-mole look alive.

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6 comments:

deb said...

Funny funny. People used to bring us dead fritillary caterpillars in baggies wanting to know how to get rid of them. Sad.

mr_subjunctive said...

Dropping by to let you know that I mentioned your blog today on my blog, though it's hard to explain what the "mention" involves. The relevant post is this one.

swamp4me said...

Have you been tapping my phone? Guess not, 'cause the moth in question would have been the "lunar" moth ;)

Beetles In The Bush said...

Great story - better he wanted to know how to save it rather than how to get rid of it.

Regards -- Ted

membracid said...

Ha! And yes, I get calls like this often.

rebecca said...

Ha! I know this is old, but I just came across it - reminds me of the time someone turned up at the raptor rehab center I used to intern at with a perfectly healthy adult snapping turtle in the bed of his pickup truck.