Friday, January 26, 2007

Natural History

I’ve been fortunate in my life to see many phenomenally beautiful things. I’ve written about some of them here. Astronomical beauty, like Saturn and Titan, and the Pleiades. Earthy beauty like Joanne in her underwear. Thinking about it this week, however, I’m inclined to think the single most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen was a luna moth.

I don’t remember what I was doing before I saw the moth. And I don’t remember what I did after I saw it. But I remember standing on my front porch late one summer night in the glow of the porch light above the door and staring at the beautiful green moth resting on the dark, red bricks of the front of my house.

It’s tempting, now, to list components of my impression, to catalog particulars of what I saw. Particulars of the green color. Particulars of the curved edges of the top and bottom wings. Particulars of how the light shimmered off the wings and soft body when the moth released its hold on the bricks, flapped its wings and faded to gray moving away from the light before disappearing into the blackness of the surrounding night.

But none of those particulars individually or collectively capture and reproduce the shiver of magic I felt seeing what I saw.

It was natural history. Zoology. Entomology. Lepidopterology. It was a moth in the night. It was just a moth, but what I experienced was this: In the Nineteenth Century many educated, sophisticated people believed in fairies. They believed they saw miniature, magic figures that flapped around, flying with wings on their backs. Educated, sophisticated people believed fairies were part of a magical reality outside our own but sometimes accessible to us.

If I had lived before natural history became a compendium of the cool sciences and if I had seen what I saw, I’d have believed in fairies and a magical world, too.

Living now, when natural history is a compendium of the cool sciences, including things like zoology, entomology and lepidopterology, knowing that I saw a luna moth and not a fairy, the magic—the enchantment!—is all the more powerful because it’s real and not just drawing room conversation about Magonia and its inhabitants.

The particulars of what I saw disappeared. The magic I experienced didn’t.

I don’t remember why I went outside that night. And I don’t remember what I did when I went back inside. But I remember the beautiful luna moth.

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