Nature watch Long Mynde, Salop
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?”