Loss comes in many forms. Sometimes loss is a sharp, sudden thing; sometimes it’s a slow, fading twilight, creeping in so slowly you don’t even notice when it gets there. This is a story about both those kinds of loss. It’s also a story about the naturalist son of an eccentric Englishman, about a Montreal businessman, about a mysterious little moth, and a homestead on the Canadian prairies that tied them all together.
Percy Criddle left England and came out to Canada in 1882 to start a new life. He settled on a piece of land west of Winnipeg, Manitoba with his wife Alice and children, and his mistress, Elise Vane, and her children (it’s complicated). They built a log house at first (replaced by a much bigger frame house several years later), barns, a tennis court, a golf course — all the things any farm needs. And he started raising a family that would help shape Canadian natural history in the 20th Century. The place they set up farming was called Aweme. It’s still called Aweme, even though there was never really anything else there except the Criddle-Vane homestead. It’s also one of the most famous insect collecting localities in Canada. Specimens from “Aweme” have found their way into the world’s great insect collections.
Norman Criddle was a boy when they came to Canada and he grew up on the homestead and spent his life outdoors. He was a naturalist in the old and honourable and generalist sense of the word. He wandered. He watched things. He wrote field notes. He sketched and painted. And he asked questions and collected data and studied the life around the homestead. By the time he was in his early 20s he was already a well-known naturalist, with connections and correspondents all over North America. The province of Manitoba hired him as an entomologist in 1912 and a couple of years later the family built him a lab on the farm so he could better do his research and host visiting entomologists.
In the summer of 1908, when he was still an amateur, Criddle collected three specimens of a moth that he couldn’t identify. The label says “Aweme” but in those days Criddle put “Aweme” on all the labels of specimens that he collected within several miles of the farm. So his specimens could have come from the pastures around the house, from little streams in the forests nearby, or from the big open sand dunes over at Spruce Woods, where glacial Lake Agassiz had left its footprint after all its water had drained away several thousand years before.
Criddle sent the moths to some collaborators and one of the specimens found its way to Henry Lyman, of Montreal. Lyman was also an amateur, but in very different circumstances than Criddle. Lyman’s family owned a very successful pharmaceutical business and that gave him the money and time to pursue his real passion — butterflies and moths. His collection was an impressive one, he was very well-known and active in the North American entomological community, and he had published many papers over the course of his long career as an amateur entomologist. He was a recognized expert on the noctuid moths, so he was the logical person to look at Criddle’s strange little moths.
The moths from Aweme caused Lyman some confusion at first, but he soon decided it was a new species, so he published a description of it in 1908 and called it Gortyna aweme. It’s now called Papaipema aweme, the Aweme Borer. The holotype specimen (that’s the single specimen, the “real entity” to which a species’ name is permanently attached) is deposited in the Lyman Entomological Museum here at McGill University. It’s in a small tray, in a tight wooden drawer, in a closed metal cabinet, just over my left shoulder here in my lab.
Norman Criddle collected three specimens of the Aweme Borer that summer of 1908. He never collected another. Between 1913 and 1936 three more specimens were collected, all around the Great Lakes: one near Grand Bend, Ontario on the shores of Lake Huron; one at Rochester, New York, south of Lake Ontario; and one on a boat near Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan. And then nobody collected another until 2005, when John Morton, a lepidopterist who lives on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, and has been collecting there for decades, collected a specimen on his own property. I can only imagine how he felt when he realized what he had.
Seven specimens. That’s all we have of the Aweme Borer.
It was listed as an Endangered Species by the Government of Canada in 2006.
Henry Lyman died in 1914. He and his wife were on their way to England for their honeymoon. As their ship, The Empress of Ireland, was steaming out the St. Lawrence River, it collided with the Storstad, a Norwegian coal ship, in the dark and fog. More than 1000 people drowned when the Empress sank, including the Lymans.
Norman Criddle died in Manitoba in 1933. He was buried in the little family cemetery at the farm in Aweme. His gravestone reads “Norman Criddle – Naturalist – 1875–1933”. Whenever I go to Aweme I stop by the cemetery to visit. It’s a quiet little shady place, nestled under trees.
I’ve also visited the big farm house many times on past trips to Aweme. We’d go through the empty door frames and wander through the empty rooms with the peeling wallpaper. I’d regale my students with stories of how important this place to Canadian entomology. They’d very kindly try not to look bored. In recent years, with its historical importance recognized, the Criddle-Vane house got a new lease on life as renovation work started, evicting the barn swallows and pigeons and fixing the place up.
A few weeks ago, somebody, probably a bored and ignorant group of kids from the area, burned the house to the ground. It’s gone now. All that history reduced to rubble in one night. Because people can be incredibly stupid.
But what about the moth? Norman and Henry’s dull little moth may have outlived them all. The Aweme Borer might still be hanging on out there somewhere on the sandy glacial beaches in the middle of the continent. We don’t know. We don’t know how it lives or how it dies, where it lays its eggs, what the caterpillars eat.
We know that all seven adults were collected in August. And we know that they were mostly collected in places that are either sandy dune-like habitats, or open oak prairies. Until John Morton collected his specimen in 2005, nobody had seen an Aweme Borer for more than 70 years. And, as far as we know, nobody has seen one since.
The Aweme Borer is not an iconic endangered species, but maybe it should be, if for no other reason than that its eventual loss might look exactly the same as the loss of so many other species — not a sharp, sudden thing that everybody notices, but that slow, fading twilight . . .