Part the Third, Wherein the Butterfly Disappears and I Ponder Life, Death, and Survival

A different sulphur, this one either a Pink Edged or Cloudy Sulphur, observed on the slopes of Gore Mountain NY Ski Area, in the fall.

A different sulphur, this one either a Pink Edged or Clouded Sulphur, observed on the slopes of Gore Mountain NY Ski Area, in the fall.

February 13, 2015 morning. Yesterday, after I looked up all the photographs of butterflies I’d taken in the last couple years–I had no idea I had so many!– I took more pictures of the Dainty Sulphur at the window, from different angles, and in the afternoon she moved down next to the air conditioner. By evening she was hanging at the floor trim. This morning—gone! can’t see the butterfly high or low. She might have been eaten by a spider.

There’s part of the situation where I don’t have responsibility—how far do you really chase a butterfly? It follows its instinct.

Even though one of my own instincts is a tendency to care-take (“Hey, I’ve got food here, places you can rest, even!”), I have to let the butterfly go where she will. In the same way I learned to let my teenaged children venture out into the world, and then release them completely (well, almost). I needed to let them go, for my own sake and theirs.

This butterfly, like my own children, like humans, has its schedule of daily life, and of life and death.

Dainty Sulphur sips from the edge of a spoon. She really is dainty, isn't she?

Dainty Sulphur sips from the edge of a spoon. She really is dainty, isn’t she?

February 13, later in the day. The butterfly fluttered in the kitchen; it had been over by the stove. I made more honey water but I don’t think it’s interested or has to find it on its own. I’d almost been relieved it had been “lost,” that I had no longer felt the pull of keeping track of it.

February 14, 2015.  The butterfly is living its life cycle. I don’t have to save it like some protective “master” who has more power and more intelligence. How about we live our life cycles next to each other, not intending harm, but not fretting unnecessarily about it, like I do about most animals, and most people? To do the kind thing when I can, but not to wear myself away figuring out how to save or fix the situation? What is there to fix, anyway?

Before, I said that here in my apartment and in winter, “it won’t survive.” What does that mean? Of course it will survive—it is a alive, it continues to be alive. But life is not just survival, it is living in and through the moments. We are all NOT going to survive in the end. We all die.

How long would it live in a normal life cycle? Two weeks to a month, the internet tells me.

Another butterfly, this one from summer at Partridge Run: Fritillary.

Another butterfly, this one from summer at Partridge Run: Tiger Swallowtail.

The definition of survive: “continue to live or exist, especially in spite of danger or hardship.” Isn’t living always a bit of an ordeal, under difficult circumstances? Is this life here in my apartment a hardship for her? Maybe, but danger is everywhere for butterflies: frogs, birds, getting trapped, getting smushed, parasites. Survival means getting through some situation—but both of us are not only getting through, but living in, our respective life situations.

I see me looking out the kitchen window, as the butterfly hangs on the glass today looking out as well into deep deep winter. Both drawn to what we are drawn to. I am not doing harm to it, not wanting it out of my life so I don’t have an obligation to it. Yes, I talk to the butterfly, Oh you don’t have to run so madly against the glass! but that is a message for me as well. I don’t have to fight against difficult circumstances, either.

If the tiny butterfly were sentient in the human way, perhaps she would wish things weren’t such a struggle for me, and even wish it could do something for me. As she hangs, rests, it reminds me of my meditation, in which I don’t have to get someplace, I can merely BE. On my yoga mat, feeling what I feel, thoughts wild or calm doesn’t matter, I note them and let them pass; I breathe. Perhaps she is just BE-ing, respiring.

A fritillary of some sort, also at Gore Mountain in the fall.

A fritillary of some sort, also at Gore Mountain in the fall.

We humans like to read meaning into things. For example, I was reading the All Over Albany blog, came across a link to a local writer, Amy Biancolli, and her blog, Figuring Shit Out, went to the blog, read some of it, ordered two of her memoirs from the library and then on a drive across town, happened to hear the beginning of her storytelling on The Moth Radio Hour. Ok, so I am meant to connect somehow with her or her writing. Or maybe she’s just out there, and I’m out there, and we intersect, like this butterfly who just happened to show up in my apartment, and I am learning things from the experience.

