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Chapter 12

Bloody-nose of Sunshine Hill: Hemaris Thysbe


John Brown lives a mile north of our village, in the little hamlet of Ceylon. Like his illustrious predecessor of the same name he is willing to do something for other people. Mr. Brown owns a large farm, that for a long distance borders the Wabash River where it is at its best, and always the cameras and I have the freedom of his premises.

On the east side of the village, about half its length, swings a big gate, that opens into a long country lane. It leads between fields of wheat and corn to a stretch of woods pasture, lying on a hillside, that ends at the river. This covers many acres, most of the trees have been cut; the land rises gradually to a crest, that is crowned by a straggling old snake fence, velvety black in places, grey with lint in others, and liberally decorated its entire length with lichens, in every shade of grey and green. Its corners are filled with wild flowers, ferns, gooseberries, raspberries, black and red haw, papaw, wild grapevines, and trees of all varieties. Across the fence a sumac covered embankment falls precipitately to the Wabash, where it sweeps around a great curve at Horseshoe Bend. The bed is stone and gravel, the water flows shallow and pure in the sunlight, and mallows and willows fringe the banks.

Beside this stretch of river most of one summer was spent, because there were two broods of cardinals, whose acquaintance I was cultivating, raised in those sumacs. The place was very secluded, as the water was not deep enough for fishing or swimming. On days when the cardinals were contrary, or to do the birds justice, when they had experiences with an owl the previous night, or with a hawk in the morning, and were restless or unduly excited, much grist for my camera could be found on the river banks.

These were the most beautiful anywhere in my locality. The hum of busy life was incessant. From the top twig of the giant sycamore in Rainbow Bottom, the father of the cardinal flock hourly challenged all creation to contest his right to one particular sumac. The cardinals were the attraction there; across the fence where the hill sloped the length of the pasture to the lane, lures were many and imperative. Despite a few large trees, compelling right to life by their majesty, that hillside was open pasture, where the sunshine streamed all day long. Wild roses clambered over stumps of fallen monarchs, and scrub oak sheltered resting sheep. As it swept to the crest, the hillside was thickly dotted with mullein, its pale yellow-green leaves spreading over the grass, and its spiral of canary-coloured bloom stiffly upstanding. There were thistles, the big, rank, richly growing, kind, that browsing cattle and sheep circled widely.

Very beautiful were these frosted thistles, with their large, widespreading base leaves, each spine needle-tipped, their uplifted heads of delicate purple bloom, and their floating globes of silken down, with a seed in their hearts. No wonder artists have painted them, decorators conventionalized them; even potters could not pass by their artistic merit, for I remembered that in a china closet at home there were Belleck cups moulded in the shape of a thistle head.

Experience had taught me how the appreciate this plant. There wasa chewink in the Stanley woods, that brought off a brood of four, under the safe shelter of a rank thistle leaf, in the midst of trampling herds of cattle driven wild by flies. There was a ground sparrow near the Hale sand pit, covered by a base leaf of another thistle, and beneath a third on Bob's lease, I had made a study of an exquisite nest. Protection from the rank leaves was not all the birds sought of these plants, for goldfinches were darting around inviting all creation to "See me?" as they gathered the silken down for nest lining. Over the sweetly perfumed purple heads, the humming-birds held high carnival on Sunshine Hillside all the day. The honey and bumble bees fled at the birds' approach, but what were these others, numerous everywhere, that clung to the blooms, greedily thrusting their red noses between the petals, and giving place to nothing else?

For days as I passed among them, I thought them huge bees. The bright colouring of their golden olive-green, and red-wine striped bodies had attracted me in passing. Then one of them approached a thistle head opposite me in such a way its antennae and the long tongue it thrust into the bloom could be seen. That proved it was not a bee, and punishment did not await any one who touched it.

There were so many that with one sweep of the net two were captured. They were examined to my satisfaction and astonishment. They were moths! Truly moths, feeding in the brilliant sunshine all the day; bearing a degree of light and heat I never had known any other moth to endure. Talk about exquisite creatures! These little day moths, not much larger than the largest bumble bees, had some of their gaudiest competitors of moonlight and darkness outdone.

The head was small and pointed, with big eyes, a long tongue, clubbed antennae, and a blood-red nose. The thorax above was covered with long, silky, olive-green hair; the top of the abdomen had half an inch band of warm tan colour, then a quarter of an inch band of velvety red wine, then a band nearer the olive of the shoulders. The males had claspers covered with small red-wine feathers tan tipped. The thorax was cream-coloured below and the under side of the abdomen red wine crossed with cream-coloured lines at each segment.

The front wings had the usual long, silky hairs. They were of olive-green shading into red, at the base, the costa was red, and an escalloped band of red bordered them. The intervening space was transparent like thinnest isinglass, and crossed with fine red veins. The back wings were the same, only the hairs at the base were lighter red, and the band at the edge deeper in colour.

