Metamorphosis Meditation

It was quite a serious conversation I’d just embarked on with a friend at a socially-distanced gathering in Alexandra Park (Hastings) on Thursday 2nd July, when my attention was grabbed by a HUMONGOUS, hairy, brown caterpillar stretched out across the trunk of a gorgeous copper beech tree.

Gypsy larva
Just a poor phone pic (unusually, I didn’t have my camera with me!)

“Excuse me,” I blurted in a rush of excitement as I abandoned my friend, to take a closer look. I apologised later on.

I’m only slightly obsessed with moths and butterflies (ask my wife if you want an honest opinion).

I was going to leave the caterpillar in situ but there was a little boy present at the gathering who seemed intent on poking it with a stick – and also I fancied the idea of bringing the caterpillar home to watch it pupate and then hatch into…some kind of moth.

Which I discovered, when I got home and looked it up, was a Gypsy moth. And, from the size of it, not just any old Gypsy moth caterpillar but a female.

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Although winged, female Gypsy moths are flightless and attract males from long distances through the emission of a potent pheromone. This meant that, when hatched, we could put the moth outside and watch male Gypsy moths congregate from miles around to our female. A fantastic nature-watching opportunity.

On the other hand…Gypsy moths are considered a pest, responsible for entire defoliation of some areas in the world, and many would say breeding of this species is not to be encouraged!

So a dilemma formed as we waited for our caterpillar to pupate.

She sat for several days in her cage, doing absolutely nothing. We thought she had died. Then, all of a sudden, on Tues 7th July, she finally pupated – into a crazily big chrysalis attached by a flimsy web to the side of the cage.

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On Sunday 12th July, while the miracle of metamorphosis was slowly taking place in the inner darkness of the pupa, our vicar, Simon, spoke in an online service about this verse in 2 Corinthians 3:

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

He pointed out that the original (Greek) word for “transformed” is μεταμορφούμεθα. In other words, metamorphosed.

Contemplation on the divine, through worship, prayer, or meditation on the nature that’s all around us, catalyses our own transformation, or metamorphosis, step by step, instar by instar, into the people we were always destined to be. Reflecting the Spirit, who is Love.

Like the inner sanctum of the chrysalis where caterpillar cells miraculously rearrange into moth or butterfly, time spent in quiet contemplation, away from life’s bustle, is the secret place we desperately need for our own inner revolution and spiritual emergence.

On Weds 22nd July my daughter excitedly told me that the chrysalis had hatched. A fat-bodied, egg-laden female Gypsy moth, just as expected.

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All scrunched-up like a newborn babe

We enjoyed watching her wings gradually unfurl.

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Our answer to the dilemma, in the end, was to place the moth outside for the first two nights, but still inside her cage, so we could watch the males swarm to her female fragrance, while not actually allowing mating to take place.

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However, there was no swarm. In fact, not a single male Gypsy moth appeared, as far as we saw.

So, on the third night, when the pheromones are supposed to be starting to wear off, we placed our female Gypsy on a fence in the garden (which she promptly crawled underneath), taking the risk that she might mate and give rise to the defoliation of Hastings.

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But, after a further two nights, now taking us into 27th July, still no male Gypsies to be seen.

Then….on the evening of 27th July, my daughter noticed something strange: a small brown mass just below the abdomen of our female Gypsy. An egg sac.

Now, at this point, I don’t know whether she’s had a male visitor in the night while we’ve all been sleeping. Or whether female Gypsy moths, who emerge already egg-laden, simply discharge their eggs anyway, fertilised or not.

So now we have a new dilemma – what to do with this mass of eggs, which carry the potential to perpetuate a beautiful species of moth, yet also to strip acres of trees…? Destroy them, just in case?

What would you do? Please feel free to reply in the Comments….

 

 

 

Tree soul

The other evening, my arms warmly wrapped around a young oak in a local woodland, I was enjoying fleeting thoughts about the symbiotic relationship between trees and people, reciprocal exchanges of oxygen and carbon dioxide, and the new-ish discoveries of how trees communicate and experience sensations…when a man passed by with his dog.

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The scene of the crime: where I was caught tree-hugging (pic taken the same evening)

“Oops, that was embarrassing, being caught tree-hugging!” I quipped.

“It’s OK – I get it,” the man replied briefly but reassuringly as he quickly carried on.

To be honest, I think many of us get it – the importance not only of our relationship with nature and the benefits of that relationship, but also of the realisation that we are part of (although also separate from) nature.

