As those who have been following will know, I’ve been working on a moth poem. It’s now finished. The poem itself is below, but I wanted to write a bit about how it was written and why.
The seed for this was sown two years ago in the summer of 2016. I came across a reference to author and environmental journalist Michael McCarthy’s book The Moth Snowstorm (2015) in Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways. McCarthy started using the term in 2000 to describe the blizzard of beating wings and forms that you used to see driving down country lanes at night, illuminated by car headlights in the pitch dark – and how the phenomenon seemed to have disappeared. Having been born in the early 70’s, I can just remember this from childhood holidays in Cornwall – but what I saw would have been as nothing compared to what McCarthy saw in the 50’s. The memories of such a spectacle have become a powerful metaphor for the catastrophic decline of abundance in our natural world.
The saddest, most poignant thing of all is that no-one now writing about this in the present day really knows what abundance looks like. All anyone can know, and mourn, is that it’s less than what they knew in their own personal past. In a 2017 Guardian article The Unseen World, George Monbiot described Shifting Baseline Syndrome where ‘when wildlife is depleted, we might notice the loss, but we are unaware that the baseline by which we judge the decline is in fact a state of extreme depletion.’
The statistics around moth and butterfly numbers are all but unbelievable (and it’s worth remembering that if something at the bottom of the food chain suffers, everything above it will do likewise). Every few years the Butterfly Conservation, the British butterfly and moth conservation charity, release a major report in partnership with Rothamsted Research called The State of Britain’s Larger Moths. The last report, released in 2013, show that since 1968 when recording started to take place, moth numbers have declined by 28% in Britain overall and 40% in Southern Britain. This of course masks the really scary figures for individual species, some of which have declined by 70 – 95% with 4 species feared extinct. Trends show that a small number of moth species are thriving, which will lead to a small number of species dominating. This is bad news, even if the overall numbers did manage to stabilise. Each species provides a specialised support service for other species – birds and flora in particular, So a lack of biodiversity in moth species will have a knock on effect with other species, up to and including our own.
I finally finished The Moth Snowstorm on a sun-warmed rock in Anglesey while the children splashed about in the sea. Inbetween the two years or so from first hearing about The Moth Snowstorm and finishing reading it, I found an old book by Blandford publishers Woodland Life from 1968. Illustrated in colour, it’s a traditional field guide to woodland fauna. The moth names in particular were superb – lyrical, fanciful, descriptive and downright outrageous. Many of them were named in the 1700’s, and the Baroque linguistical flair is evident. It occurred to me that it would be fun to play with the names, put them in some kind of order, to make a nonsense poem that made a kind of sense. I added in some of my favourites from the Butterfly Conservation’s report, and learned a lot about moths on the way. This poem is the result. In the writing of this post, I found out that the creativity continues unabashed. Scientists have recently discovered a tiny moth with golden silky hair and smaller than average genitals. They named it after Donald Trump..
On one hand, the poem is playful, a child’s simple rhyming poem of funny words and like all poems of it’s type it is meant to be read or even chanted out loud. I took real delight in shuffling these names about, hunting down the most beautiful and evocative and amusing. On the other, this poem might well one day serve as a memorial for creatures that no longer share our space. And so, in honour of and to acknowledge that fear of the insecurity of their fate, I gave the poem my most favourite moth name of all as it’s title – ‘The Uncertain’.
Goat Moth, Mouse Moth, Lobster Moth and Pine Hawk
Plume Moth, Cinnebar, White Feather, Brown
Chimney Sweeper, Lackey Moth, Dingy Footman, Sprawler
Golden Tiger, Scarlet Tiger, Rosy Tabby, Fox
Leopard Moth, Peppered Moth, Long Horned Moth, Festoon
Peach Blossom, Raspberry Clearwing, Lime Speck Pug
Autumnal Rustic, Winter Moth, November Moth, December Moth
Oak Lutestring, Beech Green, Spruce Carpet, Ash
Coxcomb Prominent, Large Red Belted Clearwing
Satellite, Saturnid, Silurian and Snout
Broad Bordered Tree Hawk, Rosy Minor, Dot Moth
Scallop Shell, Maiden’s Blush, Small Dusty Wave
Heart and Dart, Large Emerald, Beaded Chestnut, Spinach
Clifden Nonpareil, Mervielle Du Jour
Clouded Magpie, Grey Dagger, Knot Grass, Spectacle
Mottled Umber, Bagworm, Muslin Moth, Lime
Hebrew Character, Common Vapourer
Orange Clearwing, Figure of Eight
Swallow Prominent, Copper Underwing
Blue Bordered Carpet, Pebble Hook Tip.
Charlotte Rooney, April 2018