My View

Mary Sonis: She has arrived

October 22, 2013 

Summer isn’t complete until I get to see at least one luna moth.

I have so many fond memories of summer nights at the “Farm,” a summer retreat where I spent most vacations as a teenager.

It is not what many people would consider a country house by today’s standards. There is no hot tub, deck or television. The “Farm” is a modest shingle dwelling that was built early in the 20th century by a gentleman intent on experiencing life in the woods. He carted the wood for his project up a rocky New England hillside in a baby carriage, and used a single tree as the structural weight bearing support around which the house on Juniper Hill was built.

As often happens with houses in the woods, nature is constantly trying to reclaim the little house.

Vines creep up and take hold on the walls, and wildlife claims the spot as their own. In the evening, a darkly mottled, plump toad pops up from under the floorboards just in time to dine on the large spiders that also call the “Farm” home. Tiny ringneck snakes have been known to drop down from the ceiling, and, on at least one occasion, a weekend city guest was greeted by a large Black Rat Snake in the toilet bowl. The Farm Faithful relish the unique quiet of a true country retreat, but it is a destination that is not for all takers. There is no other place in the world where I feel such utter happiness.

It’s a damp warm night in July 1967 and someone announces the arrival of a luna m (usually on the screen door). What else could cause a suspension of a Farm Scrabble game? Mildew-scented copies of P.G. Wodehouse, “Very Good Jeeves” or Owen Johnson’s “Stover at Yale” are set down for the grand arrival of the luna moth. Even Dink Stover could not compete with the breathtaking luna.

Carrboro, August 2013: I had not seen a single luna moth this summer, and it was bothering me. I often lingered by the front porch light … hoping … but my favorite moth was nowhere to be seen. They are not uncommon here in North Carolina, but generally, I only manage about one sighting per season.

I arrived home from a trip to Cleveland, and as I walked in the door, my daughter said to me, “Mom have you seen the big green moth by the front door?”

“What … a luna moth? Oh … oh ... a luna moth!”

There she was, in the exact place where a Polyphemus moth had set down a few days earlier. Barely a shred of light, and I didn’t want the flash of my camera to obscure the glowing green of the luna. I asked Julia to gently encourage the moth to climb onto her fingers, so it could be raised up to a bit of light.

Part of me wanted to cage the luna overnight, and then place her in some photogenic location in the morning light, but really, this luna will only live for one week. I certainly didn’t want to interfere with her most important work. She has no working mouthparts, she cannot feed. In this one week she must deposit upwards of 200 eggs in tiny groups on the undersides of favored leaves. Here in Bolin Forest, the luna might choose sweetgum, persimmon, or walnut trees on which to lay her eggs throughout the canopy.

In Canada, the luna has one brood per summer, in New England, they are starting to see two broods. But here in the South, we may be fortunate enough to see three broods per season, starting in March.

The luna mates after midnight, and then begins to lay her eggs almost immediately after. She is a member of the Saturniid family of moths, so named for the distinctive eyespots that appear on the wings of these moths. The Luna’s eyespots are thought to resemble the moon. The beauty of this moth, from her velvety top piping of burgundy purple, to her glowing green wings, and down to her curling frills of swallowtails makes the luna inarguably the most beautiful moth in North America.

The luna walked onto Julia’s fingers, and I managed a few frames before the moth flew up and over the trees. Her flight was clumsy and slow, but off she went into the dark … so large and bright!

One look, and I am 14 years old again, staring out through the blue-framed screen door of Juniper Hill, experiencing one of the great joys of a summer night in the woods.

Mary Sonis is a local writer, photographer and naturalist. Contact her at msonis@nc.rr.com

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