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.

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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!)