Has this been a good year for elephant hawkmoths (Deilephila elpenor)? I ask because I don’t come across them that often but last week I found two mature caterpillars of this species in the space of three days on opposite sides of the country. First I found this beauty crossing a footpath by Ennerdale Water in the Lake District, clearly off to find a good spot to settle down and pupate. Nellie, as she was christened by manageress Mandy, was the centre of attention at the Ennerdale Youth Hostel that evening until I liberated her again into the night garden. The second one was heading across a cyclepath away from a rosebay-rich verge at Ryhope on the Durham coast.
They get their name from the resemblance of the caterpillar to an elephant’s trunk. In my experience they fascinate most Brits, especially children; on the other hand my dear late wife, Sima, was always very leery of them. She was a Bidayuh, one of the Dayak tribes of Borneo, and where she grew up there was another species of hawkmoth with a very similar caterpillar. This was the silver-striped hawkmoth (Hippotion celerio) a rare vagrant in Britain, but abundant in the tropics where it feeds on various types of arum including keladi (Colocasia esculenta) – also known as taro or coco yam, and a common food crop. The Bidayuh too thought that the caterpillars resembled part of the mammalian anatomy (but not a trunk), especially when they retract their little heads the better to display their defensive ‘eyespots’. To the Bidayuh they were Ngaiap Worms, which I think is best translated as ‘sneaky-fuck’ worms. To me this indicates a robust sense of humour and an acknowledgement of the realities of human sexual behaviour. However it has to be said that for a people who expected sensitive young girls to help out with weeding the vegetable garden it was something of an own goal.
I wonder what our ancestors called elephant hawkmoth caterpillars in the days before anyone in Britain knew what an elephant was? I wouldn’t be surprised if it echoed the Bidayuh name. We used to be much more frank about sex and anatomy – full-on ribaldry was an inherent part of the currency of English literature from Chaucer to Fielding, but something happened in the late 18th century and we exchanged it for Jane Austen’s chilling depiction of the Regency marriage market – much more shocking in its descriptions of the cold calculations of the elders and ‘betters’, and their emotional manipulation of the young and naiive, no matter how elegant the language. Sexual organs disappeared from print, not to reappear until miner’s son DH Lawrence unearthed them again in the 1920s. Out of sight but not, of course, out of mind. They may have been unmentionable during the 19th century, but they were ever present in allusion – you can’t keep a good genital down, and prudery and hypocrisy ran rampant, as they still do. So we are left with a heritage of innuendo and double-entendre – dammit, it’s so fundamentally un-British we don’t even have a word for it in our own language!
Maybe we should reclaim our heritage by renaming some of our creatures. Fishermen are perhaps the one British tribe who have evaded the net of prissiness: some of their names for the slimier and fleshier things they trawl up from the seabed are very graphic and certainly not to be found in marine biology textbooks.
However we needn’t be that obvious – maybe we could take a leaf from the Bidayuh and start by rechristening Deilephila elpinor as the Ashley Madison Hawkmoth (nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say no more!)