The head of the male seemed sharper, the shoulders stronger olive, the wings more pointed at the apex, where the female's were a little rounded. The top of the abdomen had the middle band of such strong red that it threw the same colour over the bands above and below it; giving to the whole moth a strong red appearance when on wing. They, were so fascinating the birds were forgotten, and the hillside hunted for them until a pair were secured to carry home for identification, before the whistle of the cardinal from Rainbow Bottom rang so sharply that I remembered this was the day I had hoped to secure his likeness; and here I was allowing a little red-nosed moth so to thrust itself upon my attention, that my cameras were not even set up and focused on the sumac.

This tiny sunshine moth, Hemaris Thysbe, was easy ofidentification, and its whole life history before me on the hillside. I was too busy with the birds to raise many caterpillars, so reference to several books taught me that they all agreed on the main points of Hemaris history.

Hemaris means `bloody nose.' `Bloody nose' on account of the red first noticed on the face, though some writers called them 'Clear wings,' because of the transparent spaces on the wings. Certainly `clear wings' is a most appropriate and poetic name for this moth. Fastidious people will undoubtedly prefer it for common usage. For myself, I always think of the delicate, gaudy little creature, greedily thrusting its blood-red nose into the purple thistle blooms; so to my thought it returns as `bloody nose.'

The pairs mate early after emerging, and lay about two hundred small eggs to the female, from which the caterpillars soon hatch, and begin their succession of moults. One writer gave black haw and snowball as their favourite foods, and the length of the caterpillar when full grown nearly two inches. They are either a light brown with yellow markings, or green with yellow; all of them have white granules on the body, and a blue-black horn with a yellow base. They spin among the leaves on the ground, and the pupa, while small, is shaped like Regalis, except that it has a sharper point at each end, and more prominent wing shields. It has no raised tongue case, although it belongs to the family of `long tongues.'

On learning all I could acquire by experience with these moths, and what the books had to teach, I became their warm admirer. One sunny morning climbing the hill on the way to the cardinals, with fresh plates in my cameras, and high hopes in my heart, I passed an unsuually large fine thistle, with half a dozen Thysbe moths fluttering over it as if nearly crazed with fragrance, or honey they were sipping.

"Come here! Come here! Come here!" intoned the cardinal, from the sycamore of Rainbow Bottom.

"Just you wait a second, old fellow!" I heard myself answering. Scarcely realizing what I was doing, the tripod was set up, the best camera taken out, and focused on that thistle head. The moths paid no attention to bees, butterflies, or humming-birds visiting the thistle, but this was too formidable, and by the time the choicest heads were in focus, all the little red fellows had darted to another plant. If the camera was moved there, they would change again, so I sat in the shade of a clump of papaws to wait and see if they would not grow accustomed to it.

They kept me longer than I had expected, and the chances are I would have answered the cardinal's call, and gone to the river, had it not been for the interest found in watching a beautiful grey squirrel that homed in an ivy-covered stump in the pasture. He seemed to have much business on the fence at the hilltop, and raced back and forth to it repeatedly. He carried something, I could not always tell what, but at times it was green haws. Once he came with no food, and at such a headlong run that he almost turned somersaults as he scampered up the tree.

For a long time he was quiet, then he cautiously peeped out. After a while he ventured to the ground, raced to a dead stump, and sitting on it, barked and scolded with all his might. Then he darted home again. When he had repeated this performance several times, the idea became apparent. There was some danger to be defied in Rainbow Bottom, but not a sound must be made from his home. The bark of a dog hurried me to the fence in time to see some hunters passing in the bottom, but I thanked mercy they were on the opposite side of the river and it was not probable they would wade, so my birds would not be disturbed. When the squirrel felt that he must bark and chatter, or burst with tense emotions, he discreetly left his mate and nest. I did some serious thinking on the `instinct' question. He might choose a hollow log for his home by instinct, or eat certain foods because hunger urged him, but could instinct teach him not to make a sound where his young family lay? Without a doubt, for this same reason, the cardinal sang from every tree and bush around Horseshoe Bend, save the sumac where his mate hovered their young.

The matter presented itselfin this way. The squirrel has feet, and he runs with them. He has teeth, and he eats with them. He has lungs, and he breathes with them. Every organ of his interior has its purpose, and is used to fulfil it. His big, prominent eyes come from long residence in dark hollows. His bushy tail helps him in long jumps from tree to tree. Every part of his anatomy is created, designed and used to serve some purpose, save only his brain, the most complex and complicated part of him. Its only use and purpose is to form one small 'tidbit ' for the palate of the epicure! Like Sir Francis, who preached a sermon to the birds, I found me delivering myself of a lecture to the squirrels, birds, and moths of Sunshine Hill. The final summing up was, that the squirrel used his feet, teeth, eyes and tail; that could be seen easily, and by his actions it could be seen just as clearly that he used his brain also.

There was not a Thysbe in front of the lens, so picking up a long cudgel I always carry afield, and going quietly to surrounding thistles, I jarred them lightly with it, and began rounding up the Hemaris family in the direction of the camera. The trick was a complete success. Soon I had an exposure on two. After they had faced the camera once, and experienced no injury, like the birds, they accepted it as part of the landscape. The work was so fascinating, and the pictures on the ground glass so worth while, that before I realized what I was doing, half a dozen large plates were gone, and for this reason, work with the cardinals that day ended at noon. This is why I feel that at times in bird work the moths literally `thrust themselves' upon me.


Gene Stratton-Porter

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