Last night, some of us at Sewanee went on a Moth Walk. The phrase “Moth Walk” is hard to say straight. At least it was for us writers. Was it the assonance? The mothiness? I don’t know, but I went despite the smirking, and oh wow.
It wasn’t actually a walk. They drove us to Memorial Cross, a giant white cross on an overlook — a WWI memorial — that is lit up by two thousand-watt bulbs. If a porch light draws moths, imagine. The air here was as thick with them as a dark sky is with stars. Bats, like comets, careening around.
I lay on the grass and looked up. The moths each burned with light, like silver fish in sunlight. The sky churned with their white flashes. This, I thought, is what outer space is like to people who really love astronomy: the multitudes of stars, animate.
Moths don’t just drift. They glide and dart. They spin in circles around and around. There is a rhythm to the motion, a lurching fast and then slow. A regularity to the chaos.
We had bug nets, and Alice McDermott’s teenage son caught an imperial moth, like the one in this picture. He stood on the base of the cross, heroic, while we gathered in the strange, shadowed false-brightness of the lights to look. The katydids pulsed in the darkness. Freed, the moth settled for a minute on my foot, large as a bow.
We stayed for a long time, and went back gentled. The late night scene on the porch of the French House was quiet, mostly just habit. And I think now that we couldn’t say “Moth Walk” without smirking not because it was dorky, but because it was something words lessen, that uncomfortable, uncontainable thing.