Veronica's Garden

Rachel Creager Ireland on writing, living, the Flint Hills, and the Post Rock Limestone Caryatids

Tag: butterfly

Eyes and Heart Open

Sometimes I see amazing things passing on the highway that rolls by my front windows, and I wish I could show you. Yesterday it was a truck pulling some kind of tank as big as a house. The tank was cylindrical and probably about 20 ft in diameter, and too long to be carried on a standard trailer. Other times I might see one propeller of a wind turbine, riding on its own personal trailer; or the nose cone of a jet. But they always pass before I can get a picture.

I have mixed feelings about the level of industrialization of the world we live in; but whatever I think or feel, I am always in awe and gratitude for the immense privilege it is to be alive and aware in this place, in this time. Even the biggest things of humans are tiny specks compared to the vastness of our solar system, our galaxy, the nebulae so dense with gases that they implode and spit out freshly-born stars. We are just the right size to see and appreciate what we can see, from a gnat to a skyscraper, and it is a privilege that is too often squandered by going through one’s days half asleep, or so self-absorbed as not to notice what is happening all around one. Wherever you are, look for amazing, weird, unusual things or happenings in your world. They may be human-made, or natural, living or ancient or ephemeral. They usually pass quickly, so keep your eyes and heart open, and come back here and tell me what you saw.

Here are some things I saw in 2013. Some you’ve seen before, some I’ve never shared. Happy New Year.

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The Autumnal Prairie Dons Her Yellow Dress

It was an exceptionally dry, hot summer. Weeks without rain, coupled with record-breaking heat, dessicated the earth. Gardens failed to produce food. The deer were getting skinny. Everything seemed to be dying.

Finally, late in the summer, we had a couple rains. We’re still well below the “normal” amount of rainfall for the year, but that boost seems to have redeemed the prairie. Somehow, when everything appeared dead, some plants must have been living and growing, preparing to take advantage of whatever water might find its way to their roots. When it came, they burst into flower.

First it was the compass plants, Silphium laciniatum. From the bloom, they could easily be mistaken for a sunflower, but if you look at the foliage, you can see a base of large leaves, while the sunflowers have leaves up the stem. This is one of my favorite native wildflowers, and one day I’ll dedicate a post just to this awesome perennial with a taproot which is often said to reach fifteen feet.

Next come the sunflowers, Helianthus annuus. There is no more cheerful face to be seen on the prairie, and once again this year she has proven herself able to “keep a good face” in spite of the most fearsome drought. The hills burst into brilliant yellow bloom. If you don’t know this flower, she is the same species as the iconic giant greystripe sunflower, but the greystripe was developed in Russia from annuus stock. If you see a greystripe, it is one which has traveled the world and come home. The homebodies exhibit a habit more like a bush, with many blooms reaching out in all directions from the stem.

Annuus has peaked, but her day isn’t done yet. She’s just making room for her sister, the Maximilian sunflower, Helianthus maximiliani. She comes a bit later than annuus, and a little smaller, but just as cheerful.

You’ll notice that all our friends du jour are yellow. Other colors are present, but yellow predominates at this time of the year. Who pollinates yellow flowers? It turns out, according to the Xerces Society, that bees are the primary pollinator. They also tell us that the European honeybee is not the best pollinator of sunflowers. The honeybees tend to specialize in either nectar or pollen gathering, which leads to little crossing from male to female plants. The native leafcutter bees, bumblebees, and sweat bees not only cross from male to female plants, but it appears that they harass the honeybees into doing the same, thereby increasing pollination on both counts.

Let me not neglect the monarch butterflies, Danaus plexippus. They have been scanty in number this year. The lepidopterists’ grapevine has indicated that they were farther north, in places they don’t normally go, even into Canada. I wonder what force told them to go where there might be more hope of finding the nectar which sustains them? Here in Kansas, I’m not sure I saw a single one, until the last week or so. I saw three in one tree one day, and a few singles on other days since, but not enough to establish a pattern of migration. Today a neighbor reported a tree in the area which was filled with them, perhaps a thousand. It is a relief to me, that even after such a dry and desolate season, the migration continues. I wish them godspeed on their long journey to Mexico, and hope that their mountain habitat has not come to a worse fate than their prairie home.

