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Black Swallowtail Butterfly and Vinca
July 19, 2011, at Crow's Cottage

The Purposeful Habitat.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Rural Washington County, Arkansas

Amid'st the center of this hot clime, the butterflies in the gardens are busy drinking nectar from morning to night.

They join the wasps, flies, and grasshoppers as the most conspicuous of winged insect species presently visible 'round and about the flowers, bushes, shrubs, and trees of the cottage grounds.  Countless other insects roam afoot and aflight, but these shy specimens show themselves rarely, or else come out at night when I'm seldom looking.

All struggle to survive the oppressive heat of the air, the dusty dryness of the earth.  We enter without choice into a searing vortex, a beast both natural and unnatural, fed by the hottest days of the hottest summer ever recorded on the pages of local chronicles, which are said to date all the way back to the eighteen eighties.  When the weatherman on TV peers into his computer screen and studies the long-range forecasts, he announces:  No end in sight.

Summer twenty eleven becomes a worrisome, nigh-on ominous season.  I will be happy to the edge of dancing when the cycle of seasons turns far enough away from the hyper-heated moment for us to be rid of it.

The ideologues can debate the truth or lies of global warming and climate change 'till the cows come home.  I'm more concerned about several of my vegetable companions, who are threatened with slow death or long-term disability on account of the heat wave.

The tall tulip poplar along the back fence....

The grand old dogwood in the back meadow....

The droopy perennials, vines, shrubs, and berry bushes that are rooted too far away from a water hose to enjoy a cool drink — sweet pea and iris, butterfly weed and azalea, honeysuckle and blackberry, forsythia and japonica....

Each shows symptoms of severe stress, especially the poplar, whose leaves are turning yellow and falling to the ground far ahead of season.

pink lily at sunrise

Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly and Lantana
June 29, 2010, at Crow's Cottage

The gardener, the naturalist, any contemplative old soul strolling slowly out-of-doors in the garden is presented with a sea of choices whenever he desires to settle on an object for formal contemplation.  The set of life forms and the ideas they inspire is a great Vast, populated by natural elements of the immediate habitat and alien forms we introduce into it, and influenced mightily by the season currently at sway.

Sorting through this temporal scene to arrive at one life form, one notion, can be a capricious act of inspired fancy, or the deliberate outcome of purposeful thought.  Guide or be guided, lead or step in line, one way or the other, something happens, something gets done — and then the sun falls behind the mountain, dips into the sea to end all labors, again and again, until the greater cycle is complete.

This time, I settled on the butterfly.

butterfly from the side

Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly and Lantana
July 22, 2010, at Crow's Cottage

They call her "the butterfly lady" for good reason.  Cindi Cope's knowhow and practical devotion to the four-winged creatures is a gift to the community, not only because she's willing to share her knowledge and experience with others, but also because she delivers a palatable presentation appropriate to the audience.  On those occasions when she emerges from the garden into the public arena — either in the classroom with school kids or the meeting room with like-minded tree huggers and nature lovers — Cindi becomes a no-nonsense champion for the order Lepidoptera.

You'd think butterflies don't need human champions.  Among insects, they stand at the pinnacle of human favor.  Their beauty of color and sleekness of form compliment their perceived friendliness to the species Homo sapiens.

Who but the most phobic among us is afraid of the butterfly in the yard and the meadow?  Who but the most distracted or self-absorbed won't pause for a moment to admire the splashes of rainbow on the butterfly's wings, with shapes evocative of French curves, softly undulating hills, or angels on the dome of heaven?  Shall we marvel as one at their dance, a flit and a glide on the bud and the breeze?

The swallowtails and painted ladies I observe in the cottage gardens are trusting souls, pleasing to the eye and soothing to the spirit.  They draw near to me without a twinge of misgiving from either insect or human.  Shoo away a butterfly?  Not.  Smash one with a swatter?  Not ever.  I'd rather extend a hand and an arm, inviting the swallowtail to alight in a show of solidarity.

