I stood behind my husband in Minnesota, rubbing his shoulders while he sat at our desk, focused on the screen in front of him. He was transferring all my files from our desktop to the laptop I was to take with me to Virginia.
I watched branches sway in the breeze, laden with the heavy weight of broad sumac lives, fingers of blue spruce needles, or delicate walnut leaflets. Our kids and their neighbor friends, the ones they spent eight hours a day with outside, popping in for a popsicle or an apple snack before dashing out again, tromped through the yards, all in a line, singing and pumping their arms like they were in a parade. They reminded me of the lost boys in Peter Pan.
I rubbed my husband’s neck and began, quietly, to cry.
The keyboard clickety-clacked while he loaded programs onto the dinosaur laptop, then stopped when he heard me sniff.
“Are you crying?” he asked.
He reached up behind him and held my hands on his shoulders. “Because of the kids?” He watched them laugh and parade with the friends they would soon leave.
“Yes,” I said. “And because of the trees.” And the move. And the unknown.
“Why the trees?”
I pointed to the tallest tree on our lot – the one all the neighbors hated because it was tall and gangly and had been carved out in the middle of its crown to accommodate power lines.
“That’s a black walnut,” I said. “It is a host plant for the luna moth.” I wiped my eyes, thinking about yet another move. “I always wanted to have a walnut tree.”
The first time I saw a luna moth was nearly 20 years ago, before I married, before I had kids, when I was an ecology student in Athens, Georgia. It was night, and I had pulled into an empty bank parking lot to hit the ATM before going out for beers. I stepped out of my car, and as I slammed the door, something in the parking space next to me caught my eye. I looked down and there on the ground, two feet from my front driver’s side wheel, motionless with its wings spread flat, was a the largest moth I had ever seen. Luminescent green, it was more beautiful than butterflies. Had it crawled on my palm, its wings would have eclipsed my hand.
I forgot about the bank, forgot about the bar. I cared for nothing but this otherworldly creature on the pebbly black asphalt. The saucer-sized moth was the color of absinthe, and even with me standing over it, even after my feet crunched, and my ton of rubber and steel gravelled over pavement just inches from its body, it did not move. It lay there, basking in the light of a street lamp, as if in a trance. I had never seen anything like it. I stood there in that dingy parking lot, under the street light, in front of a brick bank, the most ordinary, paved over, non-natural setting, and experienced a sacred moment as I witnessed this gorgeous creature who had stopped time and space for me with its luminous glow.
Since that night, almost 20 years ago, I have hoped for the gift to see another. The only time I’ve seen one, besides in photographs on the internet or pinned in glass cases at a science museum, has been in a commercial for a sleep aid. Lunesta. I remember the first time I saw that ad, how offended I was that it had exploited such a special creature for the pedestrian purpose of peddling pills. It was like using God to sell toothpaste.
Ten years after that moth, when we bought a home in Florida, I wanted to cultivate a butterfly garden. I learned that you could attract local species by planting host plants for caterpillars (milkweed for monarchs, parsley for swallowtails, passionflower for frittilaries) and nectar flowers for butterflies (lantana, echinacea, goldenrod, plumbago). After successfully inviting multiple generations of monarchs and swallowtails, Gulf Frittilaries and zebra longwings, after watching the adults drink nectar, and their caterpillars munch leaves, and their chrysalises transform squishy larvae into winged butterflies between the slats of our wooden fence, I one day saw a tremendous, absinthe green caterpillar crawl across the our garden path. Its colossal size (larger than the largest swallowtail caterpillar I’d seen) and its luminous color (it seemed to glow even in daylight) immediately put me in mind of my magical moth, and I thrilled that it could possibly be a luna larva. I rushed in to fetch my camera and field guide, but when I reemerged and got down on my hands and knees in the mulch, trying to follow its trail, I could not find the caterpillar again.
Having seen my only luna moth in the foothills of the Appalachians, it never occurred to me that I might find one in Florida. I researched Actias luna to find the luna’s host plants: persimmon, sweetgum, hickory, walnut. All large specimens. None in our postage stamp yard in Tampa. I searched the neighborhood for these trees but never found them, nor did I find another luna larva.
When my husband accepted a three year postdoctoral position in Minnesota, and it was time to move away from Florida, I made a wish board of what I wanted in our new northern home: 3 bedrooms, a big kitchen, good schools, a yard for the kids, and a host plant for the luna moth. I forgot the board during our rushed two-day house-hunting trip. All we were looking for was a place we could afford in the school district that offered half-day kindergarten. A place we could spend three years and be comfortable. We moved in November, and one month later had our first snow. We didn’t see leaves or earth until the following May.