Spotted in the Flint Hills in the Last Week

This year for the fourth time I spent mid-May commuting to White Memorial Camp, north of Council Grove. It’s a bit of a drive, but mostly on National Scenic Byway, KS 177. The remainder is gravel, through pastures to the end of a little peninsula surrounded by Council Grove lake. I go there for a job, which is to massage the attendees of Kelley Hunt and Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s wonderful Brave Voice songwriting workshop and retreat. It’s a beautiful group whom I love to work with. The bonus is that this remote drive has incredible diversity of wildlife, particularly birds. So every year I am equally excited to do this job as to get there and back. Here’s a list of the many species I saw, most without even getting out of the car.

Butterfly milkweed, not yet blooming.
Wild blue indigo, in luscious bloom.
Cobaea beardtongue, plentiful this year.
Daisy fleabane, blooming rather early, I believe.
Lots of Arkansas rose.

several scissor-tailed flycatchers
one turkey
dozens of turkey vultures
one nighthawk
lots of killdeer
brown-headed cowbirds
meadowlarks
Franklins gulls
barn swallows
kingbirds
one indigo bunting, which thoughtfully landed in a tree in easy view. I actually stopped the car for this one.
redwing blackbirds
upland sandpipers

rat snake
yellow-bellied racer
five-lined skink
The last two reptiles were here at the motel, but I love them so much I didn’t want to leave them off the list.

Since I was a child I’ve wanted to see a zebra swallowtail butterfly, but never did, until this week.

And mustn’t forget — this one doesn’t belong on my list because I didn’t personally see it, but several of the musicians saw a mountain lion, and got pictures. Don’t tell Fish and Wildlife, they still don’t want to admit that mountain lions are in Kansas.

Monarchs and Homesickness

“We have to stumble though so much dirt and humbug before we reach home. And we have no one to guide us. Our only guide is homesickness.”-Hermann Hesse

Rob Breszny, my favorite astrologer, used that quote once in a horoscope for my sign (Capricorn). I knew immediately exactly what it meant, though I’m not sure what it feels like to be at home, to know where home is. I’ve been in the current home for seven years now, and it’s been nearly two since I committed to stop thinking “I hate this house,” every time I have to mop the kitchen because I forgot to prop open the sink drain with a kebab skewer before I put in a load of laundry; or a hanging lamp unexpectedly explodes into flames, falling dramatically to the floor; or we discover another hole left in the drywall in the laundry room, right next to a newly cracked pipe on a frigid January day. That’s not even accounting for the complications of having one’s livelihood tied up with one’s home; when there are potholes in the parking lot, the hotel inspector makes a surprise visit, when I’m struck by fear every time a customer comes to the door. What’s wrong with the room now?

That choice not to harbor bitterness and dissatisfaction has changed my life. I don’t want to be here forever, but I can still enjoy the time I’m here. It’s up to me, and maybe this place is gradually becoming my home, for now. Maybe my desire to be somewhere else is fading. Come to think of it, it’s been a while since I’ve had that dream of wanting to go home, but not knowing where I lived.

One thing that ties me like a string to this place is learning about the other inhabitants here, that is, in the the backyard, this town, the prairie. Many of the weeds in the backyard are familiar to my eye, but over the years I’ve begun to learn their names. Some are natives, some are aliens who’ve managed to make a life for themselves here. Shepherd’s purse, prostrate verbena, malva, hedge mustard. Lambsquarters is exceptionally nutritious, Queen Anne’s lace is also called wild carrot, because it is of the same species (Daucus carota) as cultivated carrot. Here is where I met the Woodhouse’s toad, the wheelbug, and the American lady butterfly (for whom I always sing a chorus of “American Woman.”) I’m no longer certain that I would leave, if offered the chance.

