2012.08.01 Losing sleep with the Moth Man

Written by David Green.


I’m not the nocturnal member of this family. That would be my wife, of course, who can operate day after day on what I consider not enough sleep.

Since she knows that I’m in bed reading by 10:15—with the exception of 1 a.m. Mondays—she was ready to call the police at midnight Saturday. She had her phone with her as she drove toward Morenci’s Riverside Natural Area (the Tourist Camp for those of you over the age of 50, perhaps). She thought I must have been murdered by a mysterious moth man.

It was rather uncharacteristic behavior for me to hang out in the woods that late. Colleen was engaged in some overdue gardening when I rushed home Saturday around 9 p.m., announced that the moth man had arrived and ran into the house for long pants and a camera.

I don’t recall saying much else as I ran to the car and took off into the fading light.

For me, this adventure came courtesy of Chief of Police Larry Weeks. He sent an e-mail to tell me that a couple of guys would be “doing an entomology survey in Riverside Park Saturday in the pm.

Larry apologized for not having any more information than that, but he ended with “I figured it would be something you might be interested in.

Was I interested? I drove down the road to Riverside four times Saturday afternoon but never found anyone. In the back of my mind I wondered if they might work in the night because I had tracked down one of the guys, Dwayne, and he had an odd e-mail address that refers to a class of night-flying moths.

So I decided to check one last time around 9 p.m. I turned down the Riverside drive and soon saw an odd purplish light off to the side. Soon there was another and a man standing nearby. 

I drove on down to the park and saw a large white sheet erected in the opening with a pair of black lights lighting it up. There were more lights here and there around the woods. Thank you, Larry Weeks. The adventure was about to begin.

So I rushed home and rushed back and met Dwayne, an unlikely moth specialist. Sure, it’s just a matter of stereotypes, but if I were introduced to a machinist with a ponytail and lots of tattoos, I wouldn’t automatically think, “I’ll bet this guy knows moths like someone else knows baseball players or rock musicians.”

Maybe he knows all of those things, but believe me, he knows moths.

Before it got dark, Dwayne had walked around the Riverside loop and painted a splot on several trees with a fruity mixture. I’ll have to listen to my recording to get details. This whole episode will make a great story in a future Observer.

I met him at his moth collecting headquarters—the large cloth with the black lights. Soon it was time to walk the loop to see what had arrived.

I’m pretty dumb about moths. I generally equate them with windowsills where I see them dead. Of course they’re always buzzing around porch lights and street lamps, but I never made the obvious connection—for the most part, moths are creatures of the night. You don’t see them much in daylight, but at night they’re everywhere.

Dwayne would walk up to a fruity patch and I would see nothing and assume it was empty except for the ants. He would open a collecting jar, move it to the tree and soon a moth would fly inside it. What excellent camouflagers.

I soon caught on and started spotting them. Other than size, they all looked pretty much alike to me. Dwayne would rattle off the Latin name like he was talking about a good friend. I suppose he was.

We looked through his collection back at headquarters and it became obvious they weren’t at all the same. It also became obvious they’re beautiful little things. Such interesting, delicate markings, iridescent under the flashlight. Butterflies get all the attention with their bright colors, but moths know how to do it in browns and grays.

The wingstem that grows at Riverside attracts the gold moth. The wafer ash another, the hop vine another, etc. It gives Riverside one more reason to exist. I’m always surprised every time I hear about people from far away who value Morenci’s wild park.

Around midnight I decided I should leave. It’s a vacation week for a staff member at the Observer and I needed to do a lot of extra work. I really had no time for moths and for staying up so late.

I thanked Dwayne and drove back up to North Street. A car was just turning into the drive. It was Colleen and now Morenci’s police department would not receive her missing person report that night.

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