I fell in the love with the prologue to Amy’s first memoir, House of Holy Fools, where she writes about Death in her family as “an unwanted guest, oily and shrewd, with a stalker’s bad personal hygiene and pants that gave him a wedgie…”

I am thinking about the feeling of being stalked by death, what survival means, the role of death in our modern lives versus other eras (the 1918 flu epidemic, tuberculosis, recurrences of the plague through history). How unnatural death can seem, and yet it comes to everyone.

So here’s this butterfly to remind me: stop trying so hard; stop banging around. Just BE. It is valuable to JUST BE.

Back at the Chicago Botanic Garden, swans with babies, be-ing.

Back at the Chicago Botanic Garden, swans–symbols of fluidity, intuition, and dreaming–with cygnets, be-ing.

Part the Second: Wherein the Butterfly Drinks, And I Consider the Bugs in My Living Space

Dainty Sulphur, drinking!

Dainty Sulphur, drinking!

I’m still talking to a butterfly, in my kitchen.

February 12, 2015, later that day. Since she would not come to the tiny plastic feeder that I put out, this afternoon I spilled some of the honey water right next to her, onto the top of the air conditioner. She actually came and drank! It was fascinating to watch: antennae started waving once her tarsi (feet)—through which butterflies can “taste”—hit the liquid; her proboscis unfurled, so long it went under her belly, but into the fluid; and then she stepped away and curled the proboscis up again.

See the C-shaped, rolled up proboscis?

See the backwards C-shaped, rolled up proboscis in front of the green compound eye? The feathery looking bits above that are the “palps” which sense what is food and not-food.

Thinking about her survival, I flit between hard-edged City Woman and warm Earth Mother. Well, anyway, I say, there’s your honey water for a couple days. Don’t get stuck in it. Now she’s looking all satisfied, her previously flopped down abdomen—which is the hind end, with the center part actually called the thorax—bent up high.

Am I stupid to put out this sugary fluid for food? Aside from getting stuck in it, her wings might get wet! I blow gently; no, she can pull them up just fine. Nothing like a snack, I think. I could use one myself.

I am playing with anthropomorphism again, I realize, but am really, really clear I know I’m doing it.

****

The Dainty Sulphur is a small crushable creature, one of trillions.

I’ve stepped on, swatted and flattened probably hundreds of bugs its size and much larger: horrifying palmetto bugs and leaping hairy spiders in the Florida of my childhood, and hordes of German roaches in multiple student apartments. Even mice and rats were caught and drowned when they overran other living spaces. My mother always said to invading creatures as she squashed or sprayed them: You can live outside, but I can’t let you stay here. This is MY space.

I don’t mind sharing, but not with things that bite or sting me, or spread disease. I’m really allergic to dust spider bites and mosquitos, but understand that larger spiders and thousand-leggers eat such critters, so yes there is a hierarchy of acceptable and unacceptable bugs in my living space. I can whisk unwanted ones—bees, wasps—out the window but if they don’t go I can become insistent, and murderous—depending on how you define murder.

Luckily butterflies don’t hurt humans, though we can hurt them.

Chicago Botanic Garden.

Late summer Chicago Botanic Garden.

Carolus Linnaeus was the Swedish physician who established “binomial nomenclature,” the multitiered system of scientifically naming plants and animals. I recall the huge bronze statue (which, when my children were small, you could still belly up to and touch) of a kneeling Linnaeus at the Chicago Botanic Garden.  Up close, Linnaeus’ roughly hewn figure was formed of creatures and plants alighted on him, under him, wrapping him; with the collecting bag on his hip and eyes open and curious, his eager hand reached out to touch and identify still more on the ground.

