Feel the earth under our feet again (April 21 newsletter)

‘You have a moth on your neck,’ she said. We were sitting outdoors on either side of the fire, on a lawn that stretched into fields. Somewhere farther up the hill, land conservancy trails waltz with the brook.

We were talking about summer sculpture in whimsical, organic forms (and you’ll see that story in early May). As the days warm up, now and then I have the chance to talk with someone face to face for a story interview, outdoors and carefully distanced. In all this long year, I have missed this, sitting casually with someone and letting the conversation move quietly.

I put up my hand, and something stepped onto my finger. Moth or butterfly, he or she was about an inch long and completely milk white, even along the back, with thick fuzz about the head so that the body looked slimmer.

She or he seemed at ease on my hand — at Wing on a Prayer Farm last week, Amy Pulley said we need a better word than “it” for a creature whose gender we don’t know, and I think she’s right. “It” is a lump sum. It’s inert. Any organic, animate being should have a living word in recognition, and here was a flying creature with senses to test the world. A long tongue uncurled, a spiral as slim as the stamen of a flower, and tasted my skin.

My visitor seemed content to stay there, or maybe I was the visitor and we were coming to terms. A lot of insects seem to communicate through taste and scent. What would that feel like? How well do we have to know someone before scent becomes familiar enough to tell us anything?

Three kinds of white butterfly live here (says Mass Audubon), three kinds of pieris, and I couldn’t tell you whether this one likes toothwart and trillium or wild mustard or radishes — or even whether the antennae were light or dark or feathered like a moth’s. I was simply fascinated to meet a creature who lives right about in my dooryard and I had never seen close to.

We were in the middle of a conversation about bronze rhinoceri and spoons shaped like ladies’ slippers, and the butterfly seemed happy to listen in, but I couldn’t take notes with her, him, them on the fingers of my right hand, and so we compromised on a pant leg. I picked up my notebook again, and we went on talking about artists who closely watched the natural world, with a butterfly watching us. It seems apt — pieris means muse.

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