The Miracle Moth

  • David Hoffman The White-marked Tussock moth (Orygia leucostigm) is indeed an interesting insect. It measures 13 millimeters, has a dirty-white thorax and abdomen, and is quite hairy.  The dull grey larva spins its cocoon in the summer, and the adult emerges around late August or early September.  It is infamous for its defoliation of forests, especially Christmas tree stands.

    The female Tussock moth is wingless.

    While those who grow Christmas trees might view the Tussock moth as an inch- sized Grinch, capable of stealing one’s livelihood, the flight-challenged she-moth elicits fond memories in this writer’s mind.

    It was late summer, 1968, and I had started fourth grade. The Ahrnweins, our new neighbors from Fayetteville, Arkansas, had just moved in and unpacked their boxes. Clark Ahrnwein quickly became my best friend.  We played Batman and Robin (I was Batman because I was one year older), hung out in treetops, and built fanciful forts. The best structure we built was made from the huge cartons that had cradled the Ahrnwein furniture and appliances during their move. The fort had crawl-through corridors, hidden rooms that were accessed by lifting or sliding flaps, and a giant meeting space where only those knowing a secret code and handshake could congregate; the one exception being an intrepid insect that had spun a cocoon in one of the corrugated cardboard corners.

    I only became aware of the cocoon’s presence because of my heightened sensitivity to all things insect.  At school, we were studying bugs and had been instructed to collect live specimens. I had already jarred a praying mantis, a few bumble bees, butterflies, grasshoppers, and assorted beetles and ants.  My parents were quick to provide me with empty pickle jars knowing that, under the guise of science, I was actually ridding the house of unwanted pests.  I had already delivered my quota of creepy crawlers, but the sight of a cocoon from Cajun country was too novel to pass up.

    I carefully pried the cocoon loose and placed it in the fork of a multi-stemmed twig.  I placed it in a jar along with grass, sealed its fate under a punctured lid, and brought it to school.   

    Nothing happened to the cocoon for several days. Hypotheses were offered: 1) the moth wouldn’t emerge because it didn’t want to go to school, 2) the cocoon was nothing but insect cotton candy, all fluff and no substance, and 3) the silky mass was really a Q-Tip tip – a fraud perpetrated upon a group of gullible scientists, by a crazed amateur etymologist.  

    Then one morning, a new visitor greeted us from the bottom of the jar.  We discovered a tiny, hairy – thing. No one knew exactly what had struggled out of its cocoon.  It looked like some fancy, fuzzy bead, not at all like a bug.  It had no wings!

    You may recall that in the years before the arrival of the Internet, when one needed to conduct research, he or she looked in books. Accordingly, my classmates and I set upon a journey to find what was held captive in my glass jail. We combed through encyclopedias, textbooks and science manuals.  Our thirst for knowledge was sated when, in The Osbourne Book of Insects, our furry friend was identified as a wingless, female Tussock moth. It had “flown” all the way from Fayetteville to Nebraska via the safety of a moving van. 

    I felt like a proud new parent.  I named my moth Tessie (very fourth grade-like behavior), and my classmates and I quickly bonded with this strange southern belle-jar bug. As summer turned to autumn, my peers and I watched in awe as Tessie consumed grass, wiggled around the jar, climbed twigs, and generally did very little else.

    And then a miracle occurred.  It seems like all school miracles occur during the night when no one is present – desks mysteriously rearrange themselves, papers secretively get scored, bulletin boards are bafflingly created, fairies furtively leave clean desk awards, and wingless moths fly away. That’s right. Tessie, so to speak, flew her coop.  She became a mere moth memory.

    I know what you’re thinking:  Mr. Hoffman, someone ought to tell you what happens to goldfish at night when they decide to do the backstroke, and you find their bowl is empty in the morning.  Well, I’m here to tell you that Tessie was as healthy as a horse (or a least a horsefly) when I left school the day before her exodus. I returned to find an empty pickle jar with lid intact and inhabitant invisible. My teacher, Mrs. Law may have been strict, but she was always up front with her students. She assured us that she had not disturbed Tessie’s jar.  

    So what really happened to my Tussock moth?  I will never know. And while no folk song or ballad was ever penned to tell the tale of her miraculous flight, her disappearance remains, in my mind, a testament to all things possible in a child’s imagination and optimistic view of the world.

    As we usher in a fresh, new calendar year, we too can stand in awe and marvel at our small ones as they grow, stretch and exercise the invisible wings that they will use to assert and sustain their independence.  How can we continue to help them develop sturdy and healthy wings? Among other things, we can generously give of our time to engage them in meaningful conversation, letting them know we care greatly about what they think while challenging them to consider diverse viewpoints.  We can provide them with enlightening and engaging books, expose them to the fine arts, and encourage them to partake in healthy activities – nourishment for their minds and hearts. We can honor and encourage their innate curiosity. We can grant them the space and opportunity to make their own decisions, and allow them to accept and learn from the natural consequences that stem from their choices. We can enlist them in noble causes that help others. We can be stellar role models. We can accept them as the unique people they are. And, we can tell them everyday, through words and deeds, that we love them and believe in their inherent greatness.

    May this new year bring you and your family bright, healthy and joyful days. May it fill your lives with love, laughter and learning.  And, may your children, like a miraculous moth, continue to soar to amazing heights on strong and graceful wings.



    David Hoffman