The Process of Moulting

“What moulting is to birds, the time when they change their feathers, that’s adversity or misfortune, hard times, for us human beings. One may remain in this period of moulting, one may also come out of it renewed.” — Vincent Van Gogh

I don’t know what Van Gogh was going through when he wrote this. He was a man who went through a lot in his life — problems of all sorts, mental and financial. What would he make of the fact that his painting are now on shoes, umbrellas, shower curtains? I can’t imagine. But when I saw this quotation, it struck me because it seemed so very apt for our moment. We are in a period of adversity or misfortune — we are in hard times that seem to be getting better, then get more tentative and precarious again. We are moulting.

What is moulting, anyway? That fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia, says, “In biology, moulting (British English), or molting (American English), also known as sloughing, shedding, or in many invertebrates, ecdysis, is the manner in which an animal routinely casts off a part of its body (often, but not always, an outer layer or covering), either at specific times of the year, or at specific points in its life cycle. Moulting can involve shedding the epidermis (skin), pelage (hair, feathers, fur, wool), or other external layer. In some groups, other body parts may be shed, for example, the entire exoskeleton in arthropods, including the wings in some insects.”

First, let me say that I really like the word “ecdysis.” When I am feeling particularly moulty and don’t want to socialize or see other people, I will say, “Sorry, I can’t, I’m going through ecdysis.” And everyone will look at me strangely, as though I have some unusual disease. But moulting is a natural process — which doesn’t mean it’s a particularly pleasant one. Animals that are moulting always look rather awful. If you’ve ever seen birds moulting, you’ll remember that they are scraggly, gangly things, with feathers sticking out everywhere.

Some birds moult slowly, a few feathers at a time, so they can still fly. Others, like ducks and geese, moult all at once. Their flight feathers fall off, and for about a month they can’t fly. They are earthbound and vulnerable. If you feel yourself moulting, one question to ask is, are you moulting gradually, or all at once? If it’s all at once, you’d better hide for a while, until your flight feathers come in.

Of course this is a metaphor. Even mammals moult, and you’ve probably see it — there are seasons when cats and dogs seem to shed all their hair. That’s moulting. Snakes shedding their skin is moulting, hermit crabs shedding their exoskeletons is moulting. Actually, hermit crabs eat their exoskeletons after they moult — probably for some important nutritional reason. Frogs also shed their skins and eat them. There are different reasons animals moult. It can be to let them grow larger. It can be to enable metamorphosis. Birds moult because wings get damaged over time. Where old, damaged wings are shed, new wings can grow. Moulting maintains the bird’s health and agility.

So moulting is a natural process, part of a cycle of growth and repair. And yet, metaphorical moulting — the kind we human beings go through — can be deeply painful. Imagine what it means: you lose part of yourself, a protective part, a part that used to define you, like your skin or shell, or that used to enable you, like your feathers. A part that used to keep you warm, like fur. A part of your identity, a sort of home. Van Gogh says adversity does that for us, although it’s not just hard times — it’s also the inevitable process of growing, which is also a process of loss.

My daughter will be going to college next year. She is moulting. I can tell she feels it — both the exciting possibility of something different, something new, a new identity or way of being, and the frightening certainly of change.

In a sense, we have all gone through a period of moulting in these last two years. It has been an enforced moulting, when we have not been able to fly. Chickens in commercial hatcheries are sometimes put through forced moulting. They are put on a strict diet, or their food is taken away altogether, for a period of days. This forces them to moult — they lose about 25% of their body weight and also their feathers. Afterward, they lay more eggs. This sounds like what we’ve all been through, doesn’t it? We had to survive on less then we were used to — not necessarily less food, but less of the nourishment we need as human beings. Less interaction, less human contact, less art and joy. We missed museums and schools and going to a café with friends. We missed the old confidence and freedom.

I guess the question is, what will we come out of it with? The hens that are forced to moult just lay more eggs for the farmers — that’s not a very encouraging metaphor. Wild ducks that moult are ready to fly hundreds of miles. I suppose how a metaphor applies to us always depends on ourselves. Van Gogh says we can come out of it renewed, and I certainly hope that’s the case.

As for me, I don’t know who I am yet, coming out of this experience. What does my new skin or shell look like? Do I have flight feathers? A new fur coat? I have no idea. All I know is that in life, we don’t have the option to stop changing and growing. Life, in its strangeness, its unpredictability, won’t let us.

(The image is Four Swifts with Landscape Sketches by Vincent Van Gogh.)

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4 Responses to The Process of Moulting

  1. I cannot help but think, in reverse about this so to speak, of Joan Didion’s words in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”: “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”

  2. Tina Tierson says:

    I don’t know if you follow Theodora Goss, but I like this piece. And maybe a new “M” word for your next Advent(ish) whenever that may be! ☺

  3. Dana W Wakefield says:

    A perfect metaphor for our current times. Thank you!

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