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BLOG – This summer’s butterflies

This summer, I gained a new appreciation for butterflies. Oh, sure, I have always liked them—who doesn’t?—but they were so plentiful this year, so undeniable and in-your-face (often literally), I had so many more butterfly experiences this summer than ever before.

It wasn’t just me. According to the Yellow Springs News last month, this summer “butterflies, perhaps due to a combination of the heat and wet winter, were abundant. ‘The butterflies were amazing,’ [Bill] Felker [of ‘Poor Will’s Almanac’] said” (9/9/10).

One day I was walking dogs while housesitting. I started into the path that led to the covered bridge from Grinnell Road, where we were swarmed by dozens of butterflies of various sizes and patterns. And these were no timid butterflies—they rushed us, brushing my skin with their wings and landing on me briefly before skipping off. They whipped in and out of my vision and never stayed anywhere long enough for me to watch one for more than a literal second—but their presence as a mass didn’t cease for some time.

At first I vocalized my surprised (i.e., I shrieked), but found it to be such a pleasant experience—in contrast to the myriad other unpleasantries of this summer—that I stopped in my tracks, and remained very still as the critters flitted and flirted about me. The dogs were impatient at this pause in their walks but I ignored them.

A few times this summer I came across an injured or dead butterfly; sad for the butterfly, but nice for me, as I got to enjoy the eye candy uninterrupted by fluttering and flying away. My favorites were the big shiny ones with blue and gold spots and tiger-stripes.

I recently visited The Farm in southern Tennessee and the sand by their swimming hole—peopleless but for me—was populated by butterflies, which I didn’t notice until I walked into the middle of their territory. They flew into a frenzy around me—not making contact, but refusing to leave their turf for very long. It seemed like they were just making themselves mobile while waiting for me to leave. Their constant flying away and back and away and back, looked like a surge of seemingly arbitrary flight patterns.

I went into the water by the shore and they settled down. There were three distinct species that hung out together. Two groups of small yellow butterflies that clustered closely, always by two particular yellow beach toys. Very small gray/blue ones that clustered less tightly. And a bit further away, orange-and-black ones that clustered even less tightly. All clearly, however, a part of their own group. There was the occasional commingling, or other type of butterfly that would come along, but this only led to that disrupted frantic flying and things eventually went back to the way they were.

I watched all of this for an inordinate amount of time.

I am not particularly fond of bugs. A common childhood phobia threatened to become permanent in my adulthood and has been only partly assuaged by diligent self-therapy.

I have always identified with this quote by Mulder from “The X-Files”: “One day back when I was a kid, I was climbing this tree when I noticed this leaf walking towards me. It took forever for me to realize that it was no leaf…. I had a praying mantis epiphany and, as a result, I screamed. No, not a girly scream, but the scream of someone being confronted by some before unknown monster that had no right existing on the same planet I inhabited. Did you ever notice how a praying mantis’ head resembles an alien’s head? I mean, the mysteries of the natural world were revealed to me that day, but instead of being astounded, I was repulsed.” (season 3, episode 12, “War of the Coprophages”, air date 1/5/96).

But I prefer flying bugs to crawling bugs and there’s something about certain bugs I have always loved—butterflies and dragonflies mainly. Maybe it’s the wings—gossamer and decorative and striking. There is more pretty wing than icky insect body, often by far. Maybe it’s the fascination many of us have with the grotesque, in this case with the uneasy mix of the beautiful and the grotesque—a combination which makes us question our preconceived notions that there is a firm boundary between these two seemingly mutually-exclusive states. Well, maybe just me.

The Farm butterflies (click to see them bigger)

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