Part the Fourth, Wherein the Butterfly Disappears Once Again, and I Think About “Otherness”

Butterfly drinking, head-on.

Butterfly drinking, head-on. Proboscis in sweet water, legs hanging on.

February 15, 2015. Last night the butterfly drank from the spoon of honey-water, then went to the window corner, and when I nudged gently to make sure her wings weren’t stuck, she flew behind the radiator and I haven’t seen her since.

I just took a flashlight and looked into all the dusty nooks and crannies of the peeled-paint housing. No sign of a body, or active cobwebs. She could have flown anywhere, then. She’s not on the wall, not between the wall and radiator, not on the floor. Just scraps of a dead ant, a binder clip that fell down there, a slip of paper, and a dried up pea from last summer’s garden (oh my).

The original peas with pasta, summer 2014.

The original peas with pasta, summer 2014.

February 16, 2015. In my kitchen, I’m talking to a butterfly who isn’t there.

The sun is bright, even though it’s mid-February. I haven’t seen my butterfly friend since the other day when she fluttered down to behind the radiator. But when I swept and (I will admit) got my flashlight out to see if she was down among the ancient dust puffs I can’t reach and I saw no sign of her, I was relieved I hadn’t accidentally set her into the path of spiders or too-hot surfaces. I invite her out: the sun really is beautifully warm this morning, come see! but I also know the wind is bitterly cold and comes through my 1920s windows. Other spaces might be more temperate for a butterfly who found herself in the wrong climate, at the wrong time.

The other night she fluttered up high to where my vases are stored over the sink; I realized the next day when I found her down on the side of the sink, resting on a half-window screen (stored there for when I over-toast my bagels and have to open windows to keep the smoke alarm quiet) that she went up high because the overhead light at night is like the sun, the sun she was seeking hard against the glass during the day. So that night I turned off the light, so she wouldn’t fight and fight and beat herself against it.

I put the overhead light on for a few hours after I lost her but she didn’t come out. I could imagine she is dead, worn out, captured by spiders; or off on an adventure I can’t see, in the corners of my kitchen. Dainty sulphurs live about a month or less I have read, and her color wasn’t the brilliant green of a just-hatched butterfly; she may have been middle aged like me when we first met. Humans are storytellers; humans look for meaning and relationship, even if it is a stretch. Particularly when it’s pleasant company.

I like being a human.

My refrigerator hums behind the tick of my battery operated bird clock and the backing-up sounds of plows and Caterpillar backhoes moving snow. As I listen, I understand we travel in and out of others’ lives, even insect and animal and strangers’ lives. I think of prisoners making friends with roaches and mice.

I have discovered in my photography that fleeting creatures, the iridescent green or bright yellow that flits by—when you study up-close, can appear grotesque, nightmarish, all maw and pincers and huge bulbous eyes. We must look odd and out of perspective to other creatures, if they perceive at all like us.

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September (paper wasp I believe) in the greenhouse at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

Appearance is also how we can make those who don’t look like us “the other,” and justify killing them off.

During my time in the peace community it was hammered into us (non-violently of course, we’d joke) that our mission was to make it not Us Versus Them, but rather All of Us Together. Even if our goals and lives and cultures are different.

I think about how the traditional Jains, in their absolute belief in ahimsa (non-violence) cover their mouths with fabric so as not to harm even a microscopic bug. Though in our present incarnation, we are too big, I believe, just too large in a world of very small, to avoid crushing and inadvertently destroying. The microbes and viruses that hurt and kill us might say (if they had sentience and could communicate) that they are just too damned small to keep from harming us.

I was brought up to see both sides, to such an extent it often paralyzed me; in addition, my own needs and experience were often left out. Not a formula for a life where I could stride forward and make my mistakes and own them. (Working on it!)

Sometimes someone passes through your life and you experience each other and then the moment is gone. I have had that on a train; people hand me a piece of wisdom from their lives, we smile at each and then they are gone. Like my dainty sulphur.

To be continued.

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If I hadn’t looked out the train window at that very moment, I would have missed this adventurer, flying boldly in the fall sky.

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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!)

Surprises on the Path

One of many ponds at Partridge Run, E. Berne NY

One of many ponds at Partridge Run, E. Berne NY

It was small, strikingly bright in the winter sun, and rested on dried yellow grass not far from the pond. A rectangle of the softest gray and white fur shimmered in the January-thaw wind. Belly up. All four pinkish paws poked out of its luxurious coat and curled up off the ground.

And where the head should be, a tiny red triangle of exposed throat. And, well, smooth connective tissue of the neck, and a glistening, smaller than I anticipated, slightly flat brain. No face, no black bead eyes, no whiskered nose.

Whoever slashed the little vole had sharp, surgical tools. It was a quick move, irreversible, with no real struggle. Talons, we figured. An owl, red-tailed hawk, or raven. Interrupted at lunch-time, by us.

I didn’t want to take a picture of it.

On past hikes, we’d followed rabbit tracks out of the cover of woods, where scuffle-marks in the open snow were then followed on the cliff path by isolated splats of bright blood—the creature lifted high, bleeding in the grasp of a raptor. We’d also witnessed evidence of more obvious fights on a path from the winter meadow into the woods: a swath of fluff and blood and bits of intestine. Then drag marks.

Remains of a paper birch.

Remains, of a paper birch.

I never used my camera or mentioned these incidents in my writing. It seemed macabre, somehow. Or just that I didn’t want to make it more or less than it was; perhaps I’d feel the need to editorialize and thereby risk trivializing, just because I’d captured the image. So I didn’t.

But what we came upon this day was so anatomically precise, clear, not savage or frightening. It was open, like the vole’s throat. It was clean, but not scarily. At least, I didn’t think so. I wasn’t sure.

I could always delete the photos later.

I was drawn by the elegant structures exposed. Touched by the fragile exposed. Aware of the anthropomorphic draw to fuzzy creatures, the Oh no! factor where we prefer the cute and baby-like to the musky terrifying bigger-than-us, say bears or bobcats. But I didn’t experience that, either.

I took three pictures. Click, one angle. Move, another angle, click. The macro lens allowed an even closer view, the final click. Still, I felt odd. Reflective, and yet detached.

Maybe the photos would appear flat. Resembling a lab dissection. After all, I could make out bilateral glands at the base of what had been the neck and the thin intact membrane that wrapped the brain.

Maybe I would see it later as an horrific image—mammal with no face. Or voyeuristic. Too much like something a creepy abuser would enjoy, masturbating over someone else’s pain. Or a bystander to something you are not supposed to see, and it is made normal—such as a fellow soldier separated into body parts by explosives.

But the portraits on my computer were plain. Sun on intact downy fur and what was gone, and what was there. I felt merely the witness, witness to this after-death, un-devoured pose.

I didn’t have any nightmares that night, though I thought I might.

Viewing the pictures now, I think sometimes we feel like the little vole looked: laid bare, breakable. And also beautiful. Even in being torn open.

“Here it is. This is the way we exist, live, die. It doesn’t hurt too much right now—at all, actually—after the fact.”

Submerged tree: what you can't see, and what the ice reveals.

Submerged dead tree: what you can’t see, and what the ice reveals.