Has humanity's affinity for the butterfly eliminated the insect's predatory fear of man by way of natural selection?  Darwin's study of "Order Lepidoptera" in Descent of Man makes it clear that butterflies exhibit "abrupt variations in color" for purposes of sexual attraction and escape from enemies.  Can these "successive steps in the process of variation" also apply to behavior?  If the members of a long string of generations demonstrate the ability to share space comfortably, free of violence and harm toward one or the other, then how can fear or aversion be natural to the relationship between butterfly and human?

From another viewpoint, less generous, we formulate an alternative question:  Is the rudimentary cognitive ability of the butterfly so severely limited that notions of affinity with another species become ludicrous?  An insect hasn't a brain.  How can it relate to something beyond self when the insect has no self?  How do we pretend to know?

These are mysteries beyond the realm of evidence and fact.  "Inheritance is governed by so many unknown laws or conditions that it seems to us to act in a capricious manner," Darwin wrote.

The other insects at work here in the gardens don't measure up when compared to the butterfly.  Flies are downright annoying and not so pleasant to look at.  The wasps, armed with prominent red or black stingers, respect the space I afford them, but hostile action hovers just beneath the surface whenever they come near.  And the grasshoppers?  Their sudden leaps from hidden haunts in the leaves can be startling, and the archetype they convey gives rise to intimations of rapaciousness and plague.

I'm sure I err in these observations, elevating one species of insect above others, but my pursuit of the wild is based more on Art than Science.  I am snared by the limitations of my human nature.  "In himself and others man justifiably puts the greatest value on actions and deeds which are intentional and purposeful," Goethe wrote in the last decade of the eighteenth century.  "It follows that he will attribute intent and purpose to nature, for he will be unable to form a larger concept of nature than himself."

butterfly red sky

American Painted Lady Superimposed on Red Clouds
Painted Lady July 26, 2011, and red sky June 30, 2011, at Crow's Cottage
NOTE: The dark region under the right wing is a shadow cast on stone.
The original background was just too drab for aesthetic comfort.

Attracting butterflies and cultivating a habitat for their survival are separate matters entirely.  The butterfly lady's presentation at the city library on Monday night, July 25 — it was the third program in the Summer Speaker Series organized by the Fayetteville Community Wildlife Habitat Project — opened my eyes to that crucial distinction.  Listening to Cindi's narrative, I realized that growing flowers as a source of nectar is not enough to raise up a butterfly friendly habitat.

Like so many of life's thorny issues and perplexing situations, the relationship between human and butterfly — on the surface a mere trivia — extends beyond individual initiative and the refined concerns of a minority subculture.  If you're so inclined, you can shape it into another worthy symbol of the symbiotic relationship between civilization and wild nature.  If you extend the relational line beyond the butterfly into the habitat, you arrive at a thing called ecology, and here the battles begin.

What import the butterfly?

Yes, my planet is ripped and wounded by warfare and predatory capitalism.  Tell me how to stop the next battle, shut down the sweatshops, convince the arms merchants and purveyors of conspicuous consumption to redirect their red-hot energies into making implements of peace and products that last.

Yes, my planet is rife with poverty and oppression.  Tell me how to overthrow the dictatorship of the elite, redistribute material wealth in accordance with principles of love and service. Tell me how to remit imbalance between those few who have so much and cling to it with fervor, and those many who have so little and see no way out of their material dilemma.

I am privileged — yes! — to enjoy the seclusion and safety of the cottage, where food is abundant and military action or the violence of thugs and terrorists happens a thousand miles away.  I have my beans and bacon.  A powerful army and air force musters daily to protect me.

Nevertheless, I choose at this moment to view the butterfly and its natural habitat as a meaningful slice of reality, a significant microcosm flowing upward into the macrocosm like the flight of wings towards the heavenlies.  I vow to plant pawpaw and black cherry, allow the milkweed to grow.  Here in the free space of a private meditation, I can shape the moment any way I choose.


Great Spangled Fritillary Butterfly
July 30, 2011, at Crow's Cottage


Great Spangled Fritillary on a Tulip Poplar Leaf
July 30, 2011, at Crow's Cottage
Thousands of leaves have shriveled and fallen from the tulip poplar,
the result of stress caused by excessive heat and lack of rain.
The fritillary on the leaf is a tiny critter, about one-fourth the size
of the other fritillary pictured above the stylized crow.

