Last November I underwent a minor plague of caterpillars, somewhat confusing when living in an upstairs flat. However there was the mass of wild and straggly growth that had developed from a few herbs, left with me by a long departed neighbour, which had now grown to such an extent that they filtered out most of the light coming through the dust and grime of the kitchen window. Oh, and a couple of surviving dope plants were still trying to nurture their developing seeds in the gloom of the north-facing window on the far side of the living-room.
It was hard to decide which was the most unlikely explanation - whether there'd been a synchronised crawl up the outside wall looking for open windows, a batch of eggs laid by an intrepid explorer desparate to shed her burden as Autumn approached, or my shopping at some point had contained a batch of salad vegetables whose pesticide concentration had somehow failed to reach the required level guaranteed to exterminate all known forms of non-human life.
Somehow I managed to avoid treading on the more adventurous travellers which appeared almost daily en route between the two increasingly meagre food supplies via the living-room carpet. But it took me a while to realise that one of the paths from the kitchen window-sill down to the floor incorporated a detour via the kitchen sink. Carefully examining all the utensils waiting to be washed soon became second nature, though not before learning how to undo and drain a u-bend in less time than it takes to drown a caterpillar.
As the dope plants died their natural death and the remaining green bits of herb disappeared I had few qualms about dumping the invaders outside when coming across them on their journeys across the arid cloth desert. All right, I admit it; I do have a sentimental streak - it would've been me demanding that it were better Stonehenge never be built than the foot of one millipede be unnecessarily bruised etc. But the amount of animal life that my flat can support without human help is minimal - a fluctuating number of spiders, the occasional flea brought in by a visiting cat or dog, and an unknown number of woodlice which live in and around the bathroom occasionally emerging from the gaps below the skirting. (As for mites and such, I have residual doubts about anything that can't be seen, and still harbour suspicions that microcscopes and telescopes exhibit hidden powers of spontaneous creation directly proportional to the enthusiasm of the viewer.)
Incidently, woodlice I'm quite fond of - vegetarians (in the main), good mothers, quiet, independent, from an extremely ancient lineage, and being malacostracians they leave behind minimal excretal matter. Though most sensible people have a certain affection for the antics of Armadillium vulgare, oniscoids generally turn out to be a pretty reliable bunch of arthropods.
But caterpillars just don't fit into the living-in pattern. They don't even look the part. All their natural defences are inappropriate - it's the fact that they're alive rather than their shape, colouring or taste which prevents me eating them. Unlike spiders they don't run away when you try and catch them; unlike fleas they don't have hard outer shells to their bodies; and unlike woodlice they lack discretion. There's just no way they should hang around in kitchens.
So out I'd take them, leaving each one a small piece of lettuce beside it as a sort of going away present. As my herbal greenery became ever sparser, the dope plants slowly started to wither in the cold north drafts. The harvest could no longer be delayed. Leaves were picked and dried, seeds labelled and stored away, and the thick woody stems chopped up and scattered on nearby waste ground. At the same time it made sense to transplant those surviving bits of the by now leafless herbs into the small strip of soil which lined the front of the terrace and surrounded them with their associated debris - mainly dead sage leaves, which had accumulated undisturbed for about three years, and of course the few remaining caterpillars. And that was that, I thought. No longer my problem. I relished my freedom.
That is until a couple of weeks later. Whilst packing a few things prior to travelling away for a few days over the festive seasion, I noticed something brown and shiny on the floor in the middle of the narrow passage through what used to be my bedroom before the filing cabinets took over. It was a brand new glistening chrysalis. How it got there remains for me one of life's mysteries. Even more pressing was the problem of what to do with it, for the ground outside was now covered in frost and snow, and to abandon it to the icy waste would have been heartless. And anyway, I had no idea whether the pupa was one which normally would be found hanging from a plant, or wedged into a dry nook, or buried in the earth. I resolved to leave the question until my return, and put it gently on the surface of a plant-pot filled with earth which was left high up by an open window.
When I returned from my winter break, the pupa was still there. But the weather outside was freezing, and again I put off any decision. It didn't take too long to warm the flat up after my absense; the central heating system is pretty efficient, and when it is very cold outside I tend to leave the heating on all the time. Somewhat ironically this leads to the flat often being hotter in winter than in summer. Realising this, I kept a regular watch on the pupa just in case the sudden extra warmth might stimulate it to hatch prematurely. Of this I was dreading... what does one do with a moth or butterfly that emerges from its pupal stage in a warm room while outside there is a snowstorm raging. Well, deal with that when it comes...
