You Never Know

I never thought for a moment the cocoon I picked up off the ground last winter would be anything more than a curiousity to show school children.  In fact, I wondered why I was bothering since I already had one at home just like it.  But something about this homely thing got my attention, and it couldn’t just have been the guest on the walk with me who said, “Hey, what’s this thing?”  Sometimes we  follow an inner voice.  Apparently, this particular inner voice was saying, “Pick up the cocoon, bring it home, dig out a butterfly habitat from the basement, put the cocoon in there and pin it to the side, hang the whole shebang on a shepherd’s crook from the side of the deck, wait several months.”  It must have been saying so, since that’s what I did.

The other day I looked at that cocoon, and I said to it, “If something doesn’t happen with you by the end of June, you’re out of here.”  I had that location in mind for a hanging basket.  Evidently, the moth inside there heard me, because last night he hatched out!  This was no measly moth that jumps out of the way when you mow the lawn!  This was the North American granddaddy of them all, the Polyphemous Moth!  With a wingspan of up to five and a half inches, this moth is nothing short of astounding.  The polyphemous is the largest of the North American moths.   

polyphemous moth

It has “false eyes” on each of its four wings, the better to confuse preditors.  As an adult, it may live only a few days.  This stage of life is its’ prettiest and shortest.  It doesn’t even have mouthparts, as eating is unecessary.  The remaining task is to pass on some DNA and go gently into that good night, as only a moth can do.

It is thought that there may be more moth species than butterflies.  But as the butterfly is awake essentially during the same hours as humans, the moth may be artificially underepresented in the insect census.  If the polyphemous moth is any example, it may also be that the moths are equally or still more beautiful than their daylight cousins.  If there is anything that could make you fall in love with a “bug”, it is a look at this exquisite creature.  I’m not “off” butterflies or anything, but the polyphemous moth has made me into a dewey-eyed lover of the nighttime kind of butterfly.

It’s funny how things that happen on nature walks  turn out.  An offhand question about a little fuzzy thing hanging from a branch turns into the thrill of a lifetime!  Nature can fool you so often. 

Last saturday we had record crowds at our wildflower walk.  It was the “perfect storm” of nature events.  Connecticut Trails Day intersected with our usual weekend offering, which in turn met with the Great Park Pursuit (we didn’t realize it, but we were one of the “featured” walk locations and I guess the only one in Hartford County).  Let’s just  say it was crowded and leave it there.  Next year, we’ll have the logic worked out. 

The words “Hey, what’s this?”  are music to the ears of anyone leading a nature walk.  It means at least one person is paying attention! Last Saturday one of our guests came forward with a little thing no bigger than most pebbles saying, “What’s this?”.  The “pebble” had a tail and four legs.  The tail was wedged in as close as possible to the carapace (the top shell), and the legs were frozen stiff. The head was tucked deep inside the shell.  I thought it was dead.

But I grabbed that “teachable moment” and held fast, explaining how turtles come out of the water at this time of year, and lay eggs in the meadow.  This one was a Painted Turtle, having gotten its’ name from the pretty markings on its neck and shell, which look as though they have been painted on.  I figured it couldn’t hurt to put the little guy into the water.  He seemed so dried out.  And as Tony Soprano says, you never know.  So I put him in the stream.  He sank like a stone. 

Everyone feels a little sad when that kind of thing happens.  So once I saw that turtle head for the bottom with no little legs moving, I got out of there fast.  I scrambled up and away from the stream and was trying to find something else to show the group when I heard a shout go up.  It was alive!  I had given up too early.  The baby turtle was stunned, certainly, playing dead-maybe, but it was most definitely not dead.  And we watched it  swim away to what I think is likely to be an easy living at our pond.

baby painted turtle

Is there a moral to the story?  I don’t really think there are morals in nature, except the ones we artificially assign.  But it does show how wrong you can be.

See you on the trails,

Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist


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5 Responses to “You Never Know”

  1. Krista Says:

    Reminds me of kindergarten. One of my classmates brought in something on a stick or leaf he found in his backyard for show and tell looking for the teacher to tell him what was inside. She didn’t have a clue, but, suggested we leave it on her desk and see what happened.

    What happened?

    When we returned from spring break a funny looking bug was now living in the Hellman’s Mayo jar! We all thought it was magic – that is – until the teacher burst the bubble and told us about the life cycle of insects. As it grew… it grew into a praying mantis. I can remember the wonder in it all like it was yesterday!

    What a great find you had and a great lesson in Yankee thrift. Never throw anything away. You just never know…

  2. Ratty Says:

    There are strange things that happen in nature. Life and death, and assuming the wrong way are just a few of them. Always expect the unexpected and nature will take care of the rest.

  3. Patsy Says:

    That is just too marvelous. I’d have liked to see it. Such fun you have.

  4. Marilyn Says:

    What a fantastic story! While in the butterfly conservatory in Niagra Falls a very large moth (I beleive the same one you are talking about) landed on my husbands shirt the minute we walked in, and he stayed then until we left, just hanging on the front of his shirt, we were told he was sleeping! All sorts of folks were taking pictures, my husband was finally a star! hahaha … Nature is surly wonderful when you take time to slow down and explore it! Happy trails!

  5. haplesshousewife Says:

    Hello Diane. Thank you for visiting my blog. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading through your wonderful stories and will certainly be adding your blog to my reading list. I loved this post; you were remarkably fortunate to have the opportunity to shepherd this remarkable moth into being. I have learned since properly opening my eyes to the natural world around me that there’s an abundant supply of surprise to be enjoyed.

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