Most species of butterfly, Cindy Cope explained, reproduce through a direct and exclusive relationship with specific plants.  A monarch, for example, deposits its eggs on the leaves of the milkweed, genus Asclepias, species incarnata.  And none other.  Without milkweed to provide the birthplace and feeding ground for its caterpillars, the monarch can't figure out where to lay its eggs.  So it doesn't.

"We will probably lose the monarch within the next thirty to forty years," Cindy said. "We're not planting the milkweed.  Instead we're mowing it down.  We're fanatical about being neat and tidy."

Monarchs aren't anywhere to be seen here at the cottage, but that's because their fall migration won't begin for a fortnight or so.  They're up north, building-up their stamina for the long trek to Mexico.  They'll pass this way soon.

For now, the gardens here at Crow's Cottage provide nectar for a bevy of swallowtails and a few painted ladies and fritillaries, who are busy from dawn to dusk sipping on the blooms of the lantana, vinca, verbena, marigold, and cosmos.  We've managed to coax these store-bought annuals into producing a steady supply of juicy flowers through twice-daily watering, the occasional application of fertilizer, and a whole lot of attention to the mundane details of cultivation.  Otherwise, we'd have nothing on the table for the butterflies, other than a few four o'clock blooms and two or three morning glory flowers.  The other perennials are either played out or dormant.

black swallowtail

A Black Swallowtail Eyes the Camera
July 19, 2011, at Crow's Cottage

The day before Cindy's presentation, "Creating Habitat for Butterflies," I surveyed the healthy flock of butterflies here at the cottage and decided that our gardens are providing them with an ideal haven to live long and prosper.  Why else would the swallowtails and their cousins be so abundant amid the blooms?

Sitting in the audience the next evening, attempting to make logical connections between new information and known facts, I realized there's more to creating a butterfly habitat than maintaining a garden full of bright flowers.  Cindi's purpose in standing before the community, other than to talk about creatures she obviously loves, was to inform fellow gardeners and backyard naturalists about "specific strategies for landscaping with native plants to support our native butterfly populations."  (I quote the bright green flyer promoting Cindi's program.)

How simple!  Plant and cultivate specific plants attuned to the lifecycle of specific butterflies.  Help your garden grow, then sharpen your eye and observe these beautiful creatures as they progress through the amazing cycle of butterfly life, culminating in one of the nature's most incredible acts of transformation, the metamorphosis of the entangled, anchored pupa into the unbound, airborne adult.

Are you enamored of the black swallowtail?  Then plant parsley, fennel, dill, or Queen Anne's lace.  It's likely you'll have a crop of black swallowtail caterpillars in the spring and summer garden.

Showing photographs on a big screen, Cindi told us about the needs of a roster of butterflies native to the community.  My notes are a bit spotty, but here's what I managed to record.

Tiger swallowtails lay their eggs on the tulip tree and the black cherry.

Spicebush butterflies require spicebush and sassafras to reproduce.

Zebra swallowtails need the pawpaw bush.

Pine vine swallowtails lay their eggs on Dutchman's pipevine.

Giant swallowtails need prickly ash, water ash, or rue.

Painted ladies require mallow and hollyhocks.

The Diana fritillary lays her eggs on violets.

Baltimore checkerspots need turtlehead plants.

Cindy mentioned others — the wild indigo duskywing and the buckeye appear in my notes, along with a couple of moths, but I failed to record their favored plants.  No matter.  We know where to find the answers now, a place that rhymes with ogle and exists only a nanosecond away.

butterfly on the veranda

Black Swallowtail and Lantana
August 15, 2010, at Crow's Cottage

OK, I probably got some of the details wrong.  I'll bet other species of milkweed, genus Asclepias, are obedient to the reproductive requirements of the monarch.  That doesn't mean milkweed by any other name won't be cut down by the blades of a riding mower, or chopped into bits by the whirling dervishes aka weed eaters and edge trimmers, or rendered inert by pesticides.  Some butterflies, adapting over generational time, may have become generalists and are now willing to deposit their eggs on any leaf suitable to expediency or fancy.  As for the list of native butterflies and plants in my notes, I'm sure the list is not, as they say, "exhaustive."

