The Name of the Rosewing

In the wake of Tuesday's results, those of us from the Old North State who opposed Amendment One are having to face an enormous uptick in the number of rude and/or dismissive comments about North Carolina, and the sad fact is, they're deserved.

That doesn't make them any more fun to read or hear, alas, but other than cursing the 61% of the voters who opted for adding bigotry to our state constitution, there's not much we can do about it at the moment. I personally am taking some time away from considering politics and focusing instead on contemplating the beauties of nature. And by great good fortune, I have just received a tool to make such contemplation easier: The Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America.

The nice people at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt supply me with occasional review copies of bird-related books, many of which I find pleasant and diverting, and at least one of which (Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion) has become extremely  important to me as a tool for identifying birds. Given my own publishing history, seeing bird books in their mailings is no shock, but having no experience with moths whatsoever, and not much at all with insects in general, I was puzzled when I received this new moth-related title by David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie.

What I quickly discovered when I opened the book, however, is that you don't need any knowledge of entomology to enjoy it; all you need is an appreciation for the dazzling, the improbable, and even the farcical. It's not necessarily that the moths themselves possess these qualities, though many do, as you can tell from the thousands of photo illustrations. No, the best place to see these qualities is in their names.

I don't mean the scientific names, which are couched in a Latin far more advanced than my studies would allow me to understand, but the common names, which are highly surprising and delightful to readers more familiar with bird names.

Why? Because American bird names are, for the most part, utilitarian. They tend to describe the birds in terms that help the observer more easily identify them, whether by plumage (Black-throated Blue Warbler), voice (Laughing Gull), or other noteworthy physical feature (Scissor-tailed Flycatcher). In other cases the names may reflect the habitat where you're likely to see such a bird (Marsh Wren, Western Meadowlark) or occasionally memorialize the naturalist who first described the species (Wilson's Plover, Cooper's Hawk). Though they occasionally display a bit of whimsy--the Whip-poor-will, whose name is its call, or the Ovenbird, named after the shape of its nest--bird names are generally not an arena for enormous creativity.

Where moths are concerned, however, quite the reverse is true. The name given a moth might be a mythological reference, or a refined metaphor, or an obscure joke, or simply a collection of improbable words. These names are not merely creative, but evocative of art in all its forms. William Faulkner might well have titled a novel The Hebrew or The Penitent. P.G. Wodehouse could easily have written a tale about the misadventures of young Baltimore Snout, or his paramour, the Beautiful Eutelia, while Edith Wharton would certainly write a novel with the protagonist Iris Borer and her overstrict guardian, Major Sallow. Philip Glass would not hesitate to name a composition "Implicit Arches," and I think "Mournful Thyris" might be a suite by Mendelssohn. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would cheerfully have titled a Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Sordid Wainscot" or "The Case of the Nondescript Dagger."  Mark Rothko could hang "Obtuse Yellow" or "White-Striped Black" in any gallery in the world. Charles Dickens probably did write about crotchety old Vagabond Crambus, The Scribbler is a Dorothy Parker column waiting to happen, and I refuse to believe that Philip Roth hasn't already published a story about Melsheimer's Sack-Bearer.

Beadle and Leckie offer nearly 1500 common names to the reader, and in some cases, the  names here are their own coinages--no previous publication offered one. Consequently, I have to give them credit not only for tracking down such wonderful names, but for creating some as well. Best of all, there is often an appealing air of mystery in the nomenclature. Much more is suggested than is revealed, leaving the reader curious, even fascinated, by the possibility of learning more about the creatures that bear them. Who could resist the allure of the Confused Eusarca, the Honest Pero, the Scarce Infant, or the Unicorn Prominent? And how about:

Rusty Virbia
Exhausted Brocade
Exposed Bird-dropping Moth
Pearly Wood-Nymph
Sober Renia
Rosy Rustic
Morbid Owlet
Wavy Chestnut Y
Mottled Prominent
Chickweed Geometer
Frosted Tan Wave
Little Virgin Tiger Moth

Flipping through this book generates seemingly endless questions in the reader's mind, questions far beyond a simple "Don't you want to know more about Horrid Zale, Gooseberry Barkminer, and the Purple Fairy Moth?" (You do. You know you do.) Among the questions that arose in mine:

What's so pleasant about the Pleasant Dagger?
In what way is the Abrupt Brother abrupt?
And to what, exactly, is the Similar Eucosma similar?

Isn't Spurge Hawkmoth a great name for an action hero?

How can we even discuss the paradox of the Nameless Pinion?

I haven't been inspired to go out and set up a moth trap yet (though instructions for doing so are included in the introduction), but I have to say that flipping through the pages of this guide is a delight for anyone with a love of nature, and for anyone with any love of language at all.

Stop by your local bookseller's and take a look. And tell them Vagabond Crambus sent you.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on May 11, 2012 10:09 PM.

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