Sure enough, a couple of days later it hatched. But... and what a but... As might be imagined, by this time I had built up something of a relationship, albeit one-sidedly, with whatever was inside the pupa. After all whatever befell it was now my responsibility. It existed in an environment which I was artificially controlling. However, if the worst came to the worst and it hatched while outside the blizzard raged, then surely it was a simple enough solution to transfer it to some dark and dry outbuilding, one with limited but sufficient access to the outside world, and here the cold would slow down it's metabolism, and it could drowse away undisturbed and content for the rest of the winter.
But, ah yes, back to the but... the plant-pot was by this time perched on the bathroom window, this being a relatively cool part of the flat as well as being the perfect place to keep a check on its welfare. I'd carefully examine it for signs of change every time I went for a piss. This time it happened - a movement caught my eye. Anxiously I perred down, thinking that some predator had discovered my defenceless charge. But what was it? And slowly it dawned on me that my pupa had hatched. Except the creature that had emerged wasn't quite right. It's head looked like a moth's head all right, in fact as I'd suspected probably a hawk moth of some type. And it's legs were moth's legs. But what had happened to its wings? Instead of large fragile patterned wings of flight, there were the stubbiest of little projections which wiggled about futilely. Surely it was long past the time when they should have been pumped with blood and held open until they'd dried and hardened. And the rest of the body instead of being gently tapered and covered with fine down was hairless, almost shiny, partially segmented, and somehow too heavy. The feeling that took place within me had a resonance with the feeling which millions of parents must have felt as they had their first glimpse of their baby and saw that it was "different". This appeared to be a severely handicapped moth.
Now a moth trying to come to terms with itself as a newly emerged imago, yet lacking wings, contains the elements of tragedy. It had never occurred to me before that many insect's wings are not there merely for flight; they also give it balance. Without the wings, the slightest movement and over the poor wee thing would fall on its back. It would then struggle helplessly jerking itself about until a random movement would bring one of its legs within reach of something which could be used as support for it to push itself upright again. Only, as likely as not to overbalance immediately in the other direction. It's struggles were reminiscent of the struggles of every living thing to survive in the face of impossible odds and overwhelming adversity.
What to do? (If anything.) This was the most difficult decision I'd had to face for a long time, such is the exciting nature of my lifestyle. It was out of the question to simply put it somewhere and forget about it - at the very least it would first need to be able to spend 2 minutes on its feet without falling over. Perhaps it had learning difficulties? Was it's sight ok? Maybe it was one of the large percentage of caterpillars that had been subject to the attentions of a parasitic wasp, whose larvae were about to burst out of its malformed body leaving only the shell behind, but it looked far too alert for that. And what about it's diet? Once the parsley and mint had gone, there was just the sage - pretty pungent stuff, no wonder they'd been prepared to risk the great traverse to get to the dope plants... the only other alternative was out the window, and a possible twenty foot drop. Or maybe, and this was the looming suspicion, maybe the sudden extra heat had led it to curtail its metamorphosis prematurely, and this deformed helpless creature was all my doing. How desparately one searched for glimmers of hope - perhaps it might go back to sleep and finish its metamorphosis... was it possible that this was a viable mutation? ...it's not the length of one's life but the quality, and who knows it might be experiencing inner contentment. But inside there was the deadening knowledge that left to its own devices this creature's ending could hardly be long in coming.
Not that it seemed defeated by its circumstances. Far from it. It was certainly exploring its environment in a positive enough way. Despite its uneven progression across the soil in the plant-pot it lacked neither perseverance courage nor resilience. I cheered up a little. If the subject of my anxiety didn't seem especially disturbed by its predicament (except when loosing its balance) then there was little point in me having a nervous breakdown over it. Right! Positive thinking would be the order of the day.