Here is where I’ve taken notice of the monarch butterfly migration. You have to be paying attention to catch it. It’s been going on this past week, but it’s not like a bird migration, where you could watch large numbers of birds flying together in a flock. The monarchs appear to be behaving quite usually, fluttering about, sometimes higher, sometimes lower, but if you watch one as long as you can see it, you will always notice that the first place you spot it is north of the last. It could just happen to be going south, but if you keep watching, you might spot another in five or ten minutes, also going south. Keep your eye open, there’s probably another, maybe high in the sky. You’ll think it’s a bird at first, until you notice the fluttering flight, and it will be going from north to south. They don’t fly together, they don’t appear to communicate at all. Do they plan their move? I think not. Something pulls them, and they ride it like the wind.

The longest distance covered by a tagged monarch in a day was 175 miles. From the US, they fly 2,500 miles or more to Mexico. It is not believed that any individual makes the migration more than once; they overwinter, find a mate, fly north, lay eggs, and die. The next generation might not live through the summer; it could be two or three generations before fall triggers the southerly flight again. Monarchs raised in captivity migrate if released in the fall, at least as many as nine generations after the last free butterfly in their lineage.

What makes a monarch migrate? I think of it as homesickness, like something telling you there is a place where you belong, and it isn’t here. It pulls you by the chest, like a string pulls a kite. You may never have seen your home, but you’ll know when you get there, and you won’t be alone. Are you there right now? If not, let homesickness be your guide.

Marlo on Gratitude and Weather

Note from Veronica: Dear readers, allow me to introduce my friend Marlo, head midwife and leader of the Postrock Limestone Caryatids.

Summer is winding down, and the sweltering days have begun to falter to milder ones, with cool mornings, enough that we can welcome the sun. When I have no patients, I sometimes slip off to the garden, for an excuse to do something useful out in the fresh air.

That’s what I was doing today, picking tomato worms (which Veronica informs me are really hawk moth caterpillars, not worms at all) and feeding them to the chickens, who were also enjoying the lovely weather, clucking and strutting about the vegetables. Turkey vultures were circling lazily overhead, and monarchs were fluttering by. It couldn’t get any better than this, I thought, being among so much life on a beautiful morning, and I felt a deep gratitude emanating from my heart chakra. It occurred to me to give thanks for my blessings.

But I had to pause. The weather doesn’t exist for us, any more than the planet does. It just is, the way it is, with all its variations, the rain and wind and warm air chasing one another around the planet in constant interplay. So where, then, does one put one’s gratitude? Perhaps the gratitude is not so much for what the weather is, as for being a being who can enjoy it, a life form whose needs are perfectly matched to her niche. For being a creature of sensuality and self-awareness, present in the present moment. I am grateful for being simply who and what I am, for the privilege of experiencing joy.

It’s like when a birth goes smoothly and the baby and mother do well, and everyone says, “Our prayers have been answered.” Suppose, instead, there is a problem, the baby is injured or sick, or, worse, the mother or baby or both are lost. Is it right to say that our prayers haven’t been answered? How do we maintain faith in the face of tragedy?

Does religion give us a better way of looking at this question? I haven’t found it in Christianity. Buddhism might be more helpful, since it doesn’t offer us anyone to pray to. We’re not supposed to want any particular weather; we’re supposed to be present and aware, without judgment or attachment, through whatever we get.

Another answer came to me from a Mayan shaman, Martin Prechtel. I paraphrase from a book I read years ago, and the extent of my inaccuracy will be the degree to which I have made this concept my own. What he said was that the difficulties and discomforts of life are not bad things for us to suffer through on the way to the good; rather it is all one package, and it is the greatest privilege to experience it, every bit, all the joy and pain and love and suffering. It is all worthy of our gratitude.

Many people seem to think it their spiritual duty to remember at all times the abundant blessings they are given, in spite of difficulties and trials. I think it a higher calling yet to be joyful and grateful through everything we get, whether we are able to enjoy it or not. The greatest blessing is just to be here.

