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Chapter 8

Hera of the Corn: Hyperchira Io


At the same time he gave me the Eacles Imperialis moths, Mr. Eisen presented me with a pair of Hyperchiria Io. They were nicely mounted on the black velvet lining of a large case in my room, but I did not care for them in the least. A picture I would use could not be made from dead, dried specimens, and history learned from books is not worth knowing, in comparison with going afield and threshing it out for yourself in your own way. Because the Io was yellow, I wanted it-- more than several specimens I had not found as yet, for yellow, be it on the face of a flower, on the breast of a bird, or in the gold of sunshine, always warms the depths of my heart.

One night in June, sitting with a party of friends in the library, a shadow seemed to sweep across a large window in front. I glanced up, and arose with a cry that must have made those present doubt my sanity. A perfect and beautiful Io was walking leisurely across the glass.

"A moth!" I cried. "I have none like it! Deacon, get the net!"

I caught a hat from the couch, and ran to the veranda. The Deacon followed with the net.

"I was afraid to wait," I explained. "Please bring a piece of pasteboard, the size of this brim.'

I held the hat while the Deacon brought the board. Then with trembling care we slipped it under, and carefully carried the moth into the conservatory. First we turned on the light, and made sure that every ventilator was closed; then we released the Io for the night. In the morning we found a female clinging to a shelf, dotting it with little top-shaped eggs. I was delighted, for I thought this meant the complete history of a beautiful moth. So exquisite was the living, breathing creature, she put to shame the form and colouring of the mounted specimens. No wonder I had not cared for them!

Her fore-wings were a strong purplish brown in general effect, but on close examination one found the purplish tinge a commingling of every delicate tint of lavender and heliotrope imaginable. They were crossed by escalloped bands of greyish white, and flecked with touches of the same, seeming as if they had been placed with a brush. The back wings were a strong yellow. Each had, for its size, an immense black eye-spot, with a blue pupil covering three-fourths of it, crossed by a perfect comma of white, the heads toward the front wings and the curves bending outward. Each eye-spot was in a yellow field, strongly circled with a sharp black line; then a quarter of an inch band of yellow; next a heliotrope circle of equal width; yellow again twice as wide; then a faint heliotrope line; and last a very narrow edging of white. Both wings joined the body under a covering of long, silky, purple-brown hairs.

She was very busy with egg depositing, and climbed to the twig held before her without offering to fly. The camera was carried to the open, set up and focused on a favourable spot, while Molly-Cotton walked beside me holding a net over the moth in case she took flight in outer air. The twig was placed where she would be in the deepest shade possible while I worked rapidly with the camera.

By this time experience had taught me that these creatures of moonlight and darkness dislike the open glare of day, and if placed in sunlight will take flight in search of shade more quickly than they will move if touched. So until my Io settled where I wanted her with the wings open, she was kept in the shadow. Only when I grasped the bulb and stood ready to snap, was the covering lifted, and for the smallest fraction of a second the full light fell on her; then darkness again.

In three days it began to be apparent there was something wrong with the eggs. In four it was evident, and by five I was not expecting the little caterpillars to emerge, and they did not. The moth had not mated and the eggs were not fertile. Then I saw my mistake. Instead of shutting the female in the conservatory at night, I should have tied a soft cotton string firmly around her body, and fastened it to some of the vines on the veranda. Beyond all doubt, before morning, a male of her kind would have been attracted to her.

One learns almost as much by his mistakes as he profits by his successes in this world. Writing of this piece of stupidity, at a time in my work with moths when a little thought would have taught me better, reminds me of an experience I had with a caterpillar, the first one I ever carried home and tried to feed. I had an order to fill for some swamp pictures, and was working almost waist deep in a pool in the Limberlost, when on a wild grape-vine swinging close to my face, I noticed a big caterpillar placidly eating his way around a grape leaf. The caterpillar was over four inches long, had no horn, and was of a clear red wine colour, that was beautiful in the sunlight. I never before had seen a moth caterpillar that was red and I decided it must be rare. As there was a wild grapevine growing over the east side of the Cabin, and another on the windmill, food of the right kind would be plentiful, so I instantly decided to take the caterpillar home. It was of the specimens that I consider have almost `thrust themselves upon me.'

When the pictures were finished and my camera carried from the swamp, I returned with the clippers and cut off vine and caterpillar, to carry with me. On arrival I placed it in a large box with sand on the bottom, and every few hours took out the wilted leaves, put in fresh ones, and sprinkled them to insure crispness, and to give a touch of moisture to the atmosphere in the box, that would make it seem more like the swamp.

