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Watching Butterflies Flutter By

Bill Meredith

 “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something.” ...Thorin Oakenshield

The five-acre lot that came with our house when we moved into Emmitsburg was always a source of contention with my mother-in-law. We planted a large garden at the upper end of it, but that left over 4 ˝ acres vacant, and every time she came to visit she reminded us that we should be doing something with “all that land.” So when our youngest son reached the age at which he needed some extra spending money, she encouraged him to go into business by planting several hundred raspberry vines just below the garden. It wasn’t an entirely bad idea; projects like that build character, and it did keep him occupied for the summer. But it neglected several realities. The field sloped in such a way as to make about two-thirds of the selected area too wet for raspberries, and even in the well-drained part fertilizer and spray would have been needed to make the vines yield enough berries for a profit. And most important of all was the inescapable fact that kids of that age grow faster than raspberry vines, and then they get married and move away.

After the passage of 30-odd years a small remnant of the raspberry patch remains in the southeast corner of our yard. Sometimes it yields enough berries for a couple of pies; in dry years it may yield none at all. It developed a tendency to become overgrown with weeds; this gave it a disreputable appearance and attracted my wife’s attention, so early last spring I cleaned it out. I put down a thick layer of mulch and congratulated myself that it looked orderly and well tended, and turned my attention to other things; and then the laws of entropy took over, just as the physicists said they would. Hot days and rain make the garden grow, and they have the same effect on weeds. Order was replaced by chaos, and a few weeks ago when it was time to pick raspberries I found a vigorous stand of goldenrod had grown right up through the mulch and stood higher than the berry vines. So it came to pass that on the hottest day of June I found myself pulling weeds in the berry patch.

It was not an unpleasant task; as I worked, a few raspberry vines emerged timidly from the goldenrod jungle, and they had some berries on them. Even the heat was bearable. One of the things you learn by growing up in the hayfields of West Virginia is how to sweat, and I have not forgotten; within half an hour my clothes were drenched. Pausing to rest, I was reminiscing about how everyone in the hayfield used to drink water from the same gallon jug, balancing it on our forearm with our thumb through the hole in the handle, when I happened to glance downward. There on my chest were two butterflies; they were drinking the sweat from my shirt.

I moved over into the shade and watched them for a while. They were skippers, the medium-sized dark brown butterflies with the silver spot on their wings and the erratic flight pattern that made them so hard to catch when I was a child. They were not thirsty, for the weeds were wet from the last night’s rain; what they were after was the salt in the sweat. If you’re a butterfly, water and sugar are easy to come by in the nectar of flowers, but salt is a scarce and precious commodity. Sometimes dozens of butterflies will crowd around a puddle by a roadside, poking their beaks into the mud; they are after the salt that was dissolved in the water and is crystallizing in the mud as the puddle dries. Entomologists call this behavior “puddling,” and it is quite common; I once saw 40 or 50 zebra swallowtails, one of our most spectacular species, around a puddle near Rainbow Lake.

Teaching grandchildren about nature is a serious responsibility, and even my wife has joined in it. She allows a few milkweeds to grow in the garden for monarchs to lay their eggs on, and tolerates the swallowtail caterpillars that defoliate her dill and fennel plants. When the kids were little, I always made sure a butterfly net was on hand when they came for their summer visits, and we always began our expeditions with Thorin Oakenshield’s obvious wisdom (in case you may have forgotten, Thorin was the chief of the dwarves in Tolkien’s book, The Hobbit). Butterflies taught the kids a lot of basic science… life cycles, food chains, predator/prey relations, symbiosis, and the value of observation and detail… and much that is not science… that small living things must be handled gently, and that there is beauty in the most unexpected places.

I also learned from them. Kids ask obvious questions, like “Why are they called butterflies?” I replied, “It’s because they flutter by,” but I really didn’t know, so again we took Thorin’s advice and looked it up in the dictionary. We found the name comes from an Old English word, “buttorfleoge,” which dates from the time of King Arthur, and is based on folklore. In those days, so long before refrigeration, butter had to be left sitting out, and when butterflies came “puddling” around in their quest for salt, people thought they were trying to steal it.

The grandchildren have grown up now, and there aren’t any great-grandchildren yet. There don’t seem to be as many butterflies as there used to be either. I’ve seen several of the white cabbage butterflies, whose larvae are eating our broccoli and kale plants, and a number of skippers around the window box, but only one monarch and a few of the little blue hairstreaks. The big yellow and black swallowtails haven’t come to our butterfly bush yet. It may just be that they’re late in arriving, like the lightning bugs that showed up the day after I wrote about them last month; but waiting for them is stressful, like waiting for someone at the airport when the plane is overdue. With the environment in the shape that it is, there are a lot of things that could be wrong. Thorin and I will have to keep looking.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith