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Chapter 10

The Giant Gamin: Telea Polyphemus

Time cannot be used to tell of making the acquaintance of this moth until how well worth knowing it is has been explained. That it is a big birdlike fellow, with a six inch sweep of wing, is indicated by the fact that it is named in honour of the giant Polyphemus. Telea means `the end,' and as scientists fail to explain the appropriateness of this, I am at liberty to indulge a theory of my own. Nature made this handsome moth last, and as it was the end, surpassed herself as a finishing touch on creatures that are, no doubt, her frailest and most exquisite creation.

Polyphemus is rich in shadings of many subdued colours, that so blend and contrast as to give it no superior in the family of short-lived lovers of moonlight. Its front wings are a complicated study of many colours, for some of which it would be difficult to find a name. Really, it is the one moth that must be seen and studied in minutest detail to gain an idea of its beauty. The nearest I can come to the general groundwork of the wing is a rich brown-yellow. The costa is grey, this colour spreading in a widening line from the base of the wing to more than a quarter of an inch at the tip, and closely peppered with black. At the base, the wing is covered with silky yellow-brown hairs. As if to outline the extent of these, comes a line of pinkish white, and then one of rich golden brown, shading into the prevailing colour.

Close the middle of the length of the wing, and half an inch from the costa, is a transparent spot like isinglass, so clear that fine print can be read through it. This spot is outlined with a canary yellow band, and that with a narrow, but sharp circle of black. Then comes a cloudlike rift of golden brown, drifting from the costa across the wing, but, growing fainter until it merges with the general colour near the abdomen. Then half an inch of the yellow-brown colour is peppered with black, similar to the costa; this grows darker until it terminates in a quarter of an inch wide band of almost grey-black crossing the wing. Next this comes a narrower band of pinkish white. The edge begins with a quarter of an inch band of clear yellow-brown, and widens as the wing curves until it is half an inch at the point. It is the lightest colour of rotten apple. The only thing I ever have seen in nature exactly similar was the palest shade of `mother' found in barrels of vinegar. A very light liver colour comes close it. On the extreme tip is a velvety oval, half black and half pale pink.

The back wings are the merest trifle stronger in this yellow-brown colour, and with the exception of the brown rift are the same in marking, only that all colour, similar to the brown, is a shade deeper.

The `piece de resistance' of the back wing, is the eyespot. The transparent oval is a little smaller. The canary band is wider, and of stronger colour. The black band around the lower half is yet wider, and of long velvety hairs. It extends in an oval above the transparent spot fully half an inch, then shades through peacock blue, and grey to the hairlike black line enclosing the spot.

The under sides of the wings are pure tan, clouded and lined with shades of rich brown. The transparent spots are outlined with canary, and show a faint line drawn across the middle the long way.

The face is a tiny brown patch with small eyes, for the size of the moth, and large brown antennae, shaped like those of Cecropia. The grey band of the costa crosses the top of the head. The shoulders are covered with pinkish, yellow-brown hair. The top and sides of the abdomen are a lighter shade of the same.

The under side of the abdomen is darker brown, and the legs brown with very dark brown feet. These descriptions do the harmonizing colours of the moth no sort of justice, but are the best I can offer. In some lights it is a rich YELLOW-BROWN, and again a pink flush pervades body and wings.

My first experience with a living Polyphemis (I know Telea is shorter, but it is not suitable, while a giant among moths it is, so that name is best) occurred several years ago. A man brought me a living Polyphemus battered to rags and fringes, antennae broken and three feet missing. He had found a woman trying ot beat the clinging creature loose from a door screen, with a towel, before the wings were hardened for flight, and he rescued the remains. There was nothing to say; some people are not happy unless they are killing helpless, harmless creatures; and there was nothing to do.

The moth was useless for a study, while its broken antennae set it crazy, and it shook and trembled continually, going out without depositing any eggs. One thing I did get was complete identification, and another, to attribute the experience to Mrs. Comstock in "A Girl of the Limberlost", when I wished to make her do something particularly disagreeable. In learning a moth I study its eggs, caterpillars, and cocoons, so that fall Raymond and I began searching for Polyphemus. I found our first cocoon hanging by a few threads of silk, from a willow twig overhanging a stream in the limberlost.

A queer little cocoon it was. The body was tan colour, and thickly covered with a white sprinkling like lime. A small thorn tree close the cabin yielded Raymond two more; but these were darker in colour, and each was spun inside three thorn leaves so firmly that it appeared triangular in shape. The winds had blown the cocoons agianst the limbs and worn away the projecting edges of the leaves, but the midribs and veins showed plainly. In all we had half a dozen of htese cocoons gathered from different parts of the swamp, and we found them dangling from a twig of willow or hawthorn, by a small piece of spinning. During the winter these occupied the place of state in the conservatory, and were watched every day. They were kept in the coolest spot, but where the sun reached them at times. Always in watering the flowers, the hose was turned on them, because they would have been in the rain if they had been left out of doors, and conditions should be kept as natural as possible.