Perhaps it was looking for sustenance? I mixed up a little honey and water and put a blob of it within antennae distance hoping it would find it - after all they are supposed to be able to smell each other up to twelve miles away. Then to the fridge - nothing there likely to appeal to a moth. Outside into the icy wind and the lightly falling snow, returning a few moments later with some dried rose petals, a forlorn looking marigold head, and some semi-dessicated buddlea leaves. Portions of these were carefully placed at intervals around the edge of the plant-pot, sufficient to provide a minimal variety, but hopefully not too much so as to overwhelm.
Then a moment of panic.. maybe the honey solution was too strong and if once a leg or antennae came in contact, it would be caught as if by glue... better be safe and replace it with a drop of sugar solution. But it was still falling over. I couldn't help it. I extended a finger, it's legs caught hold and clung, and up it slowly climbed. Ah, that's what it needs. Something to climb up. So I presented it with thin leaves and thick leaves, stems and twigs and branches - huh, all to no avail. The only thing it was capable of climbing up seemed to be my finger. Maybe it liked the smell. Maybe it was feeding off my sweat. Maybe it related to another DNA-based organism in its time of confusion. It certainly calmed down considerably once on my finger, but furiously resisted every attempt to dislodge it... stubborn as a moth. I calmly and methodically evaluated the pros and cons of spending the next few months with a wing-challenged sphingideaen clinging to my forefinger... well it might as well stay there for the present - it wasn't as if my finger had anything more useful to do.
Time passed, several minutes in fact. It was becoming increasingly evident that any long-term decisions about the moth's future were were down to me. The moth was totally relaxed riding around on my finger, and despite being brushed gently against numerous alternatives showed no interest in relinquishing its grip. I looked out the window. The snow had stopped - perhaps this was an omen. I looked at the moth. It didn't respond. I steeled myself. This was the time for ruthless selfishness. I had decided. The time had come for me to reclaim the unhindered use of my finger. I opened the window a little wider and held up finger to it, awaiting the moth's reaction. Nothing, not even a shiver of apprehension. I wondered, was it deaf to the call of the great outdoors? Either that or totally unconcerned. I opened the flat door, went downstairs, out the front and walked the few paces to where a month or so earlier its siblings had been cast out. The time for the trial separation had come.
The overlapping roof kept the ground near the wall plenty dry enough. Nearby was the small mound of mainly sage leaves which still retained their pungency. I flattened the earth carefully to prevent any sudden unevenness throwing the moth off balance. It was best to cover the area with some of the smaller leaves - not large enough to be an obstacle, but of use in helping it get to its feet again if it fell over. Then some of the larger larger leaves could be used to make a small semi-circular barrier against any sudden gusts of wind, and which would also serve to protect it from the gaze of the birds which sometimes landed on the nearby path - normally as close as they'd come to the house wall. Perhaps the smell of the sage might stir some distant memories, give it a sense of security, reminding it of its caterpillarhood. The dominant local species in the surrounding few feet or so were the snails which clustered close to the wall behind a couple of decaying boards that had been there longer than I could remember. They shouldn't cause it any problems - they were probably dormant this time of the year anyway. Everything apperaed quiet enough - no dangerous dogs looking for somewhere to shit, no curious cats prowling around. Ok, here goes... very firmly I pushed my little lepidopteran off the tip of my finger into its bower. It shuffled about a little, then settled. There was no evidence of any great agitation, in fact I'm sure it was vaguely content, or maybe the colder air was already slowing down its metabolism. Eventually I dragged myself away, feeling slightly helpless but with only a little twinge of guilt.
A couple of hours later, I went down to check. It was still there in the same place. Before leaving, I made the pile of leaves next to it a little larger. By the next morning it was gone. Maybe it was still alive and had burrowed into the bundle of leaves and was hibernating. Maybe it would wake up in the spring, having miraculously completed the rest of its development. Maybe it would manage to survive without proper wings, even displaying enough wingless courting rituals to successfully mate or be mated, and to breed. For all I know, this part of the country is home to several successfull species of wingless winter moths; after all Darwinianists would no doubt expect to see the odd variation or two after 100,000,000 years of evolution from its Lower Cretacaous ancestors. Or maybe it provided a tasty morsel for a hungry beetle, grateful for the extra winter nutriment. It was hard not to worry, not to think how it was faring, or how it had fared.
Anyway, later that day I had a phone call to say that the wife of a recently married friend of mine had committed suicide, which helped distract me a little. Life, and death, goes on...
- Weed (March 97)