Wild rose

Even if we don’t all go around hugging trees as an expression of that unity.

Over the years I’ve received some heart-warming compliments for my (very) amateur nature photography on social media. One friend said, “Your pictures bring me joy.”

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Brown Argus

I guess I hope that in some way, my photos, such as the ones included here, are not simply pretty pictures – or even photos that inspire a love for nature. Although that would be enough. But also that they somehow convey something of my own – and your – relationship with nature.

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Iron Prominent moth on my hand

One thing that I’ve learned, through meditating on creation and its Creator (and reading Richard Rohr!), is that God is not only expressed in every thing, but, being Trinity (i.e. ‘Relationship’), God is somehow even more present in the loving, reciprocal relationships between those things, between us, and in those relationships that we have with the world around us.

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Small Tortoiseshell and mallow

Rohr puts it like this:

When we love something, we grant it soul, we see its soul, and we let its soul touch ours. We must love something deeply to know its soul (anima). Before the resonance of love, we are largely blind to the meaning, value, and power of ordinary things to “save” us and help us live in union with the source of all being. In fact, until we can appreciate and even delight in the soul of other things, even trees and animals, we probably haven’t discovered our own souls either. Soul knows soul through love, which is why it’s the great commandment (Matthew 22:36).

Hannah poppies

Now, to me, that sounds like a great reason to keep on tree-hugging.


(All photos mine. All taken recently except the one of my daughter with the poppies, taken in 2014. And all say something about reciprocal relationships.)

Mystic moths

Having recently purchased a moth trap (a kind of box with an ultra-violet light sitting atop, that’s left outside overnight), I’ve been rediscovering the delights of moth trapping that I enjoyed as a child.

Even more wonderful is seeing my 8-year-old daughter share my enthusiasm as we open the trap in the morning (usually at the weekend) and photograph the moths, before releasing them into the garden.

A few days ago, we had our best catch yet: two Elephant Hawks, our first Poplar Hawk, our first two Buff-tips, a Large Yellow Underwing, and a number of others.

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L-R: Elephant Hawk; Poplar Hawk

My excitement at discovering these incredible, colourful creatures in our urban back garden is matched only by my joy at seeing Hannah share that excitement.

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Elephant Hawk and Buff-tip (which disguises well as a stick)

It’s funny – we might think of wonder as something that’s experienced more acutely as children, when everything in the world is new. And that’s true. To an extent.

But wonder is also something that can grow in us, even as adults, through contemplation, meditation, prayer, gratitude, reading, and mindfulness, especially through spending time with nature.

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Three of the most exciting moths of that night were found all bunched together

My relationship with, and wonder at, nature grows and deepens as I go on observing, photographing, and learning about the world around me. Nature informs my faith; my faith informs my love of nature. The two are inextricably entwined in my mind and soul.

What a privilege to share that sense of wonder with the next generation.


(All photos taken by me, but not copyright – i.e. feel free to use them, with my blessing!)

 

 

Peppered Leopard

Many years ago I sold the moth light trap I had as a child, as I gave up all possessions to pursue an itinerary life free from the trappings of a society I wanted no part of. You can read more about this in my book, Coming Home for Good.

Now in my 50s, with my love of nature growing ever deeper and even more integral to the faith I discovered during that time on the road in my youth, it’s been wonderful not only to enjoy having a moth trap again but also to share the anticipation and thrill of opening it up in the morning with my 8-year-old daughter, who seems to be even more excited and fascinated than I am!

This morning, amongst quite a number of moths, we shared the wonder of two black-and-white beauties with rhyming names:

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Leopard

This Leopard moth, with its striking 6-spotted thorax.

And the equally attractive Peppered moth:

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Peppered moth

One other especially photo-worthy catch (but which unfortunately doesn’t rhyme with the other two) was this Buff Ermine:

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Antenna reflections: Buff Ermine

One of the great things about the moth trap is discovering all these nocturnal marvels that we would never otherwise realise were all around our urban home.

 


(All photos taken by me today, but not copyright – i.e. feel free to use them, with my blessing!)

May bugs and June moths

My birthday’s in October, so having purchased a moth light trap with birthday money last year, the trap is only now beginning to come into its own.

After a few dull brown moths and the occasional slightly more interesting specimen during the earlier months of the year, it was with some excitement that we finally had our first hawk moth this week, in mid-June.

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Elephant Hawk Moth

So I promptly enjoyed taking these pics before releasing it on to the honeysuckle at the bottom of our garden, where I hoped it might feed when dusk fell that evening.

