The Whiteness of the Weasel (Part 1)

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We are not alone. I’ve known since boyhood that houses often have critters––that the structures we humans perceive as ours often contain other denizens who don’t happen to share this proprietary attitude. The resulting interspecies disagreement often leads to conflict. During twenty-five years of residence in suburban New Jersey, for instance, I fought a low-intensity war against the squirrels on the property that Edith and I owned there. These cute troublemakers persistently invaded and nested in our attic, and I resolutely set traps to catch and relocate them to a nearby nature preserve. The result: nearly three hundred squirrels deported over the course of a quarter-century. Following this and other experiences, I’m not surprised that our house on Hyland Hill would appeal to wildlife, nor am I shocked to hear scratchy sounds coming from the ceiling and the walls.

Neither am I astonished one January morning when Edith announces: “There’s a rat in the bathroom!” She utters these words emphatically but without alarm.

“A rat? Are you sure?”

“It’s big, it’s white, and it has huge black eyes.” Having closed the door, she has trapped this critter in the room.

I’m puzzled by her description. It’s true that a large rodent might well be a rat, but I’m surprised by the color. Most wild rats are gray, brown, or black. I’ve never heard of one that’s white. I tell Edith I’ll investigate; I ease into the bathroom; I look around. I sit on the closed toilet for a while and wait in silence. There’s neither sight nor sound of an intruding animal. I don’t doubt that she has spotted something, but whatever she saw has somehow escaped.

ermine_ASM588A day later, after Edith has left Vermont for a work assignment, I prepare the house for my own week out of town. One of my chores is to move firewood from the attached garage into the house and stock two racks near the wood stoves. I make multiple trips into the garage. On my third or fourth trip, something catches my attention: a rustling sound in the far right corner. I can’t see what’s making it. Then, after fifteen or twenty seconds, I catch sight of the intruder. A small creature, long and lithe and altogether white except for two huge black eyes and a black tip at the end of its tail, emerges from beneath the ride-on mower, slinks into plain view, rears up on its hind legs, and stares at me. It’s a weasel of some sort. I’m struck at once by its beauty. This animal is agile, supple, and alert. Despite my total ignorance of weasels, I decide that this one is female. She stares at me with interest but without any sign of alarm. I realize just then what has drawn her out: a bag of frozen garbage that I had carelessly left on the garage floor the previous night. One corner is now chewed open. This little beast has clearly been exploring the trash. Even as I watch, she scampers over to the bag, pokes her head inside, and returns to pilfering whatever she can extract. I step closer. She startles at once and darts under the mower. There’s no sign of her for several minutes. Impatient, I return to my task of stocking firewood. Each time I return to the garage, however, I find her exploring the garbage, so I walk over, surprise her with my approach, pick up the bag, and remove it. My later visits to the garage show her still present as she attempts to figure out what happened to her smörgasbord.

It’s clear to me that I can’t let this animal remain here. For all I know, she is the source of the scratching sounds that Edith and I heard on the second floor. Spotting one such creature probably means that others are present––an entire family, even. Very well, then: they have to go. But I decide on the spot that there’s no way I’ll set a spring trap and risk killing this splendid creature. I don’t have a non-lethal trap small enough to catch such a tiny animal, however, so I’ll have to obtain one. Since I’ll be leaving Vermont in just a few hours, I realize there’s nothing to be done until I return.  I simply have to trust that with the bag of garbage now gone, this snow-white intruder will simply withdraw to the natural habitat whose color she so fully and beautifully mimics.

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Ice of the Month Club – Shipment #2

Yesterday morning, Edith and I awoke to find the sky clear and the hillside luminous white. But “luminous” doesn’t even begin to describe the combined intensity and subtlety of what we saw.  The woods beyond our meadow weren’t so much illuminated by light as made of light.  I ventured outside to find out why.  The reason:  all the trees were covered with tiny accretions of ice.  Not snowflakes, not frost, not sheaths . . . but, instead, countless delicate structures that had formed on everything overnight.  Multiply 2,000-5,000 twigs per tree times half a million trees visible from Hyland Hill and you have a radiant hillside at dawn.

So, this month’s shipment from the Ice of the Month Club is this 6-inch twig and what it brings with it:

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Night Fliers (Part 2)

A Moth the hue of this
Haunts Candles in Brazil.
Nature’s Experience would make
Our Reddest Second pale.

Nature is fond, I sometimes think,
Of Trinkets, as a Girl.

