Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Winter, Leopard Moth Caterpillars, and a Dream

Afternoon sun reaches through a welter of tree limbs to arrive in bits and pieces on mats of moldering leaves flooring the swamp.  The woods here at this time of day are fairly quiet with an occasional distant rat-a-tat-tat of a pileated woodpecker punctuating the silence, as he or she mines some rotting stump for grubs. Otherwise no birdsong is to be heard.  Well, perhaps here and there are a few crows somewhere complaining.  But crows are always doing that in the woods.

The calendar says mid-winter, yet half the days it fails to freeze here, even at night, and a snowfall that sticks has not happened since mid-December.  The soil beneath my feet, still humming with decay, smells sweetly of it.   The moss in its several varieties remains for the most part green.  Here is a place where one can wait out the season, however uncomfortably, in some darkness and damp but with minimal frostbite. 

I am, it turns out, not the only one marking my time in these circumstances.  For the third day I have returned to a copse of Bald Cypresses, situated on a knot of roots and earth rising ever so slightly above the headwaters of Nassawango Creek.  And there before me poised on the drab earth, just beyond a fallen trunk ribboned with moss and lichens, is a solitary caterpillar.  I am pretty sure she is the same one I saw the last two times I was here.  

She doesn't seem to be very active and only curls up a bit tighter when I approach to take a closer look.  Underneath tufts of black, wiry bristles dotting her plump body, one can discern alternating bands of black and red.  I pick her up as gently as I can and place her on the fallen tree trunk to take her photograph with my ever handy iPhone.  

Here it is:

She (or, perhaps, he) is a leopard moth (Hypercombe scribonia) in waiting.  She is not in a hurry to move anywhere but seems caught up in a perpetual loop of slow-motion footage.  According to those who know these things, this caterpillar is fattening up throughout the winter, finding shelter, particularly when winter gets more unruly, beneath all the leaves littering the ground, and all the while chewing her way to a cocoon and adulthood.  Once she emerges, she is finished with the eating and will have only to mate, fly about a bit, and then pass away.  For most of her life she is this creature before me and not the winged, sleek moth we humans generally imagine her to be.  

Now, a few days have passed and last night I dreamed a small tribe of leopard moth caterpillars, fat and bristly, were gathered on the ground into the configuration of an asterisk, a multi-pointed star forming as each creature's body touched the others at the center and then radiated outward from there in the respective directions of the compass.  The image was very striking.  But when I stooped down to take a photograph of it, one of the caterpillars rose up and took the iPhone from my hands and cast it aside.  

Does a leopard moth caterpillar still exist in the forest, if no one is there to take a picture of her?  Evidently, that caterpillar had strong feelings about how this question should be answered.


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