In September, after ten months in Minnesota, our kids clomped through the mud room one Saturday with their fingers stained black. “What on earth?” I asked.
“There are these things all over the yard – I think they’re coconuts!” our son said.
I walked outside with our daughter and him to find a pile of lime-sized green globes they had collected. Some had tiny fingernail gouges in them, some were chewed by squirrel teeth until a black pulp showed, some were inexpertly shredded by child fingers, and some were broken open like to show fibrous husks like… coconuts.
“Huh,” I said. “I don’t know what those are.”
A few days later I was kneading dough in the kitchen and I heard a THUNK. I looked up at the ceiling where it sounded like something had landed on the roof. I kneaded the bread some more. THUNK. I wiped my hands, THUNK, and walked to the big plate glass window that looked out on the yard. I saw one of the heavy green globes plummet to the ground, THUD, and my eyes traced its path up to a branch in a tree. There, a squirrel nibbled the thick husk of another one and sprayed flakes of the olive green skin from its mouth as it chewed.
I walked over to a neighbor’s house and asked, “What are these things?” I showed her an intact nut. It was heavy in my hand, like a stone.
“That’s a black walnut,” she said. “The kids love to try to tear them open. Be careful, though – the black stain is really hard to get out.”
I remembered the wish board I had forgotten and thought, holy shit, my magical thinking worked: we have a walnut tree.
After I realized we had a host plant on our property, after I realized my wishful intent had come to pass, I thought, “It’s meant to be! I will find another luna moth!” In spring and summer, I searched for luna caterpillars, but the crown of the tree was too high, and there were no climbing branches. I couldn’t see the leaves way up there in the sky. I could not see if luminous larvae ate them. I checked by the porch light at night for adults and walked outside in moonlight through the neighborhood.
Season after season went by, and in the three years that we lived in that house, I never saw a luna moth.
When we left Minnesota and I stood by the window with my husband, I was sad to leave the tree so soon. Sad that I never got a chance to see my moth. Sad to leave what was known. Again.
We moved into our Virginia townhouse in December. The trees were bare when we dragged furniture up stairs and decided which cupboard would hold the plates, which drawer would hold the silverware. After settling in, we sledded in the neighborhood in January, bicycled past pastures in July, gathered words in the horticulture gardens in August. I forgot about the luna moth. Had given up on it. Did not wish for a host plant when we relocated, not (consciously) out of disappointment, but because I had moved on. Because my mind was on practical things: transitioning our children, affordable housing, school districts. Soccer. Swim team. The daily grind.
Summer turned to fall in our new home, and with September came the first day of school. As we did last winter and last spring, the kids and I walked through the park in our neighborhood to wait at the bus stop. We shuffled our feet in the few golden oak crisps that had already fallen, and when the bus arrived, our children looked to the windows and saw friends they hadn’t seen in three months. Little hands stuck through open rectangles, waving. A face popped up with bright eyes and a mouthful of teeth and beckoned them onto the bus. Our kids grinned and said hi to their driver and climbed on the bus with more excitement than they were willing to admit on the first day of school.
I was relieved to see them happy, thrilled to know they had already made fast friends, proud that they had not only survived the transition, but were now thriving in their new, not-Florida, not-Minnesota home. I walked through the park that morning with my hands in my pockets, kicking crunchy leaves, at peace. I was grateful for where we landed. Thankful that our family could finally settle down in a town we loved, in a town we wouldn’t have to leave.
I watched leaves fly fluttering from the toe of my shoe, and then I stopped. There on the ground, next to the curving brick path, among the brown leaves, was a husk. A husk like the ones the squirrels threw from tree tops in Minnesota. The ones that thunked on our roof and littered our yard in September. A husk the size of a lime, but woody like a coconut. I scanned a wider area and spread among the crisp oak leaves, like peanut shells at a picnic, were hundreds of these husks. The earth was littered with black walnut hulls. The park was full of walnut trees. I walked deeper into the neighborhood and saw hickories and sweetgum. Looked out over the Appalachians and realized in our forever home, in the town we wouldn’t have to leave, we didn’t just have one tree, we had a whole forest. Ridges and valleys lush with host plants. An entire mountain range of habitat.
My heart jumped, and I smiled at the trees, and I thought, “It is meant to be.”