My specimen was readily identified as Philampelus Pandorus, of which I had no moth, so I took extra care of it in the hope of a new picture in the spring. It had a little flat head that could be drawn inside the body like a turtle, and on the sides were oblique touches of salmon. Something that appeared to be a place for a horn could be seen, and a yellow tubercle was surrounded by a black line. It ate for three days, and then began racing so frantically around the box, I thought confinement must be harmful, so I gave it the freedom of the Cabin, warning all my family to `look well to their footsteps.' It stopped travelling after a day or two at a screen covering the music-room window, and there I found it one morning lying still, a shrivelled, shrunken thing; only half the former length, so it was carefully picked up, and thrown away!

Of course the caterpillar was in the process of changing into the pupa, and if I had known enough to lay it on the sand in my box, and wait a few days, without doubt a fine pupa would have emerged from that shrunken skin, from which, in the spring, I could have secured an exquisite moth, with shades of olive green, flushed with pink. The thought of it makes me want to hide my head. It was six years before I found a living moth, or saw another caterpillar of that species.

A few days later, while watching with a camera focused on the nest of a blackbird in Mrs. Corson's woods east of town, Raymond, who was assisting me, crept to my side and asked if it would do any harm for him to go specimen hunting. The long waits with set cameras were extremely tedious to the restless spirits of the boy, and the birds were quite tame, the light was under a cloud, and the woods were so deep that after he had gone a few rods he was from sight, and under cover; besides it was great hunting ground, so I gladly told him to go.

The place was almost `virgin,' much of it impassable and fully half of it was under water that lay in deep, murky pools throughout summer. In the heat of late June everything was steaming; insect life of all kinds was swarming; not far away I could hear sounds of trouble between the crow and hawk tribes; and overhead a pair of black vultures, whose young lay in a big stump in the interior, were searching for signs of food. If ever there was a likely place for specimens it was here; Raymond was an expert at locating them, and fearless to foolhardiness. He had been gone only a short time when I heard a cry, and I knew it must mean something, in his opinion, of more importance than blackbirds.

I answered "Coming," and hastily winding the long hose, I started in the direction Raymond had taken, calling occasionally to make sure I was going the right way. When I found him, the boy was standing beside a stout weed, hat in hand, intently watching something. As I leaned forward I saw that it was a Hyperchiria Io that just had emerged from the cocoon, and as yet was resting with wings untried. It differed so widely from my moth of a few days before, I knew it must be a male.

This was only three-fourths as large as mine, but infinitely surpassed it in beauty. Its front wings were orange-yellow, flushed with red-purple at the base, and had a small irregular brown spot near the costa. Contrary to all precedent, the under side of these wings were the most beautiful, and bore the decorations that, in all previous experience with moths, had been on the upper surface, faintly showing on the under. For instance, this irregular brown marking on the upper side proved to be a good-sized black spot with with white dot in the middle on the under; and there was a curved line of red-purple from the apex of the wing sloping to the lower edge, nearly half an inch from the margin. The space from this line to the base of the wing was covered with red-purple down. The back wings were similar to the female's, only of stronger colour, and more distinct markings; the eye-spot and lining appeared as if they had been tinted with strong fresh paint, while the edges of the wings lying beside the abdomen had the long, silken hairs of a pure, beautiful red their entire length:

A few rods away men were ploughing in the adjoining corn field, and I remembered that the caterpillar of this moth liked to feed on corn blades, and last summer undoubtedly lived in that very field. When I studied Io history in my moth books, I learned these caterpillars ate willow, wild cherry, hickory, plum, oak, sassafras, ash, and poplar. The caterpillar was green, more like the spiny butterfly caterpillars than any moth one I know. It had brown and white bands, brown patches, and was covered with tufts of stiff upstanding spines that pierced like sharp needles. This was not because the caterpillar tried to hurt you, but because the spines were on it, and so arranged that if pressed against, an acid secretion sprang from their base. This spread over the flesh the spines touched, stinging for an hour like smartweed, or nettles.

When I identified this caterpillar in my books, it came to me that I had known and experienced its touch. But it did not forcibly impress me until that instant that I knew it best of all, and that it was my childhood enemy of the corn. Its habit was to feed on the young blades, and cling to them with all its might. If I was playing Indian among the rows, or hunting an ear with especially long, fine 'silk' for a make-believe doll, or helping the cook select ears of Jersey Sweet to boil for dinner, and accidentally brushed one of these caterpillars with cheek or hand, I felt its burning sting long afterward. So I disliked those caterpillars.

