MOTHS & PHOEBES ~

Spring 2015 was a lean one. Not the leanest of my self-employed career, but lean enough. Winter and spring of 2010 was scary lean for multiple reasons, but 2015 wasn't nearly as frightening thanks to a short, unique relationship which came straight out of the blue.

 

Having no worthwhile creative work in the valley to pursue at the time that I was aware of, I did a lot of hiking and camping, composing and recording, a little digital painting, redesigning the company logo as a scaleable vector graphic, reading the latest computer science ebooks I could afford to buy and download to tablet, pounding out ideas for Creativity Canyon RLCs on its project blog and learning how to use Sketchup by creating a rough 3D design for a single-story house I would be able to enjoy and safely shuffle around in for the remainder of life after retirement. I was also wrapping up the first rebuild of this website since it was published in 1998, hoping to present a more modern and compelling business image for prospective clients I would hopefully encounter before winter arrived. If none were discovered before first snowfall, I knew I would be forced to leave and do another miserable stint working as an employee in some dirty, noisy, stinking, crowded, starry-sky-canceled city somewhere out there down below. A poisonous and deeply dreaded future.

So I set up a fresh workspace beside a large upstairs corner window where I could watch the sun and moon appear on the horizon and climb into the sky as the planet turned; grass and flowering plants sprouting, growing and blooming; birds flitting through budding bush and trees; and ground-bound wildlife coming and going across the greening meadow, some pausing to drink from the stream now thawing and flowing clear, cold, clean rain and snowmelt as spring steadily progressed into summer.

 

Between bouts of extended solo trekking up and across local high-country wilderness, I sat there beside the big window happily working away on the new website design, meticulously coding css, html and javascript to get its pages looking just right as an end of my self-employed days loomed large. The workspace was ideal. Sun streamed in unimpeded to warm it quickly on chilly, early spring mornings still too cold to open the window to until midday–efficiently burning away every dark anxiety which managed to steal in during the night. At dusk and night time, the moon's phases were hypnotic. I could feel its cool soothing glow flowing into eyes and mind, spilling dreams out across the meadow below, leaping across the stream, then floating upslope, over the ridge and down again into the Gascon on their flight toward Hermit's Peak and beyond. It was the first time in my life I had observed all of the moon phases without missing a single one. I actually giggled to myself in contentment a lot that spring, but there was one problem. Moths.

Somehow during the previous fall, a phalanx of very furry, brown-black caterpillars (woolybears I think they're called) made their way into the house, probably because I was leaving the front door and all of the unscreened windows open too frequently then, even after nightfall. Not a smart thing to do in bear country, but the weather that fall had been so mild I hated to be inside away from it. I noticed the caterpillars crawling across floors and up walls here and there around the house now and again and gently put those I found back outside, but I think they just came right back in after spreading to fellow caterpillars news of the great big warm space occupied by a lone, gentle human they had just discovered. A fantastic, safe space to pupate and winter through. So in they stealthily wiggled, in prodigious numbers, and silently spun their cocoons in secret places.

As winter receded and spring sprang outside, after sunset each day I wasn't camped out in forest or on alpine meadows above timberline, I would slide the window shut against rapidly growing chill of dusk, turn on a single light just behind and to my left in the corner workspace, start up the computer, brew a cup of tea or coffee, put on some music and work through the night in a little pool of warm, inviting light. Drawn to that pool, moths freshly escaped from cocoons they built from their own furry hairs started appearing in ones and twos, their soft bodies and wings softly buzzing and bumping crazily about that lone light source in the house where I was working. 

 

As their numbers increased, they became a bit irritating after a while and as spring progressed, really irritating right throughout the night until sunrise. So I started snatching them out of the air, quickly opening the window a crack, and releasing them back out into the night where others of their kind were bumping against the window trying to get in at the glow of my workspace. They weren't irritating at all out there, actually providing a strangely cheerful, comforting bit of company through the nights as they bumped and crawled on the glass trying to find a way in.

 

Eventually, nights warmed enough to finally put the window screens in place to enjoy fresh spring night air flowing in and throughout the house. Unfortunately, the screen wasn't as easy to quickly open and close as the sliding glass panel of the window was. And just as the number of moths outside trying to get in at the light increased each night, so too did the moths leaving their cocoons inside the house. They kept coming to the workspace glow in increasing numbers each night until I finally decided to keep a big jar with holes punched in the lid to put them in until I could release them all in the morning. Smashing them to death was just too cruel and messy an ordeal for me. After all, they were just horny and instinctively driven to fly out and mate  before they died. So just after sunrise each day I would open the screen and dump the jar full of moths outside to join the great moth orgy.

 

This method worked well since the supply of moths inside the house at night never seemed to ebb at all. I felt good about being such a benevolent and humane human as I watch the moths dumped out each morning fly away free. Then came Phoebe.

