On the morning of October 29, 2010, John Pickering felt just fine doing his usual pre-dawn calisthenics—a precarious business that involves standing on the arms of two wobbly deck chairs while taking photographs in the dark. Then he began to sweat. "At the hospital, I kept denying that I was having a heart attack, and refusing treatment," Pickering recalls. "Eventually my cardiologist had to leave his wife at dinner and read me the riot act. They put a stent in, and everything was fine." Pickering, better known as "Pick," spent four days in the hospital. "Then I had to learn to walk, and how to run, and how to be a maniac again."
Pick shared his near-death experience by way of explaining a four-day gap in a graph on his computer. The graph is an otherwise nearly flawless record of his years-long obsession with small flying insects. Pick, now 60, is a "moth-er," someone who spends long hours after midnight, often till dawn, even on holidays, counting, measuring, and photographing moths drawn to his porch lights. Birds, after all, have birders who go birding. It only follows that moths should have moth-ers who go mothing. The difference, at least according to Pick, is that moth-ers are "f—kin' awesome. The birders have nothing on us. We're hardcore."
Bridled beauty. Garden carpet. Scalloped oak. Willow beauty. These are some of names underlined by a child's hand in an original 1961 copy of Richard South's The Moths of the British Isles, which sits on the bookshelf in Pick's dining room. As a young boy in a small town near Manchester, England, he would blow his weekly allowance on natural history books. "This one was 26 shillings," he says, turning the filmy pages. "That was a fortune back then!"
Pick's exuberance still shines. He has a snickering laugh, a toothy smile, and a propensity for sandals and khaki shorts (occasionally with a hole in the seat). He drives a 1997 Jeep with 262,000 miles on it—top down and fast—and finishes most nights with a few pints of "half-and-half," or Guinness and Harp. He can tell a good story, too: how he got attacked by a crocodile during his early research career in Panama (the pictures are on his website), or the bike accident near his Athens home that left him with temporary amnesia. As for that little post-mothing heart attack four years ago, he chalks it up as just one more "interesting experience" in his life.
A Harvard-trained biologist and University of Georgia ecologist, Pick is the founder of discoverlife.org, a natural history portal that invites scientists, teachers, wildlife managers, and amateur naturalists to share photos and data about moths and other animals. By pooling their observations, they hope to identify and track environmental trends over time—how, for instance, climate change is affecting moth populations and even the insects' size.