Close time for emergence I became very uneasy, because the conservatory was warm; so I moved them to my sleeping room, the coolest in the cabin, where a fireplace, two big windows and an outside door, always open, provide natural atmospheric conditions, and where I would be sure to see them every day. I hung the twigs over a twine stretched from my dresser to the window-sill. One day in May, when the trees were in full bloom, I was working on a tulip bed under an apple tree in the garden, when Molly-Cotton said to me, "How did you get that cocoon in your room wet?"

"I did not water any of the cocoons," I answered. "I have done no sprinkling today. If they are wet, it has come from the inside."

Molly-Cotton dropped her trowel. "One of them was damp on the top before lunch," she cried. "I just now thought of it. The moths are coming!" She started on a run and I followed, but stopped to wash my hands, so she reached them first, and her shout told the news.

"Hurry!" she cried. "Hurry! One is out, and another is just struggling through!" Quickly as I could I stood beside her. One Polyphemus female, a giant indeed, was clinging to a twig with her feet, and from her shoulders depended her wings, wet, and wrinkled as they had been cramped in the pupa case. Even then she had expanded in body until it seemed impossible that she had emerged from the opening of the vacant cocoon. The second one had its front feet and head out, and was struggling frantically to free its shoulders. A fresh wet spot on the top of another cocoon, where the moth had ejected the acid with which it is provided to soften the spinning, was heaving with the pushing head of the third. Molly-Cotton was in sympathy with the imprisoned moths.

"Why don't you get something sharp, and split the cocoons so they can get out?" she demanded. "Just look at them struggle! They will kill themselves!"

Then I explained to her that if we wanted big, perfect moths we must not touch them. That the evolution of species was complete to the minutest detail. The providence that supplied the acid, required that the moths make the fight necessary to emerge alone, in order to strengthen them so they would be able to walk and cling with their feet, while the wings drooped and dried properly. That if I cut a case, and took out a moth with no effort on its part, it would be too weak to walk, or bear its weight, and so would fall to the floor. Then because of not being in the right position, the wings would harden half spread, or have broken membranes and never develop fully. So instead of doing a kindness I really would work ruination.

"Oh, I see!" cried the wondering girl, and her eyes were large enough to have seen anything, while her brain was racing. If you want to awaken a child and teach it to think, give object lessons such as these, in natural history and study with it, so that every miraculous point is grasped when reached. We left the emerging moths long enough to set up a camera outside, and focus on old tree. Then we hurried back, almost praying that the second moth would be a male, and dry soon enough that the two could be pictured together, before the first one would be strong enough to fly.

The following three hours were spent with them, and every minute enjoyed to the fullest. The first to emerge was dry, and pumping her wings to strengthen them for flight; the second was in condition to pose, but a disappointment, for it was another female. The third was out, and by its smaller size, brighter markings and broad antennae we knew it was a male. His `antlers' were much wider than those of the first two, and where their markings were pink, his were so vivid as to be almost red, and he was very furry. He had, in fact, almost twice as much long hair as the others, so he undoubtedly was a male, but he was not sufficiently advanced to pose with the females, and I was in doubt as to the wisest course to pursue.

"Hurry him up!" suggested Molly-Cotton. "Tie a string across the window and hang him in the sunshine. I'll bring a fan, and stir the air gently.'

This plan seemed feasible, and when the twine was ready, I lifted his twig to place it in the new location. The instant I touched his resting-place and lifted its weight from the twine both females began ejecting a creamy liquid. They ruined the frescoing behind them, as my first Cecropia soiled the lace curtain when I was smaller than Molly-Cotton at that time. We tacked a paper against the wall to prevent further damage. A point to remember in moth culture, is to be ready for this occurrence before they emerge, if you do not want stained frescoing, floors, and hangings.

In the sunshine and fresh air the male began to dry rapidly, and no doubt he understood the presence of his kind, for he was much more active than the females. He climbed the twig, walked the twine body pendent, and was so energetic that we thought we dared not trust him out of doors; but when at every effort to walk or fly he only attempted to reach the females, we concluded that he would not take wing if at liberty. By this time he was fully developed, and so perfect he would serve for a study.