“Do not forget that all change is good,” or, why I didn’t clean motel rooms that day

“When butterfly shows up, make note of the most important issues confronting you at this moment. This is probably why butterfly has shown up. What stage of change are you at in regard to them? To determine that, you may have to examine and determine what you wish the outcome to be, and how best to accomplish it. . . . Do not forget that all change is good.” –Ted Andrews

It was one of those late August days, down to the last precious few before school and the quotidian jail of the daily schedule set in. This time of year I always wonder why I’m not homeschooling. I fear that any creativity and inquisitiveness in my children will be gradually squelched by the endless worksheets and pressure to follow instructions quickly, before the next worksheet is presented. Yesterday we were unloading stuff from the car and going into the house when my 6-year-old stopped, and wouldn’t move closer to the door. “One of those wasps, the orange ones.”

“The really bright orange-red one, or the orangey brown?”

“Bright.”

“Is it on the ground, or in the air?”

“On the ground.”

These questions are relevant because I know of two orange wasps around here. One is orange-ish and flies; that’s the digger wasp, which is not aggressive. The bright orange, fuzzy one that looks kind of like a brilliant, oversized ant, is, naturally, known as the red velvet ant. The female is wingless and I’ve warned my kids about her; though I didn’t tell them that the account I read of having been stung by one described the pain as so intense that, said the victim, for about thirty minutes he wanted to die. I just told them to avoid the wasp when they see her. The male flies, and doesn’t sting at all, though it’s said he might try to fake a person out.

Rowan is increasingly afraid of wasps. She’s been stung twice this year, both times completely by surprise. I keep telling her that they won’t bother her if she leaves them alone, but I know as the words come out of my mouth that she has never looked for trouble with waps; I witnessed the second sting. She just pushed away something that flew in her face, and got stung on the hand.

The red velvet ant wasp crawls along the ground at a good pace, so I didn’t expect anything to be on the sidewalk when we got there. But then she said, “There it is!” while trying to hide behind me.

There was no wasp there; just a struggling little pearl crescent butterfly, Phyciodes tharos. Really, it looked nothing like a wasp. Strangely, its wings were spread and resting on the concrete. “I think it’s dying,” I said. Then I gently picked it up. It let me; and made its way to the underside of my finger, where its limp wings hung together toward the ground. It hung there, occasionally moving its wings slightly. “It’s not dying, it just came out of its chrysalis,” I realized. I explained to the kids, “When they first come out of the chrysalis, their wings are wet and soft. They can’t fly right away, they have to wait, and kind of pump the fluid out of the wings. It’s a very vulnerable time for them. If they fall down, their wings might get crunched up and they won’t ever be able to fly.” Watching it move the unwieldy wings, I imagined what it must be like to undergo such a transformation. “Remember how I was telling you how caterpillars have to eat so much? What if you were really, really hungry, you ate and ate and ate, then you took a long nap, and when you woke up you had giant wings!” Surely our imaginations could never encompass the shock and mystery of such an experience. In my mind, I pictured my daughter waking up in bed with sticky, wrinkly appendages unfolding from her back.

I held it for a while; the kids each took a turn letting it dangle from their fingers; then we moved it to a twig on a tree nearby. By this time, the creature’s wings were firm enough that it could hold them up. We went inside the house and ate lunch, and when I came back later, it was gone.

What does my daughter need? Somebody to make sure she’s safe as her wings unfold; somebody to help her find a place from which to launch into flight. Then, she needs to be let go.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

This lovely butterfly, Papilio glaucus, visited a stand of echinacea and drank deeply of her nectar. In fact, there were two, who enjoyed the flowers for quite some time. The other was actually even more spectacular, with a row of brilliant blue dots along the lower edge of her hindwing. (It is appropriate to refer to her in the feminine, as the female of the species sports this blue row, while the male is only yellow and black, like the one we see here.) This is said to be one of the more common of the larger butterflies here in the Flint Hills, though I don’t see them nearly as often as I’d like. But echinacea’s wiles attract many types of butterflies, including the flirtatious American lady, and the declining regal fritillary, so I’ll make a note to save some of the seeds, come fall, and plant them widely.

I always imagine that butterflies and fairies have a special mutual affinity. Perhaps those of you readers who visit the fairy realm might ask them what they have to say about the tiger swallowtail?

Thanks to Pat Larkin forĀ  the wonderful photograph.

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