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 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 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!)