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Face to face with Nature

Such incredible colours Nature has given to these creatures.

Elephant hawk 2

 

Elephant hawk

Keeping the Elephant Hawk and a few other moths company in the trap that morning was a Cockchafer.

Not unusual for a Maybug, as it’s also known, to be attracted to light, but it’s a handsome hunk of a beetle, with these striking, fan-like antennae…

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Eye-to-eye

and I have to admit I’m rather proud of these two head-on pics in particular.

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Give us a wave!

(All photos taken by me, but not copyright – i.e. feel free to use them, with my blessing!)

Owl Things Work Together

The other day, driving through Norman’s Bay along picturesque Pevensey Levels, stuck the whole way behind a car going at 25mph, I was getting increasingly frustrated.

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Infuriated!

I mean, I know the road’s a bit curvy, but come on!

But then…as I rounded a bend, there flying almost towards me was the first barn owl I’ve seen for I don’t know how many years – and probably the best view I’ve ever had of one.

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For obvious reasons, I wasn’t able to photograph the owl, so here instead are some slightly less interesting photos taken in the same area!

If I’d been driving at my usual speed, I would have reached that point in the road earlier and wouldn’t have seen the owl.

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A reminder to me from the One that “God causes all things to work together for good” as the Bible puts it (and no doubt similarly in other traditions), and if we will only go with the flow of situations that are challenging or even painful, rather than resist, we will see the good things that are designed to flow out of them.

But how gracious is the Divine that even if we do resist or fail to understand at the time, those good things will still flow.

 

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A reminder of the benefits of slowing down, whether by choice or enforced.

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Or as the Beatles put it, “Let it be.”

 

(Apologies for the terrible pun in the title, by the way!)

 

Into the peace of wild things

Today I took time out from the hustle and bustle and escaped – in the words of Wendell Berry – “into the peace of wild things”.

Lapwing

I walked, with dog and camera, in one of my favourite nature hotspots: Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, and the adjoining Winchelsea Beach. A thriving area for wildlife – with its unique shingly habitat and expansive pools of water, on the South-east coast of England.

Greylag geese

Unfortunately I didn’t have the luxury of being able to take a whole day out, just a couple of hours, but I do understand what naturalist John Muir meant when he wrote….

I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

For many of us, the busy world of work, internet and town can be like a daunting foreign country in which we are merely travellers, pilgrims, aliens, while nature is a home where we can retreat into the familiar comfort of eternal arms.

Love is in the air!

Muir, who had a profound sense of the divine shining through every natural thing, also wrote this…

Oystercatchers

The scenery of the ocean, however sublime in vast expanse, seems far less beautiful to us dry-shod animals than that of the land seen only in comparatively small patches; but when we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.”

Stonechat

Connecting ourselves and others with nature – even in small doses – nurtures appreciation of, and care for, the wider planet, the cosmos even, and (here’s the brilliant thing) helps us to see our fellow human beings as precious parts of that treasured universe.

Flock of lapwings

In fact one teacher, some 2000 years ago, frequently employed this method, encouraging his listeners to follow his example of meditating on nature (“Look at the birds…”, “Consider the lilies…”) in order to grasp deep in their hearts the value of themselves and those around them.

May we continue to follow in this way of wisdom.

Kestrel, keeping a beady eye on me!

(All photos taken by me today, but not copyright – i.e. feel free to use them, with my blessing!)

Hawks and Hummingbirds

The Hummingbird Hawkmoth (HH) has for centuries been an object of fascination, myth and wonder.

In my garden, Hastings, August 2018

So closely do they resemble the birds they’re named after, that it’s not uncommon for them to be mistaken for actual hummingbirds.

In my garden, Hastings, July 2014

Back in 2006 there were reports in our local paper of hummingbird sightings in Hastings gardens, to which I responded with the letter below:

The historical associations with the HH are quite wonderful too. The book I use as my authoritative moth identification guide even has an extra ‘Folklore’ section for the HH, which reads:

Apparently long considered a messenger of good tidings in Italy and Malta. A small swarm was reported flying over the water in the English Channel, headed to England from France on D-Day, 1944. One seen by the senior author on the day his daughter was born!”[1]

In Barmouth, Wales (where we holidayed this year), August 2019

Although superstition’s not my thing, I have to confess that, whenever I catch a sighting of one of these almost mythical beasts (which is only 2-3 times a year most years), not only am I enthralled (and quickly grab my camera), but it does feel like my “lucky day”! There’s a lasting, healthy buzz – like God’s smile.

