A few months ago, while scanning the back pages of the Young Entomologists' Society's newsletter, I came across a section entitled "livestock."
"Cocoons for sale," it read. And not just any cocoons. Cecropias - the largest moth in North America - lunas, prometheas, cynthia moths, and moths with strange Latin names I'd never heard of before.
I called a man in New Jersey to place my order. He told me to get an old aquarium tank, and hang a paper towel inside. The moths would need something to climb on while their wings unfurled and expanded. "One more thing," he added. "Rodents love them. So be sure to have a mesh cover."
All four of my girls liked moths, especially lunas - the big, green, night-flyers, members of the giant silkworm family (not to be confused with the Asian silkworm). The day the cocoons arrived, I met the postman at the door. He handed me a small cardboard box.
Cradled among styrofoam noodles were six brown, slightly furred cocoons. The lunas were oval and paper-light. The prometheas had a leaf sewn into each cocoon, wrapping it tight like a winter blanket. I could hear the rattle of the pupae inside as I set the cocoons carefully at the base of the tank.
Three weeks passed. "I don't think they're going to come out," said my husband. I began to wonder.
"When are they going to come out?" my daughters would ask, and I would reiterate what the man had said: two or three weeks, and yes - it was three weeks and one day, and yes - I had done everything he said.
One day my seven-year-old came running. "A moth!" she yelled.
It seemed like a miracle. A pale-green moth with long tail streamers hung from the mesh cover, slowly opening and closing its wings. It must have come out during the night. An Actias luna. Moon moth. It looked like a huge, living leaf. Its body was plump and velvety; its legs orange; its antennae yellow, fanning out like the feathery plumes of a rare and exotic flower.
"It doesn't look real!" exclaimed Susannah, our nine-year-old.
"It looks like plastic!" gasped Emily, in true seven-year-old awe.
We showed it to my daughter's fourth-grade class. Susannah held the moth on her fingers, walking slowly from row to row. The moth began to quiver, then to shake. "It's scared," said Susannah. Then it flew.
The next night we let it go. There was a full moon, and each daughter held the moth on her finger. "Goodbye, moth," they said solemnly. Its wings shook, briefly, then it flew, huge against the darkening sky. Later, we let others go. In our hands we had held a hidden world. The stuff of dreams.
Here is information about the organizations mentioned in this spread:
Young Entomologists Society Inc.
1915 Peggy Place
Lansing, MI 48910-2553
Phone and fax: 517-887-0499
c/o O.R. Taylor
Department of Entomology
University of Kansas
Lawrence, KS 66045