Dainty Sulphur Butterflies, in Linnaeus’ classification are truly Insecta, and moving more specifically down the entomological nomenclature, fall into Lepidoptera (moths & butterflies) and Papilionoidea (non-skipper butterflies; do you see the French word for butterfly “Papillon”?), Pieridae (whites, yellows, sulphurs), Nathalis (sulphurs) and her full name: Nathalis iole.

Like a softie, I’ll leave the sweet water there for a while, probably wipe it up and then put out fresh, for this particular Nathalis iole. (Boy I hope I’m right that it’s a Dainty Sulphur! I would hate to find out I am All-Wrong scientifically.)

I cannot guarantee this butterfly’s survival or quality of life. However, I don’t have to squash this insect either, “put it out of its misery.” She does not harm me, and in fact is a little company, on a cold cold day.

Because bitter wind chills, twenty and thirty below, cause me to hunker down inside, both of us are stuck in my apartment for now. And I am getting to know this creature better.

Sure is snowy and blowy out there, isn't it?

Sure is snowy and blowy out there, isn’t it?

To be continued.

A taste of full summer with fountains: Brazilian vervain (verbena), which butterflies come to visit.

Remember summer? Fountains with Brazilian vervain (verbena), which butterflies come to visit (Chicago Botanic Garden).

Part the First: Wherein the Butterfly Arrives

My unexpected visitor.

My unexpected visitor.

February 11, 2015.  I’m talking to a butterfly, in my kitchen.

At first I thought it was a moth. My internet research indicates it’s a butterfly, and might be something called a Dainty Sulphur. I have no idea how it materialized in an upstate New York brownstone in the middle of winter.

Could it have been hiding in my apartment and if so, where was its chrysalis? Could it have traveled from another part of the country, the pupa attached to the dried moss of my December birthday amaryllis? Or did I carry it in with my bags of produce from the Niskayuna Coop?—after all, bananas, grapefruit and even paper bags come from far away.

Further investigating Dainty Sulphurs, I find its arrival proves somewhat unusual—they are not native and don’t overwinter here or fly in every year like an immigrant species; in fact, they are considered a vagrant species, one that only rarely comes up from the south.

It seems to be a summer phenotype, too, because of the yellow hindwings. In a winter individual, the hindwing would be greenish-gray, with additional black patches to absorb solar heat.

Sun-seeking.

Sun-seeking.

If I were to anthropomorphize—which as a scientific person I tend to avoid—right now it looks like the perhaps-summer butterfly is perched staring out the window, yearning for the sun, a whole-insect-body aching for outside, to move and flutter and find nectar and other butterflies.

When I go to bed, the butterfly is still there.

February 12, 2015. I know if I let it outside, it would freeze. I know inside, it will not survive, though how long does a butterfly live anyway? However, it certainly won’t mate, and I don’t quite know if and what it needs to eat and drink.

My sentimental heart, in spite of my lack of knowledge about butterflies, caused me yesterday to put out a little water-honey mixture, like you would for hummingbirds. This morning she—further research indicated it’s definitely a Dainty Sulphur but probably a female because she doesn’t have the reddish-orange hindwing scent patch of a male—this morning she was still resting, midlegs and hindlegs on my peeling paint window ledge, forelegs on the icy glass, peering out with her compound eyes.

Do butterflies sleep? She’s in the same position, and hasn’t touched the honey-water I dripped onto a tiny flipped-over plastic cup. (I thought it was a perfect shape, like a birdbath with an edge to rest on.)

Inside, looking out.

Inside, looking out.

Her position looks like: Mom, Mom, I want to go out and play! Like my kids used to sit on the back of the couch, heads in palms and feet warm on the radiator, looking out into the snowy exterior, thinking of all the adventures to be had later in the day, once breakfast was done and snowsuits were put on.

But this butterfly has no snowsuit and I have none to offer it. If nothing else, I will at least accompany this creature as we both look out the window, into the deep snow, into the near future. I don’t want to be a well-meaning idiot, like those who “rescue” baby birds from perfectly fine nesting areas when they have ventured a ways from their nest. So I’ve gone online and further studied forms and colors, behavior, size (yes at 22 mm she is a Dainty), and learned that the honey-water is perfectly acceptable food.

