It's funny, the little bits of knowledge we collect without really thinking about it, the way children at the seaside, sandy, salty-kneed, fill their buckets with shells, and stones, and the ghost-pale skeletons of tiny crabs. Mostly, we don't do anything with our scraps of fact. We just like the way it feels to roll them in a palm on occasion. We like their colour, or the shapes they make in our mouths. Giraffes have blue tongues. Bananas are berries, but strawberries aren't. Pearls melt in vinegar. Polar bear fur is clear, not white.
I always accepted the fact that moths steer their course by the moon. I repeated it when it was relevant. I thought it poetic: imagined them, earnest little things, owl-eyed, flittering moonward. And then, just this week, I found out that it isn't actually true. That although they do always head for the light - which is why many moths meet a quick, frizzing death in the heat of a candle flame, or spend hours batting at a lit window - they navigate, in fact, by smell.
This is how they do it: they compare the scent in two points in space, and then move towards the greater concentration. Immediately, they compare two more points and revise their flight accordingly. And then they do it again. And again. Which is why they move in those funny, hitching little paths; they’re changing their course based on moment by moment decisions.
Do you believe in signs, in totems? I do. I think they arrive when we need them, little points of reference like a string of lights along a dark path. I think they hold meaning and metaphor, the way dreams do when you look them up in the reference books a stew of symbols, portents, patterns.
There is a beautiful quote in the John Green book, “The Fault In Our Stars”, which says that, essentially, the universe wants to be noticed; that it enjoys its elegance being observed. There are times when I feel that the universe wants to be noticed so much, it leaves clues like fairytale breadcrumbs or arrows chalked on a path. I can’t help but feel that I am being guided toward something. That there is something I am meant to see, or understand. It feels like a firm hand in the small of my back, setting me gently but insistently in a certain direction.
Moths, at the moment, are everywhere. They have infiltrated my life, a quiet sort of coup like snow dropping softly in a dark street. They crop up in the books I am reading. In songs I’ve never heard before. Last week, a friend emailed me a poem she thought I’d like. It was titled, simply, ‘Moth’. A tea dress in a boutique shop caught my eye; when I took up a fistful of cloth, I saw that the detail I’d taken for flowers was actually a scattering of tiny grey moths. And then there was the quote I read at random, the one that informed me how moths truly navigate, thereby debunking my previously accepted moon-myth.
Simple coincidence, you might think, this flurry of moth-related occurrences. Pure happenstance. I accept that that may well be the case; still, I choose to disagree.
There is an Einstein quote I have mentioned before, in which he states that we have two choices: to believe that either everything is a miracle or nothing is. (Everything! my heart says; everything!). I have complete and total faith that there is more to the world and the way it works than we can even guess at, that there is more magic than we can imagine.
We can map weather systems nowadays. We can follow a front as it moves from one continent to another and predict, with some accuracy, its consequences. Meteorology is a science with its own private language: isobars and kerafonts, anemometers, mesoscales, and Rossby waves. A few hundred years ago, this would have been unimaginable - this level of knowledge, this ability to make predictions. The terminology would have sounded like an incantation or a spell. Words like sorcery might have been used; words like hubris. And yet, and yet; it was only ever patterns, being noticed. Just cause and effect being studied and mapped.
When these little breadcrumbs litter my life, I can’t help but think it’s a pattern or system I just don’t have the ability or knowledge to understand yet. When the moths kept happening, I noticed, of course, but had no idea what, if anything, I was meant to take from it. I had no personal affinity for moths. There was no personal symbology there, no discernible message. And then I read that quote about their navigation techniques - almost like the exasperated Universe was showing me the answers in the back of a complicated quizbook - and I knew, I knew what I was meant to take from it.
I have been doubting decisions I have made recently. Big decisions. I have been, if not in a dark place, then at least an ill-lit one. It felt a little like I was scrabbling about for answers, for reassurances that I had made the right choices. One moment I would be holding them tightly in my hands, understanding, with relief, that I had done what was necessary, that I had been truthful to myself. The next, they would slip through my fingers like water, like light, and I would be empty and answerless in the dark again.
And then came the moths. The moths who, I learned, make their decisions moment by moment. Who pause along the way to rethink and recalibrate before making whatever decision is the right one for them in that moment. And always, always, while heading for the light.
You may think this is far-reaching. Or wishful thinking. You may think this is me building a scaffold of hope, looking for meaning where there is none. You may, as I said earlier, think it nothing but coincidence.
I'll let you keep that. I'll let you keep your doubts. I have my moths and my sense of wonder. I have peace, and a view of the light.
It turns out I don't always need hard fact.