At first she just hung around the house eating a lot. I watched her out the window of my corner workspace for several days until I was sure it was the same bird I was seeing every day. Then she started building her nest on a log beam right under my front porch roof and quickly finished it within two days work. A few days later there was a clutch of four eggs incubating beneath her. I watched her mate diligently and skillfully hunting on the wing, catching and bringing her beaks full of flying insects several times a day. I kept emptying jars full of moths out the window every morning. They paid no attention to me, too busy starting their family to be bothered by the human hanging about the place.

One day I was outside stacking firewood and watched the male phoebe chasing a crow away by flying over it and pecking at its head. The crow suddenly cocked its head back just as the phoebe made a dive to peck at it, grabbed the phoebe who chirped loudly in shocked alarm. The crow dropped him and he plummeted to earth down near the stream. I raced down to try to find him and did. He was dead.

I returned to the house and stood on the front porch looking up at the female phoebe steadfastly sitting her eggs. She looked at me without fear, having long since become accustomed to my coming and going in and out of the house. I went inside to do some chores, worrying over how she would get food now that her mate was dead. That night, I was mobbed by the largest batch of freshly metamorphosed woolybears of the season. I caught all of them before going to bed. I dreamt of the mother phoebe starving to death before her chicks could hatch. I woke the next morning with the idea of feeding the moths to the phoebe, if she would have them. I carefully offered each one of them to the nesting mother. She ate all of them without hesitation. And so began a daily routine that continued for several days. I even captured video of her plucking moths from my fingers. And finally one morning she left the nest and there were her newly hatched chicks.

 

She caught me gawking at her babies and scolded be severely for being so nosey, actually scaring me with a sharp snap of her beak that sounded very much like a small gunshot. So I left them alone and went back to my routine, working at my computer nights while snatching moths out of the air as I worked and putting them into the jar. One morning as I released the moths out the window, the mother phoebe suddenly swooped down out of the sky and snatched one of the freed moths right out of the air, promptly took it over to her nest and poked it down the throat of one of the chicks. I was flabbergasted and from that point forward carefully extracted moths from the jar one at a time each morning, and tossed them into the air. She caught every one of them on the wing and either ate them herself or fed them to her chicks.

I had learned from watching wildlife documentaries on PBS and seeing local bears turning over rocks to eat moths hiding underneath that they were a sought-after source of fats, carbs, proteins and who knows how many good vitamins and minerals. And having accidentally eaten one that fell into a cooking pot of green beans, I knew they were pretty tasty too. So it did not surprise me that the mother phoebe actually began waiting for me in the mornings to bring a fresh catch to toss into the air, one-by-one, for her to snatch up and feed on or feed to her chicks. They were totally on board the woolybear moth smorgasbord and man did those chicks grow fast and fat. They all began venturing out of the nest to nearby roost spots, then into lower tree branches, up to the higher ones and soon gone.

The female phoebe quickly refurbished her nest, found a new mate and before long had laid a second clutch of five eggs. They all hatched and survived to fly away fat, strong and happy too. I stayed out of the way, just tossing her a moth now and again from the now dwindling supply snatched out of the air of my nighttime workspace. I can't say for sure that we became "friends" exactly. Who knows if phoebes have any concept of friendship. She was obviously motivated by the moths and liked catching those I tossed into the air so much that she one day grew impatient and began snatching them right out of my hand. I grew fond of her, regardless of her feelings, and she eventually exhibited unbridled trust by landing on my shoulder to wait for me to extract and toss moths into the air for her to catch. A few times she sat calmly on my hand to pluck and eat them from my fingers.

Strapping an old digital camera to my biking helmet, I managed to capture video of her flying up and snatching them out of my hand, again and again and videoed the male phoebe on an especially frantic feeding day as he repeatedly flew from and to the nest trying to satiate ravenous appetites of five healthy chicks that eventually flew away, along with their parents. That was both as sad a day as it was a cheerful one for me. I missed their company but was so glad she had successfully raised both broods without any losses and kept me from brooding over my perilous business situation that spring and early summer. I finished the company website redesign and construction and began looking for work in the area, providing prospective clients with the URL to the new website so they could see what I was capable of creating using computers.

At the end of May I found one of those hand-made pull-tab employment flyers pinned to the bulletin board at the local community college advertising opportunities at a new local residential facility for autistic adults. I pulled a tab off, went home, found their website, surfed through it and discovered it had been thoroughly hacked. So I sent an email expressing interest in working full or part time along with links to my new website and résumé that same day. An auto response email came right back stating the recipient was away until the following week. Great.

 

So I waited patiently, using the time to gather firewood for winter in case I did get lucky and manage to land some work, and was eventually invited in mid June to Collins Lake Ranch for an interview with the organization's executive director. During the interview, he expressed need for part time assistance with their budding IT system and hacked website. I felt I could handle that easily enough and volunteered to fix the website and take care of their most pressing IT system issues free of charge. After doing a couple of months of volunteer work to demonstrate my capabilities and diligence, I was signed on by contract to do all of their IT work, capping off the warmer half of 2015 with a happy ending for a family of phoebe birds, for a startup nonprofit striving to help people often severely marginalized by a too careless society and for myself, no longer facing the unhappy prospect of having to go back to live and work in a city again.

 

But there were losers in the end. The moths . . . and the website hackers.