Mostly I marvel once again at the variety of things I have not seen, or did not look for, that I am discovering now, thanks to my Dainty Sulphur.

To be continued.

(Many thanks to my favorite insect information and identification website, Bug Guide.net, and in addition, the North American Butterfly Association website. I invite comments, especially from lepidopterists!)

Essay Tangles and Snarls

How I felt, essays all gnarled and ugly, on my way into the retreat.

Feeling defeated, essays all gnarled and ugly, on my way into the retreat.

Even with a short piece of writing, sometimes the initial story gets entwined in another.

The second small bit knots up with a third, maybe even a fourth and fifth, and all of a sudden you the author face thousands of words when you were only looking for a couple hundred. All the threads of connection seem intrinsically linked. Where can you slice so you aren’t left with a chopped up pile of confusion?

On top of it, the perfectionist editor-in-your-head won’t let go: The relationships between these things are amazing! amazing I tell you! She can’t allow the piece be simple and stand on its own.

That’s what happened to a blog-bound essay, then several essays, I planned to finish in October.
November.
December.

I did lots of other writing, for small groups and for the radio. I prepared to curate an evening of local memoir readings. I applied to artist residencies and photo exhibits.

Cut to the last weekend of January. I held one of my quarterly Move with Mindfulness/Write with Ease workshops. In the cozy retreat house, I led yoga and stretches for the writers and sun-on-snow hikes up the hill onto white pine lined trails. I cooked Mexican black bean soup and sweet rhubarb and blueberry coffeecakes.

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Mexican Black Bean soup savory with cumin, multi-colored carrots,  cheese curds and fresh cilantro.

No internet or TV, no voice phone service, and only minimal housekeeping interrupted us; instead, session followed session, where everyone was writing, including me.

The themes of the weekend were phrases we use often on the yoga mat:
Be grounded. Relax what you can. Be curious.

They apply equally well to writing.

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On the mats, in the welcoming morning warmth.

After one hike, I knocked the snow off my boots, made a cup of hot tea, and turned on my laptop. For months I’d averted my eyes, stomach aching, when confronted by the working titles on my computer screen. This time I clicked on the documents one by one to open them all together and finally faced down the matted tangle of five to eight potential blog posts.

I got mad when I saw how close I’d been to finished on several of them.
I got sad at how seasonal the topics “could have been.”
Then I got determined.

Over and over I learn the same lessons. That’s part of why I teach them.
Be grounded. Relax what you can. Be curious.

See the pretty things hidden in the tangles?

See the pretty thing hidden in the tangles?

I can’t yank apart the knots between them, I thought; that will break the teeth of the comb, and accomplish the same thing as sharp scissors snipping haphazardly (remember to be grounded). How were the strands initially woven together? My previous efforts deserve gentleness (relax what you can) and not being in a hurry (be curious).

What do you do to a mental or writing knot?

Same as the visualization in yoga: straighten out, unwind, free, loosen, unclasp, release. Breathe!

Deep sigh after deep sigh followed, with shouts of “D’uh!” (often, embarrassingly, out loud) as I realized places to tease out a conceptual filament and drop it separate. The connections didn’t have to be quite so tight as first imagined; pictured it in medical terms, the conjoining was at the toe, not the chest, and therefore my surgical intervention was simpler, with fewer complications.

Still struggling, I asked: What do you do with a physical knot of tightness in massage therapy? Breathe into the pain, stay with it and it will lessen. Your body (and your writing) will be happy you are paying attention. Be grounded. Relax what you can. Be curious.

I did that with my essay snarls. Over and over again. What a relief.

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Thump! Bump-bump! Pine cone rides the wind over snowy ground. Can I fly free, like that?

I’m not finished. But during the next few months, thanks to that weekend of attention to body and attention to writing, I look forward to posting some completely out-of-season, close (if not finished), relatively unsnarled meditations.

