June 3, 2019
One of the Many Gifts from Gene Stratton-Porter

Aaron Moe of St. Mary’s College reflects on our recent Next Indiana Campfire trek at Spicer Lake Nature Preserve in St. Joseph County

I see poems, stories, and essays to be part of a gift economy in which re-gifting continues to enrich the gift.

Like an heirloom.

Each time we read, reflect, and then share, we allow that gift to continue to do the hard work of creating and sustaining culture and community. And though we know that the gifts Stratton-Porter left us with fill shelves upon shelves to share, I focus today on one page from Moths of the Limberlost.

If you read a reprint, you’re probably not going to see this image placed in this way. I know my copy includes this image, but not interjected into the text. Instead, it sits on its own page, offering no disruption to the reading process.

But I love how this first edition has the moth, latched to a twig, and then how Stratton-Porter makes room for the moth allowing her language to leap over this creature.

Both the moth and the language have a home on this page.

For much of my life, I have been fascinated by how animals infuse the cultural imagination, shaping it, sustaining it. From the indigenous name of North America (Turtle Island), to the hundreds of species crawling and buzzing and plashing their way through Dickinson’s poems, to, indeed, the ways in which birds and other winged creatures flock through the whole of the literary imagination—it all points toward how animals shape our psyches.

All of this, though, takes work.

In the opening page to Moths of the Limberlost, Stratton-Porter accomplishes this work as she provides us with a text/image symbol that epitomizes how animals (this moth) infuse the cultural imagination (the language and the book). I love how she is open to bending to the moth, giving it its prominent space over the written word.

And this is just the beginning of her gift.

It is extremely hard to read Moths of the Limberlost and not experience a new appreciation for these overlooked species, especially when Stratton-Porter speaks of the Robin Moth and her decades long journey toward photographing every stage of its lifecycle—a journey that ends in an epic experience of being swarmed by hundreds of them on an early summer night with her arms outstretched, welcoming each and every one.

Her mantra of “do no harm” pushed against the common practice of killing moths and birds in order to study them. Instead, she kept them alive. Her exquisite precision of language, her ability to tell the stories of her scientific pursuits in studying these creatures, and her patience and aptitude at photographing these live specimens in all of their color gives us readers a tremendous gift. Her words and art enter into our consciousness where they work to undo previous assumptions about a given creature (this moth is just a moth) in order to establish new bonds with a given creature (this moth inspires awe!)—bonds that can strengthen as we, like Stratton-Porter, enter into an attentiveness of nature that spans the weeks, years, and even decades.

On May 4th, a group of us had the wonderful experience of heading out into Spicer Lake, reading Stratton-Porter along the way. We read passages that foregrounded her attentiveness that spanned the seasons, years, and decades. We read passages that discussed her ethic of care. We read passages that helped us stretch toward the many life forms we encountered. From a green heron, to the calls of a few Sandhill Cranes, to water snakes, to multiple insects, to the trees, to spring wildflowers, and to the kettle-lake ecosystem—we did our best to stretch toward all that contributes to making this wetland thrive.

So often, literature gets taught in a classroom. I am grateful for the gift of being able to read and share Stratton-Porter’s words and photographs with the many people who came on this hike. As we shared, her words written over one hundred years ago continued to reverberate and resound. Her cultural work opened up space for Nature to nestle into our psyche, not unlike that moth nestled into her book’s opening paragraph.

Perhaps this goes without saying, but it’s gifts like this that we need as questions of the health of the biosphere—this Blue Planet, this shared home—become increasingly urgent. We need (now more than ever) to respect the dignity of nonhuman life through respecting the places where that life to flourishes. We need to carry out the vision set forth by Stratton-Porter’s opening paragraph.

Instead of displacing the moth, we must find alternatives. We need to bend. We need to change our trajectory not unlike Stratton-Porter changed the plodding trajectory of each sentence in that paragraph. Instead of writing right over the moth, each line makes a leap. We must find better ways to live with other species on this shared planet. This shared home. 

And understanding the implications of a shared paragraph is a great place to start. 

Aaron Moe is Assistant Professor of English and Environmental Studies at St. Mary’s College in South Bend.

Introductory Paragraph to <i>Moths of the Limberlost</i> (1912)
Introductory Paragraph to Moths of the Limberlost (1912)
Posted In: Next Indiana Campfires, Poetry

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