There were a couple of things I struggled to comprehend with this book (although an inelegant phrase like "get my head around" might be more apt). The first was the cover illustration by Petrina Hughes - one of many ravishing photographs in the book - where I found myself struggling to keep my head above the surface and stay afloat before I had even realised I had already been sucked in and was drowning in it. The second thing was the utterly and completely eye-watering, jaw-dropping idea (what? What? WHAT?!) that not only has Nature painted an eye on the wing of the giant silk moth, it has also painted in the reflected light of the moon! This idea struck me as being on the same level of what Colin Wilson calls "absurd good news" as NASA announcing it had received a definite and coherent signal from a distant galaxy. In English.
So, if you thought that pigs don't fly, now might be the time to reserve your judgement because the impossible has happened - snakes do, reptile heads do, rodents and cats do, and even claws do and they are all on the wings of the giant silk moth. As in Butterflies: Messages from Psyche, Philip Howse's hypothesis is that moths have evolved a way of mimicking their predators in order to deflect attack that we have hitherto failed to see because moth predators, unlike humans, see the details rather than the whole.
The stunning photographs in this dazzling book are sometimes dizzying. My own favourite is the shot of the drooping eyelids, mostly covering the eyes, complete with light reflecting on the lower lid, of the Indian Moon Moth mimicking a vertebrate's eye. So convincing is this photograph that you can almost see a shy young girl dropping her eyes and raising her fan to her face. In fact the perfect marriage of Philip Howse's words and Kirby Wolfe's photographs vividly calls to mind the celebrated union of Kenneth Graham's words and Arthur Rackham's illustrations in Wind in the Willows.
Although the book takes a microscopic view looking at the ecology, camouflage and behaviour of the ginat silk moth, it also takes a telescopic view and presents us with the history of these lovely creatures. There is something, somehow, very affecting, even epic, in the vision of them crossing and recrossing the Bering Land Bridge between Asia and North America in prehistoric times and in the idea that it can be argued that the Chinese language owes its origins to the necessity for recording instructions for the rearing of silk moths and silk extraction: "Sericulture found its way so thoroughly into Chinese culture that 230 of the 5,000 commonest characters in the Mandarin 'alphabet' have silk as their 'key'". Then there is the quoted description by Gavin Menzies of the sails of the Chinese fleet which apparently circumnavigated the globe before Magellan: "...great sails of red silk, light but immensely strong, like great clouds in the sky." How on earth cold we ever have thought that the moth was humble ?
This is a sumptuous feast of a book: a feast for the eyes, a feast for the mind, and something else which is quite rare - soul food. A book, indeed, to set before the Khan. None of which should be alllowed to distract the reader from the fact that the ideas here are bold and pioneering. Philip Howse, an award winning scientist, has dared to step outside the narrow confines of scientific method and look at things as an artist does, and althouhg his ideas necessarily remain hypothetical, as Darwin's do for Origin of the Species, the photographic evidence is compelling. Origin of the Species, of course, unleashed a tsunami of pessimism and a sense of futility, but with Philip Howse's work the tide has started to turn. The work is uplifting, life enhancing and once once again reminds the reader of Wordsworth's assurance in Tintern Abbey that there is "a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused" in Nature.
All we need now is for CERN not to find Higgs' Boson.
Heady stuff. And absolutely unmissable.