That first mourning cloak

I recently decided to weed out my bookshelf, so I hauled a stack of rejects to Downtown Books and News on Lexington Avenue to trade for some new recruits. One of my finds was Robert Michael Pyle’s Handbook for Butterfly Watchers. What inspired me to choose it was a chain of vivid butterfly encounters I experienced last year while idling outdoors near my east Asheville home.

A year ago, in the throes of early spring, my baby daughter and I chanced upon a wondrous sight while lounging in a most impressive spray of violets. A dark butterfly with purple and gold bands flew directly over our heads. We watched it, enchanted and a bit curious because it seemed a little early for butterflies. I later learned we’d spotted one of nature’s first heralds of the season: the mourning cloak. A member of the Nymphalidae family (the brush-footed butterflies), it is, in fact, a hibernator. Perhaps our particular mourning cloak had emerged from its winter quarters in a hollow tree to sample sap, stretch its wings or seek a mate. Whatever the case, that first sighting welcomed a season rich in diverse butterfly life.

When the lilacs bloomed, the butterflies flocked—namely those of the swallowtail (Papilionidae) family. In fields with sunny hedges, a quick little skipper alighted on my finger. One morning I spied two great spangled fritillaries coupling on some sweet William. On certain summer nights, hosts of strange and beautiful moths shared our home, and a giant silkworm stayed in our kitchen for days, unmoving on the green gingham curtains. There were satyrs, blues, sulphurs and, one day in mid-November, a very quick and surprising anglewing.

“Each butterfly-watching experience is individual, each is a whole unto itself, a unique vision that can never be duplicated or taken away,” writes Pyle. “And here is the treasure and joy of butterfly watching. No matter where you do it, no matter how common or tattered the subject, the moment is a pure and unique encounter—just you and the butterfly. Whether you use a net, a lens, your eyes or some other ‘sense’ to catch it—no matter that it may fly afterward—the image, scent or touch of the butterfly will be yours. And your life will be richer for it.”

My own memorable sightings, buoyed by Pyle’s volume (the used-book gods’ gracious gift), reignited my dormant interest in these miraculous creatures.

Lepidoptery, the study of butterflies and moths, comes from the Greek “lepis” (scale) and “ptera” (wing). The powder that rubs off on one’s finger when touching a butterfly’s wing actually consists of scales. (There’s also a very specific technique for handling butterflies—gripping all four wings near the base with tweezers—so as not to rub off those scales.)

My own interest in butterflies did not extend to pinning them or even catching them, really (though, as Pyle points out, collecting certainly has its place in entomological research and has much to teach us if pursued conscientiously). I was more concerned with watching the wondrous and bright concentration of pure life that is butterflies. They are animals of joy and motion, light and caprice, and their whimsical flights, intricate courtship dances and calm basking in the moment all lift my spirits.

We are fortunate to live amid Western North Carolina’s awe-inspiring mountains and forests. The diverse local ecosystems are home to a wild array of plants and animals. Perhaps our butterfly population is so diverse because of the variety of habitats available to these life forms. I feel especially blessed in this respect because, right near my home, there are hilltops, gardens, rivers, creeks, fields, forests, ditches, glades, thickets, trails, open woods, pastures and meadows—all excellent butterfly-watching locales.

I look forward to spotting another mourning cloak this spring. In the weeks leading up to the equinox, I began peering through the brush and up into the bare branches, squinting to discern the outline of some specimen’s tightly held chrysalis. My untrained eye has yet to spy one: Butterflies are keen camouflagers, particularly in this vulnerable state. But seek and ye shall find…

Who knows what this season will yield in terms of butterflies and their diurnal activity? Apparently, every butterfly year is different. In part, this may be because some species are biennial, requiring two years to completely metamorphose. It could also be the weather or the darker effects of bulldozing, logging or spraying.

In any case, backed by Robert Michael Pyle’s encouragement and enthusiasm, I’ll be recording my butterfly observations right in my own east Asheville backyard. My eyes will be open, and I’ll keep turning over leaves looking for eggs, inspecting stalks for fleshy little caterpillars, and seeking the late-afternoon shimmer of fluttering wings. And everywhere I look, I will meditate on these two words: gratitude and stewardship.

I’ll also be thinking of Pyle, a skilled teacher and writer who quotes the Buddha’s words to the butterflies: “I thank you: You are my masters. From you I have learned more than from all the writings of the Brahmans.”

[Freelance writer Kristin MacLeod lives in Asheville.]

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