Thursday, September 22, 2011
Wings to learn
I write and illustrate about nature a lot, usually from observations made close to home; the changing seasons in Hickory Hill Park; seeing great flocks of birds migrating south; a prairie sunset bathing the entire horizon red...The larger theme, of the importance of maintaining a healthy environment in spite of increasing human-made challenges, motivates my work in children’s books to help connect young readers to their outdoor world.
It is easy to draw and write about nature as the perfect coneflower or through the humorous antics of squirrels. But not so easy to depict nature as a rabbit screeching out in the night, or the ruined nest and broken baby birds found after the thunderstorm.
Nature gives us all kinds of experiences that teach and test.
Recently, we waited excitedly for a monarch chrysalis to hatch. It had attached to the side of our garage and was visible from many angles. This individual was a late bloomer, but we’ve had a warm summer, and a bumper crop of butterfly weed helped create a bumper crop of caterpillars. So, as the evenings cooled, we anticipated this farewell “arrival” to summer.
One morning, the chrysalis color turned from cloudy green to transparent, a sign of change soon to come. After gyrating and pulsing a bit, the chrysalis split open. Out popped a small dark creature, folded like origami at first, but unfurled within seconds. We let the new butterfly rest, and throughout the day I checked on his progress. Alas, after several close inspections over the hours, something looked not quite right with his wings. They seemed askew, almost flip-flopped. My neighbor researched on-line and found the discouraging news that some butterflies wings get bent in the process of merging. Once dried in a curled or bent position, they will not straighten and aren’t capable of flight. Other monarch hatchings we’ve witnessed in our garden end in the heart-lifting sight of the butterfly’s first ascent. This time, it wouldn’t be like this. A butterfly that can’t fly is not a joyous thing. As I watched the butterfly’s elegant antennae extend and body fluff to full size, attached to the regally colored, useless wings, I felt blue to the core.
There are humane methods of euthanasia, but I decided to give the natural process a chance. So, Butterfly stayed in our screened-in porch (on a geranium plant) that night. I feed him honey water, which he lapped up with his long proboscis tongue. The next morning I transported him to warm spots in the garden, and gave him fresh flowers to crawl around and breezes to feel. I was surprised how substantial butterfly bodies are, in size and strength and grip. Except for the pin-wheel arrangement of his wings, he was perfect. He tried robustly to activate his wings (a profoundly sad sight), to no use. I brought him in as the sun went down and wondered what to do next. Nature answered. He was now much more sluggish than he had been during the day. Perhaps because the wings didn’t work, it compromised other systems in his body. By morning, he had died.
So I record this small, brief life here. It was a privilege to observe a butterfly so close for a couple days. It reminded me again to enjoy the everyday details of nature, even the small butterfly flitting from flower to flower, for these indeed are gifts.
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