Na­ture watch Long Mynde, Salop

The Guardian Weekly - - Diversions - Paul Evans Read more Na­ture watch on­line­ture­watch

A cater­pil­lar crossed the path in a lum­ber­ing panic, sud­denly ex­posed to the light and space of the valley floor, the boots of walkers and the teeth of dogs. It seemed so vul­ner­a­ble that I picked it up to move it to safety, where­upon it be­came some­thing else. Its head with­drew into the thick of its 80mm olive-and-black body, in­flat­ing two sets of eye-spots. Its horned tail-end rose up­right in a snake-like strike pos­ture. This was the clas­sic pose of Deile­phila elpenor, the large ele­phant hawk moth, so called be­cause of its trunk-like cater­pil­lar.

In late sum­mer, the cater­pil­lars leave their rose­bay wil­lowherb or fuch­sia food plants to find sanc­tu­ary un­der leaves to spin a co­coon and pu­pate over win­ter. It is dur­ing these jour­neys that the ele­phant hawk moths galumph into sill­y­sea­son head­lines as they freak peo­ple out. This one was a long way from wil­lowherb or fuch­sia, per­haps it was feed­ing on bed­straws; the ground was too hard to hide in and it seemed headed for dis­as­ter with only its ap­pear­ance for pro­tec­tion.

The usual ex­pla­na­tion for the cater­pil­lar’s de­fen­sive dis­play is that it de­ters in­sect-eat­ing birds by mim­ick­ing a snake, but a four-eyed, horned snake? This is some­thing that could be two or more crea­tures, a mon­ster. “O, beau­ti­ful mon­sters,” wrote Friedrich Ni­et­zsche (in The Gay Science), “Are you afraid I will re­veal your great se­cret?” The cater­pil­lar was so dif­fer­ent from the large, pink and olive adult moth be­cause it re­ally was a chimera – a be­ing that changed from one crea­ture to another through me­ta­mor­pho­sis. Hawk moths are also called sphinx moths, named af­ter the wom­an­lion mon­ster that killed trav­ellers who could not solve her rid­dles – an enigma. There is some­thing about the idea of mon­sters, real or imag­i­nary, that still scares us. Dar­win said it’s not the mon­sters un­der the bed we should fear but those in­side our­selves.

I put the cater­pil­lar down in a place where it could pu­pate. “You and I – are we not the same kind?” asked Ni­et­zsche. “Do we not share the same se­cret?”

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