For I always had played among the corn. Untold miles I have ridden the plough horses across the spring fields, where mellow mould rolled black from the shining shares, and the perfumed air made me feel so near flying that all I seemed to need was a high start to be able to sail with the sentinel blackbird, that perched on the big oak, and with one sharp 'T'check!' warned his feeding flock, surely and truly, whether a passing man carried a gun or a hoe. Then came the planting, when bare feet loved the cool earth, and trotted over other untold miles, while little fingers carefully counted out seven grains from the store carried in my apron skirt, as I chanted:

"One for the blackbird, one for the crow; One for the cutworm and four to grow."

Then father covered them to the right depth, and stamped each hill with the flat of the hoe, while we talked of golden corn bread, and slices of mush, fried to a crisp brown that cook would make in the fall. We had to plant enough more to feed all the horses, cattle, pigs, turkeys, geese, and chickens, during the long winter, even if the sun grew uncomfortably warm, and the dinner bell was slow about ringing.

Then there were the Indian days in the field, when a fallen eagle feather stuck in a braid, and some pokeberry juice on the face, transformed me into the Indian Big Foot, and I fled down green aisles of the corn before the wrath of the mighty Adam Poe. At times Big Foot grew tired fleeing, and said so in remarkably distinct English, and then to keep the game going, my sister Ada, who played Adam Poe, had to turn and do the fleeing or be tomahawked with a stick.

When the milk was in the ears, they were delicious steamed over salted water, or better yet roasted before coals at the front of qthe cooking stove, and eaten with butter and salt, if you have missed the flavour of it in that form, really you never have known corn!

Next came the cutting days. These were after all the caterpillars had climbed down, and travelled across the fence to spin their cocoons among the leaves of the woods; as if some instinct warned them that they would be ploughed up too early to emerge, if they remained in the field. The boys bent four hills, lashed the tassels together for a foundation, and then with one sweep of their knives, they cut a hill at a time, and stacked it in large shocks, that lined the field like rows of sentinels, guarding the gold of pumpkin and squash lying all around. While the shocks were drying, the squirrels, crows, and quail took possession, and fattened their sides against snow time.

Then the gathering days of October--they were the best days of all! Like a bloom-outlined vegetable bed, the goldenrod and ironwort, in gaudy border, filled the fence corners of the big fields. A misty haze hung in the air, because the Indians were burning the prairies to round up game for winter. The cawing of the crows, the chatter of blackbirds, and the piping bob-whites, sounded so close and so natural out there, while the crowing cocks of the barnyard seemed miles away and slightly unreal. Grown up and important, I sat on a board laid across the wagon bed, and guided the team of matched greys between the rows of shocks, and around the 'pie-timber' as my brother Leander called the pumpkins while father and the boys opened the shocks and husked the ears. How the squirrels scampered to the woods and to the business of storing away the hickory nuts that we could hear rattling down every frosty morning! We hurried with the corn; because as soon as the last shock was in, we might take the horses, wagon, and our dinner, and go all day to the woods, where we gathered our winter store of nuts. Leander would take a gun along, and shoot one of those saucy squirrels for the little sick mother.

Last came the November night, when the cold had shut us in. Then selected ears that had been dried in the garret were brought down, white for `rivel' and to roll things in to fry, and yellow for corn bread and mush. A tub full of each was shelled, and sacked to carry to the mill the following day. I sat on the floor while father and the boys worked, listening to their talk, as I built corncob castles so high they toppled from their many stories. Sometimes father made cornstock fiddles that would play a real tune. Oh! the pity of it that every little child cannot grow, live, learn and love among the corn. For the caterpillars never stopped the fun, even the years when they were most numerous.

The eggs laid by my female never hatched, so I do not know this caterpillar in its early stages from experience, but I had enough experience with it in my early stages, that I do not care if I never raise one. No doubt it attains maturity by the same series of moults as the others, and its life history is quite similar. The full-fed caterpillars spin among the leaves on the ground, and with their spines in mind, I would much prefer finding a cocoon, and producing a moth from that stage of its evolution.

The following season I had the good fortune to secure a male and female Io at the same time and by persistence induced them to pose for me on an apple branch. There was no trouble in securing the male as I desired him, with wings folded showing the spots, lining and flushing of colour. But the female was a perverse little body and though I tried patiently and repeatedly she would not lower her wings full width. She climbed around with them three-fourths spread, producing the most beautiful effect of life, but failing to display her striking markings. This is the one disadvantage in photographing moths from life. You secure lifelike effects but sometimes you are forced to sacrifice their wonderful decorations.


Gene Stratton-Porter

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