A Question of Moths

from Mike and Doug Starn’s artist catalogue, 2005

“For the moth/Bends no more than the still/Imploring flame.” Hart Crane

Why is this photograph by Mike and Doug Starn so compelling?

There’s its raw, almost overwhelming beauty, hung high and angled down at us – floating silhouettes, frozen in flight in a tall room where the doors are often open and moths could easily fly out, but where they’re drawn in to the light, trapped for contemplation, as if pinned to the wall and dead but given a kind of endless life by remaining in mid-flight.

And then there is the seemingly endless riff of association that draws us to the flame ourselves. Moths are great symbols in the history of art. They’ve represented everything from restlessness and fragility to the watchful eye and omens of the future, from lust to insanity, from suicidal desire to the dignity of facing fate, from dreams and fantasy to knowledge and wisdom — which supposedly moths carry in the dust on their wings and drop down on us when they pass over head. And moths have long been a symbol of both poverty and stinginess. You might find moths in pockets that are otherwise hungry and empty, or they might be there because those pockets are stingy and stay closed.

The Starn’s photograph is interesting because there’s so much play between confusion and clarity: the moths are gigantic, clear, present and ominous – almost as if they’re on a movie screen. But their blackness makes them anonymous. They can’t be identified. And the light they float in is odd; it doesn’t seem to come from anywhere. So are they drawn toward the light or have they escaped it? Are there four moths or one? The photograph is one still image out of four, which are just four out of many, but all of just one moth. It’s a stillness that implies motion, and stills that imply the film, the haunting films the Starns have made in their scrutiny and study of moths.

This photograph has impelled me to read up on moths myself. And I’ve discovered several things about these unloved, ugly sisters of butterflies. They’re everywhere. Silk moths, goat moths, bear moths, monkey moths, miner moths. Sphinxes, twigs, twirlers, ghosts, slugs, primitives, whistlers, diamondbacks, bags, hawks, emperors, paupers, snouts, plumes and swallowtails…

And that’s barely the beginning. There are more than 10,000 species in North America – and tens of thousands of other moth species around the world. How many butterflies? Few than 500 species in the U.S. Both moths and butterflies are lepidoptera, which means “feathers with scales” in Greek. Moths and butterflies all have six legs, three pairs of mouths, one pair of antennae and lots of breathing openings along the sides of their three-segment bodies.

But there are plenty of differences. Most moths fly at night; butterflies flutter during the day. Moths lay their wings flat to rest; butterflies press their wings together over their heads. Most butterflies have skinny, smooth bellies; most moths are fat and hairy. Butterflies don’t spin cocoons; moths do. Butterflies have thin antennae with knobs at the top like little clubs. Moths have all kinds of antennae — ones that are furry or feathery or braided – but nothing at the top.

No butterflies are mentioned in the Bible. But moths come into the story fairly often, beginning with Job’s complaint that they have destroyed his garments. The word “moth” is a variant of a very ancient Egyptian word for earthworm. The Egyptians didn’t distinguish between worms in the dirt and the moth larvae that destroyed their crops and clothes. They thought both were disgusting. And they were afraid of them.

Moths have been around about 100 million years more than butterflies. But interestingly, individual moths don’t live long at all, usually only about two weeks. That’s because they don’t eat. It’s the larvae, hiding in the dark and spinning cocoons, that chew up wool suits and kill trees. Once a moth breaks out of its cocoon, it goes hungry as it flies around – until its wings finally can’t move and it falls.

One of the great mysteries of moths is why they seem so often suicidally attracted to light. It may be the moon, which seems to be their primary guide in flight. Moths may have internal compasses that help them follow a lunar path across the night sky. And it’s possible that strong light from above may help them orient themselves up toward open air and away from the dark below with all its dangers.

People have gotten moths into trouble since Prometheus, by building fires and making lamps and headlights that look to moths too much like the moon, and pull them onto a mistaken collision course with death. Since they’re designed to follow the moon without attempting to reach it, moths are not prepared to actually come in direct contact with a source of light. Our lights have literally altered their universe.

But why do moths stay trapped, looking desperate and almost hypnotized, stuck in the webs of false human lights that pull? Why don’t they see or porch lights are not the moon and move on? Unlike us, moths aren’t blinded by sudden light. They actually go temporarily blind if they turn away and suddenly face the dark again. That’s because the thousands of lenses in their eyes adapt much more quickly to light than to dark. The real risk of going blind in the dark may cause them to stay trapped where they can see.

And there’s something else. Since moths are night creatures, it’s thought that their daytime sleep mechanism might kick in when they reach a bright light. We would get blinded, but they get tired. So even if the light is dangerous, it’s possible the end isn’t so bad: by staying in the light, moths may just die in their sleep. It could be worse.

[artist website]

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