The sun setting on my work, at Still Point Retreat Center.

The sun setting on my work, sparkling its light everywhere, at Still Point Retreat Center.

A radio essay, as your holiday gift

Christmas lights in New York City, 2014

Christmas lights in New York City, 2014

Here’s part of why I have been otherwise-occupied the last month or so: one of several essays I’ve written for public radio.

The link is not direct, and as time goes on you will have to search through a couple layers on the website, but for your listening pleasure:

Go to http://wamc.org .  Search for Programs: The Roundtable, December 22, 2014 Listener Essay (11:35 am) and look for Diane Kavanaugh-Black, “God Rest Ye Merry, Elmo Doll.”

The A-plus student sighs in relief, that the only recording error was not her own; but it would have been fine if she had made mistakes, too.

Peace, stillness, and plenty of sparkling lights to you all.

Holdfasts

Outside my kitchen window.

Outside my kitchen window.

It is September and the Boston Ivy has signaled autumn.

Stems went red in mid-August; now the big green dots of berries that popped out over the summer are deepening to blue. Shiny leaf umbrellas shade this transformation until breezes quiver the ivy and pull it away from the brick, revealing the ripe fruit.

Berries become obvious in the fall.

The part of the ivy that I ponder more deeply belongs to spring.

The building kitty-corner to my kitchen window.

The building kitty-corner to my kitchen window.

For five years—five springs—I have meditated on a brick partition perpendicular to my kitchen window, along with the wall around my window and the next building over.

In March they are all covered with what looks like dried up vines.

First sign of growth.

First sign of growth–see it?

In April, from those ramblers, brown-horned growths issue, then beginnings of leaves, cherry and lime colored. Under the new foliage, tendrils creep that extend the plant’s reach; at the ends of those tendrils are what I can only see as little alien pod-feet.

Leaves and...

Leaves and…what are those?

Squishy wet, secreting calcium carbonate as an adhesive, they venture forward to attach the ivy to the brick, suction cupping step by step to climb the buildings and cover them with more and more leaves.

These sticky pads are called holdfasts.

Onto the mortar--

Onto the mortar–holdfasts.

Eentsy-weentsy gummed cushions, the only support for pounds and pounds and pounds of greenery.

Holdfasts.

The wind whips the moist leaves, pulls at the vines, and the holdfasts? They hold.

Walls of ivy

Walls of ivy

Every year, Nature’s prompt: What are the holdfasts in my life?

What are the things that, once I’ve ventured forth, clasp me firm and fast to my true self, keep me from blowing away?

—That don’t seem that strong but really are.

—That form even as I merely think about moving.

—That prepare in advance for the eventual step, wherever it takes me, whichever surface and direction.

—That understand (whether I am willing to acknowledge it or not) there will always be a next step.

hold on!

Wrapped around the old vine, growing new vine.

Whatever those holdfasts are, I need to identify and guard them, because they keep me stable and safe, and are absolutely necessary for growth and expansion, no matter how insignificant or odd they look to the rest of the world.

**

A visitor to the ivy.

A visitor to the ivy.

As summer marches in, bigger leaves follow the small ones, which expand to cover increasing territory; then those green berries appear while I am out in the mountains and going lake swimming and kayaking; next a smell of fall blows before I think it is due–while the petioles blush and glow from the bottom of each leaf to its base–which is right now, here in September. When I start to need a jacket for bike rides, the leaves turn red and brown and yellow-white, like Neapolitan ice cream, sometimes all on the same leaf.

Fall ivy.

Fall ivy.

Finally groups of birds arrive, luckily often on days I am home to watch. They fly at the walls, flapping crazy wings, picking at the berries. Like a scene out of Hitchcock’s The Birds, they attack over and over again, determinedly seeking purple-blue morsels and knocking the already loosened French vanilla, strawberry and chocolate leaves down to the yard below. As that group moves on, some berries are left, to be picked off by the next day’s migrating flock.

