Sunday, September 10, 2017

Butterfly's First Flight

There was a hard and fast limit imposed, by me, on the number of Monarch butterflies that would be permitted to do their metamorphosis thing in my house.


The number was two. Jerry and Young Jerry successfully chrysalis-ed and flew away in August. It was neat and easy. The rest of the caterpillars could entertain us outside. We enjoyed daily caterpillar counts, spotting them like the items in a seek and find picture.

There was also an abundant gathering of preying mantises in the yard this summer. "This is good," I thought. "Preying mantises are good. They eat the bad bugs." Monarch caterpillars, of course, don't get eaten by anything because their milkweed-only diet makes them taste as bad as a butterscotch donut.

Butterfly babies were safe. We counted seventeen one day.

I was washing my car when I noticed a preying mantis the size of my hand on the milkweed. He was watching a caterpillar, but he swiveled his creepy triangle-ish head my way. "He wouldn't eat that caterpillar, would he?" I wondered.

Google answered quickly that Mr. Mantis most certainly would and probably had. The bastard! That age-old idea that nothing eats monarch caterpillars is faulty intelligence. The list of hazards to my butterflies was long and terrible.

The next day, I found two dead caterpillars on the ground near the milkweed. I couldn't take it anymore. I brought eleven inside. Eleven!

Too numerous to name, they went into their chrysalises in groups of two and three. They're going to be emerging as beautiful butterflies sporadically for a whole week. There's been so much poop and I've had to move the silly things because they put their pods too close together.

As they say of human childbirth, it will all be worthwhile when you see your baby.... butterfly. With eleven, surely we'll happen upon a freshly hatched insect. They come out with huge bodies and itty bitty little wings. They hang and twist to force fluid from their body into those miniature wings until they reach full size.

Last Wednesday, two were born within a couple hours of each other. Both females, I named them Queenie and Lady. Queenie became very active around dinner time. I thought it was best to release her before she went around and whacked every other chrysalis in the enclosure.

Tim and Julia watched for about ten minutes, but Queenie wasn't actually that ready to go. They lost interest and left. Dinner was baking without any intervention required, so I sat and waited for her to take off.

Queenie wasn't leaving.

I'd coaxed her onto a hydrangea leaf, so I carried her to another part of the garden and put her on a fall sedum bloom. Just taking my butterfly for a walk.... nothing to see here. She inspected the sedum for a bit, taking wobbly drunken steps with her new long legs. After a while she fluttered to another bloom, gathered her courage and took off on a faltering, inefficient-looking lap of the yard. She soared as high as our second story windows before taking a position in a big oak tree.

It was magnificent!

After dinner, it was Lady's turn. I forced everyone to sit and stare with rapt attention to witness the awe inspiring event that would be this butterfly's first flight. Julia lost interest in the process early as the butterfly wobbled around the sedum bloom launch pad, irritably flicking her long legs at a bee that was trying to have dinner.

"Calm down, SIT THERE, and watch this," I barked at my daughter. "THIS IS A MIRACLE!"

And it might have been, but Lady wasn't feeling miraculous. I stayed and watched as the rest of the family took the dogs on their evening walk. I was like Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin, trying to be very sincere, all the while missing tricks or treats. They returned to my plantside vigil having missed nothing.

"It really makes you think," I said as we resumed our long evening watch of the flightless monarch. "Why would something so complex and beautiful have evolved? How is that easier to believe than Creation?"

"What?" Julia asked. She was tracing a pattern on the sidewalk with a piece of pine bark mulch.

"Than God," I said. "How is it easier to believe something like this butterfly just evolved spontaneously than to believe in God?"

"I think it's better not to think about things like that," she said.

Lady took wobbling steps and flapped wings that appeared ready and strong. She didn't fly and eventually I conceded that we weren't going to see it. That night it stormed and I worried about my butterfly.

Thursday morning found her clinging to that same sedum bloom, wings wet with dew, in the chilly 47 degree air. I snipped the flower and moved it to a nearby butterfly bush where she could dry her wings in the sun. She walked and flapped and settled into a hanging position where she stayed for the rest of the morning.

By lunchtime, she was gone. Her first flutter, unwitnessed.

There will be nine more butterfly releases. Nine more invitations to catch a glimpse of something extraordinary. I'm glad to have another chance to do better for the butterfly and for my child. It surely detracts from the magic to be forced to bear witness to it. Perhaps I can train one of my remaining monarchs to fly away promptly, before the boredom takes our ability to think about things.