The Song of the Hawk Moth

The nature of the state, there in the underbrush.

New Mexico never lets you forget where you are. In Albuquerque, where I live, there are sleeping volcanoes rising up at one end of town and, at the other, the grand Sandía Mountains jutting high above our tiny brown buildings. Sunsets can take hours here, during which time the entire city, one block after the next, is slowly painted a deep pink-gold as we slide into darkness. It’s a great place to be a songwriter, especially one inclined to sing about natural wonders.

One evening, just after we’d moved here from Chicago, my husband and I sat out in the back yard watching the wind dance through the jimsonweed flowers. Suddenly, I heard a rustling in the sage bushes and, on investigating, found under my flashlight’s beam what appeared to be a severed finger wriggling through the dark. On closer inspection, I saw that the “finger” had silver triangles along its flanks and what looked like a horn sprouting from its head. What we had discovered was the larva of a hawk moth beginning its grand struggle to pupate.

Hawk-moth larvae spend much of their childhood as caterpillars, supping happily on the underbrush. But when it’s time for them to transform into the gorgeous, pink-dusted creatures that fill our summer nights, these larvae must drop their legs and writhe their way down into the hard, dry earth to pupate. I had already broken a few shovels trying to dig in my desert yard, so I was awed to witness this tiny creature’s heroic efforts. Most of these larvae, I realized, must simply wriggle themselves to death, or become lunch for roadrunners, before a few of them manage to dig down into that hardpacked clay. And yet there are hawk moths everywhere here in the nights of July and August. It was this realization— that hardship and failure are natural parts of the secret workings of our desert world—that began my journey as a New Mexican songwriter.

How easy it is to sing of weeping willows and green valleys! How much harder—but far more necessary, I think—to sing of lizards, spiders, creosote, and jutting mesas. To outsiders, New Mexico can seem a vast emptiness; but to those of us who love this land, it is a place full of hardy life that has learned to thrive in seeming barrenness. A small wriggling in the leaves taught me how to begin to hear these strange creatures sing their beautiful songs. ✜