I polished the lenses, focused anew on the tree, marked the limits of exposure, inserted a plate, and had everything ready. Then I brought out the female, Molly-Cotton walking beside me hovering her with a net. The moth climbed from the twig to the tree, and clung there, her wings spread flat, at times setting them quivering in a fluttering motion, or raising them. While Molly-Cotton guarded her I returned for the male, and found him with wings so hardened that could raise them above his back, and lower them full width.

I wanted my study to dignify the term, so I planned it to show the under wings of one moth, the upper of the other. Then the smaller antennae and large abdomen of the female were of interest. I also thought it would be best to secure the male with wings widespread if possible, because his colour was stronger, his markings more pronounced. So I helped the female on a small branch facing the trunk of the tree, and she rested with raised wings as I fervently hoped she would. The male I placed on the trunk, and with wide wings he immediately started toward the female, while she advanced in his direction. This showed his large antennae and all markings and points especially note worthy; being good composition as well, for it centred interest; but there was one objection. It gave the male the conspicuous place and made him appear the larger because of his nearness to the lens and his wing spread; while as a matter of fact, the female had almost an inch more sweep than he, and was bigger at every point save the antennae.

The light was full and strong, the lens the best money could buy, the plate seven by nine inches. By this time long practice had made me rather expert in using my cameras. When the advancing pair were fully inside my circle of focus, I made the first exposure. Then I told Molly-Cotton to keep them as nearly as possible where they were, while I took one breathless peep at the ground glass.

Talk about exciting work! No better focus could be had on them, so I shoved in another plate with all speed, and made a second exposure, which was no better than the first. Had there been time, I would have made a third to be sure, for plates are no object when a study is at all worth while. As a rule each succeeding effort enables you to make some small change for the better, and you must figure on always having enough to lose one through a defective plate or ill luck in development, and yet end with a picture that will serve your purpose.

Then we closed the ventilators and released the moths in the conservatory. The female I placed on a lemon tree in a shady spot, and the male at the extreme far side to see how soon he would find her. We had supposed it would be dark, but they were well acquainted by dusk. The next morning she was dotting eggs over the plants.

The other cocoons produced mostly female living moths, save one that was lost in emergence. I tried to help when it was too late; but cutting open the cocoon afterward proved the moth defective. The wings on one side were only about half size, and on the other little patches no larger than my thumb nail. The body was shrunken and weakly.

At this time, as I remember, Cecropia eggs were the largest I had seen, but these were larger; the same shape and of a white colour with a brown band. The moth dotted them on the under and upper sides of leaves, on sashes and flower pots, tubs and buckets. They turned brown as the days passed. The little caterpillars that emerged from them were reddish brown, and a quarter of an inch long.

I could not see my way to release a small army of two or three hundred of these among my plants, so when they emerged I held a leaf before fifty, that seemed liveliest, and transferred them to a big box. The remainder I placed with less ceremony, over mulberry, elm, maple, wild cherry, grape, rose, apple, and pear, around the Cabin, and gave the ones kept in confinement the same diet.

The leaves given them always were dipped in water to keep them fresh longer, and furnish moisture for the feeders. They grew by a series of moults, like all the others I had raised or seen, and were full size in forty-eight days, but travelled a day or two before beginning the pupa stage of their existence. The caterpillars were big fellows; the segments deeply cut; the bodies yellow-green, with a few sparse scattering hairs, and on the edge of each segment, from a triple row of dots arose a tiny, sharp spine. Each side had series of black touches and the head could be drawn inside the thorax. They were the largest in circumference of any I had raised, but only a little over three inches long.

I arranged both leaves and twigs in the boxes, but they spun among the leaves,and not dangling from twigs, as all the cocoons I had found outdoors were placed previous to that time. Since, I have found them spun lengthwise of twigs in a brush heap. The cocoons of these I had raised were whiter than those of the free caterpillars, and did not have the leaves fastened on the outside, but were woven in a nest of leaves, fastened together by threads.

Polyphemus moths are night flyers, and do not feed. I have tried to tell how beautiful they are, with indifferent success, and they are common with me. Since I learned them, find their cocoons easiest to discover. Through the fall and winter, when riding on trains, I see them dangling from wayside thorn bushes. Once, while taking a walk with Raymond in late November, he located one on a thorn tree in a field beside the road, but he has the eyes of an Indian.

These are the moths that city people can cultivate, for in Indianapolis, in early December, I saw fully one half as many Polyphemus cocoons on the trees as there were Cecropia, and I could have gathered a bushel of them. They have emerged in perfection for me always, with one exception. Personally, I have found more Polyphemus than Cecropia.

These moths are the gamins of their family, and love the streets and lights at night.

Under an arc light at Wabash, Indiana, I once picked up as beautiful a specimen of Polyphemus as I ever saw, and the following day a friend told me that several had been captured the night before in the heart of town.

Gene Stratton-Porter

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