Moths

When I was a child in Bangkok, we lived for two years in a big house on a small soi (side street) with a dozen or so similar houses, mostly rented to foreigners. I was seven or eight years old, and the family next door had two teenage boys.

One day one of the neighbor boys invited me over to see his collection of butterflies and moths. I had no idea what it meant to collect insects, and was horrified to learn that it involved capturing them, chloroforming them, and pinning them to boards. The boy (who seemed very grown up to me) proudly showed me the jar where he gassed them to death, and how he spiked them on pins through their thoraxes onto cardboard.

More horrors were in store. He didn’t go out and catch adult butterflies and moths – it would be too difficult to capture them without damaging the delicate wings. He collected them at the caterpillar or chrysalis stage, nurtured them through to hatching in jars, and then killed them. They never flew, and lived for only as long as it took him to notice that they’d hatched.

Thailand was home to what was then considered the world’s largest moth species, the Atlas moth. These beautiful creatures were thought to be auspicious, especially if one visited your house at the Thai (lunar) new year. We had such a visit one new year – I remember the moth, wings spread against the trunk of the giant rubber tree in our yard that I loved to climb.

The neighbor boy had found a lunar moth chrysalis and brought it home to hatch in a jar as usual. Before a butterfly or moth hatches, its wings are (of course) crumpled up in the chrysalis. Upon hatching, the wings slowly unfurl as blood pumps into them, and must dry and harden before the creature can fly. It’s critical that the wings be able to extend fully before they dry completely.

You see where this is going, right?

The boy had planned to take the giant chrysalis out of the jar before hatching, but he mistimed it; the moth hatched inside a space much too small for it. Its giant wings had no room to spread, and had hardened into sad, shriveled clumps before he discovered it. The moth would never be able to fly, nor, with its damaged wings, was it any use for his collection. He planned to kill it, as a mercy; there was nothing else to be done.

I was devastated. Such stupidity, such a meaningless waste. A beautiful winged thing, ruined and robbed of flight, and then of life.

I have ever since had a horror of such collections, and of artifacts made from insect parts or butterfly wings.

And also of golf. The two brothers were both avid golfers. I’ve never gotten past my subconscious association of golf with callous cruelty.

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