The holdfasts darken but remain. Empty brick walls are looped once again only with vines, where small clumps of snow find a precarious perch in January and February. Then the light changes again and signals the slow reaching out of buds and tendrils—and fresh holdfasts to join the others.

Winter light on old vines.

Winter light on old vines.

 

The Day of Slow-Moving Bees

Morning bee warming up at Partridge Run.

Uncoordinated morning bee at Partridge Run.

The morning of August 15 was cooler in the Helderbergs than it had been in months, only in the mid-50s by 10 a.m.

Bees at Newt Pond clung to the goldenrod, languid movie stars on incandescent chaise lounges. After the drama of previous weeks’ nectar gathering and pollen dispersing, they barely crawled around: aware they had scenes to perform, but disinclined to rise just yet.

It was The Day of Slow-Moving Bees.

Slow-moving bee.

Slow-moving, and decidedly fuzzy.

***

Queen Anne's lace, not yet open.

Queen Anne’s lace, not yet open.

A beaten down path through thigh-high wild bergamot and Queen Anne’s Lace led us to the dock on Tubbs Pond. My hiking partner and I were slow-moving bees ourselves, as we drove from pond to pond instead of walking, only gradually warming our muscles. The yellowing of trees across the water became obvious as we sat with tuna sandwiches, garden tomatoes, and a huge tub of cut up watermelon to energize for a trek into the woods.

Reflections of red at Fawn Pond.

Reflections of red at Fawn Pond, before lunch.

***

It is of course the season to gorge on watermelon and tomatoes—and blueberries and corn on the cob and peaches, until we are sick of them and welcome apples and squash and cabbage.

Full summer now slides into September. The angle of sunlight is shifting again. On some days, like this one, air blows up cool from the ground while our scalps still bead with sweat.

Cherry tomato from my garden, amongst late season yellow and green beans.

Cherry tomato from my garden, amongst late season yellow and green beans.

***
By afternoon, the bees had thrown off their weariness and the back leg pollen baskets plumped like egg yolks. They zipped around like heavily caffeinated actors, investigated each flower briskly and flew off faster than I could focus my camera.

The dull gold behind the bee is pollen on in its "baskets."

The dull gold behind this momentarily still bee is pollen on in its “baskets.”

As we hiked after lunch, we gathered our own nectar for winter, visions and experiences.

Thus that Friday also became known as The Day of Glorious Pink Joe-Pye-Weed and Glowing Blue Chicory.

Boneset, in the same family as Joe Pye Weed-- Eupatorium

Boneset, in the same family as Joe Pye Weed– Eupatorium

The Day of Burdock Opening Its Deep Purple Thistles.

And wild oregano flowering.

And wild oregano flowering.

The Day of Orange Slugs on Moss.

And on dirt, too.

On dirt, too.

The Day of White, Violet, Black, Brown, Orange, Yellow and Turquoise Fungus.

Yes, turquoise.

Yes, turquoise.

And The Day of Finding Variously Colored Aspen Leaves Every Few Feet.

Variously colored, yes.

Variously colored, all on one leaf.

Unexpected variations, at that.

Unexpected variations, at that.

***

Back in April, I mourned the coming of summer, the loss of bug-free walks and crunch of snow.

Here in August, I mourn the coming of jackets and long underwear, the loss of flowers and bees and green-green lushness.

However, the new season’s gifts will reveal themselves: leaves that burn then drop, an opening of the view when trees have slimmed to only trunks and limbs, crinkles of frost on chilly mornings.

Eventually I’ll mourn the fall passing, then the winter, and next spring.

Gray skies alternated with bright blue that August day.

Gray skies alternated with bright blue that August day: coming to the end of the best summer ever for chicory and purple clover and Queen Anne’s Lace.

***

For now, the theatrical bees know their lines, how the plot develops—this is the falling action. Autumn approaches. Steady drumbeats toward the denouement. No wonder the aspen leaves, the changed light, the final frenzied putting up of nectar.

Flowering before dying.

Here I am! Hurry up! the flowers call to the bees.