Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Floating Butterflies

A common summer visitor to my garden drifts into my garden meadow. It is the tiger swallow tail butterfly. The swallow tail darts about with bursts of flight. Sups from the sweet nectar of the South African red-hot poker. Flies off to careen by the wild huckleberry shrubs north of my house, they’re not in bloom. Swirls around the other sides of my home where there is no nectar. Returns to lick within the trumpet-shaped flowers of this colorful exotic plant. Another swallow tail butterfly joins in the flirtation with plants, the breeze, and the first butterfly. Up, fluttering. Dips. Floats. Surveys the huckleberries again. Around the house. Past the red-poker to sail past the leaves of an apple tree past bloom. Coasts back for a treat from the glorious torch. They circle the house. Flirt with each other and an apple tree, and the drifts into my garden meadow with its pale-green leaves. Flutters around my house. Drinks from the trumpet-throated poker blossoms. Darts off to another pasture of floral nectar.

Where is the pattern? The repetition of the nectar-driven flight around my house? Broken by erratic flight. There’s really no design to be found. I amuse myself by looking for a pattern within the fanciful chaos of nature’s gossamer treats—a butterfly on the wing on a warm spring afternoon.

The tiger swallow tail butterfly is the most common butterfly around my home, expect, perhaps, the white cabbage butterfly. The photo above shows the butterfly as collected in my youth—over 40 years ago. I was a regular ecological disaster looking back from 2008. But collecting butterflies was just one of the myriad exploits of a young “naturalist” in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Besides, we had no idea what the future would bring (or not bring as the case may be). Now catching a butterfly for mounting as a specimen would be a heinous crime.

In my early years there were dozens of butterflies and moths. A friend here in Sonoma county had a collection of over 70 varieties. Now, I spot only 10-15 or so varieties each summer. The swallow tail eats the leaves of the prolific wild anise (Pimpinella anisum). But there not much habitat left for the delights of other butterflies. Other losses of butterflies could be the increasing vineyards and their use of pesticides and fungicides. Other reasons remain a mystery.

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