—Emily Dickinson [1]

scarlet_tiger_2068_chris_manley_high_res-webPoetry is aflutter with moths. (One could easily assemble Of Wings and Flames: The Singed Moth Anthology.) By contrast, moths flit only now and then into novels and stories. The American humorist James Thurber, writing in Fables for Our Time (1939), offers this revisionist tale:

 Source:  James Thurber. Fables for Our Time.

Source: James Thurber. Fables for Our Time.

A young and impressionable moth once set his heart on a certain star. He told his mother about this and she counseled him to set his heart on a bridge lamp instead. “Stars aren’t the thing to hang around,” she said; “lamps are the thing to hang around.” “You get somewhere that way,” said the moth’s father. “You don’t get anywhere chasing stars.” But the moth would not heed the words of either parent. Every evening at dusk when the star came out he would start flying toward it and every morning at dawn he would crawl back home worn out with his vain endeavor.

The moth’s parents criticize him for his lack of practical ambition: “You haven’t burned a wing in months, boy, and it looks to me as if you were never going to. . . . Come on, now, get out of here and get yourself scorched! A big strapping moth like you without a mark on him!” Instead of responding to these imprecations, however, the moth continued to pursue his absurd ambition.

He went right on trying to reach the star, which was four and one-third light years, or twenty-five trillion miles, away. The moth thought it was just caught up in the top branches of an elm. He never did reach the star, but he went right on trying, night after night, and when he was a very, very old moth he began to think that he really had reached the star and he went around saying so. This gave him a deep and lasting pleasure, and he lived to a great old age. His parents and his brothers and his sisters had all been burned to death when they were quite young.

The moral of the story: Who flies afar from the sphere of our sorrow is here today and here tomorrow. [2]

◊    ◊    ◊

Nabokov - butterfliesThe most butterfly- and moth-obsessed writer in all of literature is Vladimir Nabokov. Long before he published Lolita, Pale Fire, Pnin, or any of his other groundbreaking novels, he wrote articles (both in Russian and English) about butterflies. His first publication in English was an article titled “A Few Notes on Crimean Lepidoptera”; he published many technical papers of butterflies and moths; he became an expert in the group of small, brightly colored butterflies known as blues; and he spent six years as a professional lepidopterist at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology—a period that he described later as “the most delightful and thrilling in all my adult life.” He became so engrossed in his meticulous work on the taxonomy of butterflies that his wife, Vera, had to prod him at one point to resume work on an unfinished novel. Nabokov felt intensely torn between literature and lepidopterology. In 1967, Nabokov commented: “The pleasures and rewards of literary inspiration are nothing beside the rapture of discovering a new organ under the microscope or an undescribed species on a mountainside in Iran or Peru. It is not improbable that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all.” [3]

karnerbluebutterflyHis novels contain multiple references to butterflies. Pnin contains a passage that describes the Karner Blue species that obsessed him: “A score of small butterflies, all of one kind, were settled on a damp patch of sand, their wings erect and closed, showing their pale undersides with dark dots and tiny orange-rimmed peacock spots along the hindwing margins; one of Pnin’s shed rubbers disturbed some of them and, revealing the celestial hue of their upper surface, they fluttered around like blue snowflakes before settling again.” [3]  But what about moths? Nabokov’s letters include references to these insects, including one from August of 1942 in which he instructs the literary critic Edmund Wilson, of all people, on how to attract these insects. “[Y]ou mix: a bottle of stale beer, two pounds of brown sugar (or treacle) and a little rum (added just before applying); then just before dusk you smear . . . a score of tree trunks . . . with the concoction and wait. They will come from nowhere, settling on the glistening bark and showing their crimson underwings. . . .” Addressing Wilson by his nickname, Nabokov adds this exhortation: “Try, Bunny, it is the noblest sport in the world.” [4]  (Whether Wilson followed these suggestions and dipped into his ample supply of liquor isn’t evident in the literary record.) Despite Nabokov’s clear interest in moths, I’ve found no description of them anywhere in his fiction; even this most lepidoptera-obsessed of authors allowed only butterflies into the pages of his novels.

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Just now,
Out of the strange
Still dusk . . . as strange, as still . . .
A white moth flew . . . Why am I grown
So cold?

        —Adelaide Crapsey (1878-1914) [5]

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Virginia Woolf, writing in “The Death of the Moth” (published in 1942, one year after her suicide), created a dark, fable-like essay. Woolf begins by describing the autumnal vitality beyond her window––the plowman tilling the fields, the crows soaring above the treetops, the light shining on the downs––and then, in this idyllic setting, she notes her awareness of a moth on the windowpane.