In my garden, Hastings, July 2014

But why am I posting these thoughts on this summer visitor in November, as a kind of Throwback Thursday (on a damp Tuesday)?

Well, I was inspired by a delightful article on the Hummingbird Hawkmoth in this month’s Butterfly Conversation magazine, ‘Butterfly’, and thought I’d take the opportunity to post some photos of my own from this year and previous summers, with these brief comments.

In my garden, Hastings, July 2014

The article informs us that in the early 20th Century the HH was also wonderfully known as the ‘Merrylee-dance-a-pole’, and references a letter sent to WH Hudson, quoted in his The Book of a Naturalist:

We regarded it with mingled awe and joy, and followed its erratic and rapid flight with ecstasy….We thought it a being from another world….and I longed to be a Merrylee-dance-a-pole myself, to fly to unheard-of, undreamed-of beautiful flowery lands.”

In my garden, Hastings, July 2014

The Butterfly article ends perfectly with these words, which resonate profoundly with my own experience:

Ecstasy – that word again. To stand outside oneself for a moment, to glimpse the sublime and feel at one with nature. Some beings have that effect on our thoughts. The Hummingbird Hawk-moth is one of them.”

You rarely see Hummingbird Hawkmoths being still, but this one in my garden in 2014 settled on clothes on the washing line for some time!

(All photos mine, but not copyright – i.e. feel free to use them, with my blessing!)


[1] The Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland by Paul Waring and Martin Townsend (2003)

Peace Like a…River?

Does ‘Stillness’ exist?

Stillness is one of the elements of contemplative prayer, as described by the Desert Mothers and Fathers of the third Century, modern mystics such as Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton, and no doubt multitudes of other meditative writers[1].

When I retreat to the woods or fields to pray and relish the relinquishing of rush and endless requests, I stop and breathe in the relative Silence, the joyful relief of Solitude, and the restful sense of Stillness. Until…

I become aware of the sound of a flowing stream behind me.

Dolgoch Falls, Wales

The movements of nature all around.

The swaying of branches in the breeze.

A flitting wren. Or, if I’m lucky and in the right place, the vertical take-off of a skylark.

Skylark, Firle Beacon

And I start to wonder whether Stillness is actually a thing.

My awareness turns to my beating pulse. Signs of life flowing through my body. No stillness there (thank goodness!).

And, within all things, the crazy careering patterns of subatomic particles, which even quantum physicists are barely beginning to comprehend.

My thoughts then turn in the opposite direction, to the ever-expanding edges of the Universe.

And I realise that nothing, nothing, stands still.

And so I begin to understand why that ancient prophet, Isaiah, described the promise of ‘peace like a river’. Peace isn’t motionlessness, like a millpond. Peace flows.

Perhaps the peace or stillness we seek in contemplation and meditation is not always about a lack of movement, even of our wandering thoughts, but about accepting and even appreciating the rhythms of life in the relative stillness around and within us, and being prepared to go with that flow.

Maybe then, by carrying that acceptance within us, we will find renewed courage and strength to flow with the endless manic movements we face on return from contemplation to our busy worlds.

Dolgoch Falls, Wales

(All photos taken by me, but not copyright – feel free to use!)


[1] For further reading see, for example: Henri Nouwen’s Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers

Gardens of Gold

Although they’re now a thriving garden bird (6th most common in this year’s RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch survey), we’ve rarely seen goldfinches in our garden over the years.

So it was sheer delight, a couple of weeks ago, to see a flock of about twenty pass through. Here are a few of them on our neighbours’ tree against a sky that really was that colour (no filters)! A gorgeous sight, even if I was slightly disappointed they didn’t come to our feeders that day.

Thankfully, the very next day a number of them properly stopped by in our garden…

“Is it my turn yet?” (Goldfinch and coal tit)

After that, I did what any nature-lover would do: I went straight out and bought some nyjer seed, of course, in an attempt to keep them coming back.

Goldfinches, with coal tit in flight

The nyjer seed is now in situ in the garden and we’re having (still sporadic but) more frequent visits from these striking birds. There were two goldfinches at our feeders this morning. As I rushed to get my camera (too late, because they’re still not stopping long), my young daughter’s response was “Oh my gosh, they’re so pretty!”

Hopefully, as these flighty finches become more accustomed to our garden, there’ll be more and better photos to come.