“One could not help watching him. . . . The possibilities of pleasure seemed that morning so enormous and so various that to have only a moth’s part in life . . . appeared a hard fate, and his zest in enjoying his meager opportunities to the full, pathetic. He flew vigorously to one corner of his compartment, and, after waiting there a second, flew across to the other. What remained for him but to fly to a third corner and then to a fourth?”

But pity isn’t her only response:

Watching him, it seemed as if a fiber, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body. . . . He was little or nothing but life. Yet, because he was so small, and so simple a form of the energy that was rolling in at the open window and driving its way through so many narrow and intricate corridors in my own brain and in those of other human beings, there was something marvelous as well as pathetic about him. It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zigzagging to show us the true nature of life.

Soon, however, something intervenes to quench this spark.

He was trying to resume his dancing, but seemed either so stiff or so awkward that he could only flutter to the bottom of the window pane; and when he tried to fly across it he failed. . . . After perhaps a seventh attempt he slipped from the wooden ledge and fell, fluttering his wings, onto his back on the window sill. . . . It flashed upon me that he was in difficulties; he could no longer raise himself; his legs struggled vainly. But, as I stretched out a pencil, meaning to help him to right himself, it came over me that the failure and the awkwardness were the approach of death. I laid down the pencil again.

Woolf realizes that for unknown reasons, the life force so evident everywhere beyond the window has somehow abandoned the small creature.

[T]he power was there all the same, massed outside, indifferent, impersonal, not attending to anything in particular. Somehow it was opposed to the little hay-colored moth. It was useless to try to do anything. One could only watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings; nothing, I knew had any chance against death. . . . [T]he unmistakable tokens of death showed themselves. The body relaxed, and instantly grew stiff. The struggle was over. The insignificant little creature now knew death. As I looked at the dead moth, this minute wayside triumph of so great a force over so mean and antagonist filled me with wonder. Just as life had been strange a few minutes before, so death was now is strange. The moth having righted himself now lay most decently and uncomplainingly composed. O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am. [6]

The moral of the story? It is simply Mors vincit omnia? Or perhaps merely a novelist’s compassion for a tiny creature? At the time of her writing “The Death of the Moth,” Woolf surely also let her mind roam beyond the idyllic English countryside to occupied Europe, where Hitler had unleashed “an oncoming doom which [had] submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings.” Her long struggle with madness intensified––she suffered from what would now be diagnosed as bipolar disorder––and a severe depressive episode, allied with “so great a force over so mean an antagonist,” soon compelled her to fill her coat pockets with stones and wade into the River Ouse.

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The Moth

Isled in the midnight air,
Musked with the dark’s faint bloom,
Out into glooming and secret haunts
The flame cries, ‘Come!’

Lovely in dye and fan,
A-tremble in shimmering grace,
A moth from her winter swoon
Uplifts her face:

Stares from her glamorous eyes;
Wafts her on plumes like mist;
In ecstasy swirls and sways
To her strange tryst.

––Walter de la Mare [7]

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How remarkable that we pay attention to moths chiefly, if not exclusively, because of their strange, disturbing, inadvertently suicidal attraction to flames and other lights. Never mind that somewhere between 150,000 and 250,000 moth species exist, ten times the number of butterfly species. [8]  Never mind that among these species are innumerable creatures of great beauty, grace, and ecological benefit. It’s analogous to regarding dogs as remarkable and fascinating simply because of their tendency to run into the road and get struck by cars. On the other hand: if moths didn’t exist, we would have to invent them. By what other means would we have such a powerful, readily available metaphor to describe fatal attraction resulting from sexual, political, financial, artistic, or spiritual impulses?

*   *   *


[1] Emily Dickinson. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Thomas H. Johnson, ed. New York: Little Brown and Company, 1961.

Moth photo credit:  Butterfly

[2] James Thurber. Fables for Our Time. New York: Harper Perennial; Harper Colophon, 1939; 1983.

V. Nabokov photo credit:  Life Magazine.

Karner Blue photo: U.S. Forest Service:

[3] Herbert Gold. “Vladimir Nabokov, The Art of Fiction.” The Paris Review. Summer-Fall 1967.

[4] Simon Karlinsky, ed. The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.

[5] Adelaide Crapsey. The Complete Poems and Collected Letters of Adelaide Crapsey, Sutton Smith, Susan, ed. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1977.

[6] Virginia Woolf. Death of the Moth and Other Essays. New York: Harcourt Brace and Jovanovich, 1974.

In a note to her husband, Leonard Woolf, written shortly before her death, Virginia explained why she would take the action that soon followed:

Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.

[7] Walter de la Mare. Collected Poems 1901-1918. [City unknown:] Qontro Classic Books, 2010.

[8] David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie. Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.