But I got it, Cindi's premise and the reasoning it engenders.  Habitat enhancement is a necessary and doable act, and butterflies can use our help.  Creating friendly habitat isn't a theoretical construct, but a down-to-the-earth step forward by individuals who desire to shape their immediate natural environment to the advantage of native wildlife.  And the step forward takes place where it matters most to you and me:  in our own yards and the public green spaces we share as a community.

I'm not a legalist like the woman in Cindi's audience who interrupted the presentation to let us know that the word Asclepias was spelled incorrectly on one of Cindi's projected images.  I didn't notice.  My Greek and Latin aren't that sharp anymore, and truth be told, I was wondering if the scientific word for milkweed rhymed with the name of the ancient tragedian Aeschylus, and then a moment later I was lost in a reverie about the awesome diversity of the order Lepidoptera.

Compelling others by edict or ordinance to manage their property according to my version of the universe just isn't part of my repertoire.  More than enough of my fellow citizens are willing to step forth and manage that civic duty.  Principles of natural law, not the oft arbitrary and sometimes elitist nature of civil law, work better for me.

However, not wanting to become the scofflaw, I do pay attention to the pronouncements of the practitioners and agents of officialdom.  By virtue of participation, they make the rules.  I do my best to steer clear of wanton violations of the standards they set and seek to enforce, especially in the front yard, where the prying eyes of busybodies, tattletales, and inspectors can make for a very bad day.

Peer pressure, moral suasion, and leadership by example seem far better methodology in the struggle to influence one's fellows to regard the welfare of others, human and critter alike, as essential to the wholeness and harmony of community, family, and ultimately of Self.  Education, too:  Events like the Butterfly Lady's presentation at the public library enrich the discourse, bring people together, and teach practical and proven ways to make good things happen.

fritillary on sunflower

Great Spangled Fritillary on a Sunflower
July 31, 2011, at Crow's Cottage

Today, the third day of August, habitat enhancement is tomorrow's dream, an exercise of the intellect.  Out-of-doors in the inferno, the moment is consumed by questions of survival.

How to balance a plant's need for water with the capacity of its roots to endure the soggy overload?  Living in pots and boxes, most of the annuals are five, maybe six months old.  Their roots are a tangled, compacted clump with diminished capacity to serve the extraordinary needs of the mature leaves and flowers rising with dogged determination above the weary soil.

Water isn't cheap.  Budgets are tight.  I survey the hundreds of perennials growing along the fence lines, around the house and shop.  Decisions about where to water take on the character of triage.

How many more days of scorchers can the severely stressed flowers and shrubs endure before they fall over dead?  Given the dire forecasts of the weathermen, the number of too-hot days is likely to morph into weeks.  I hear the lament, No end in sight.  I know it isn't so.

The healthiest flowering plants at the cottage today are the lantana — bushy, erect and laden with blooms.  Five swallowtails drink from the lantana's red and yellow flowers.  Their butterfly blood runs hot from the rays of blazing sunshine.

Mercury in the glass tube of the thermometer climbs to a height of one hundred and seven degrees.  Diligent, I send another prayer for rain to the Creator, who listens.  I am secure in the promise of autumn's sure arrival, not too far 'round the bend of time.  Knowing so imparts a necessary comfort.




lilbatCindy Cope's Butterfly Resources
The night of her presentation, on the display table beside glass-covered cases of butterfly specimens supplied by a university professor, I found Cindy's hand-out, "References / Other Resources / Plant Sources."  Click the butterfly at the top left and you'll be spirited away to a list of those resources.


lilbatFayetteville Community
Habitat Project

Cindi's presentation at the city library was the fourth of five programs in the Summer Speaker Series sponsored by the Fayetteville Community Wildlife Habitat Project.  The city is presently engaged in an initiative to become an "official Certified Wildlife Habitat" under aegis of the National Wildlife Federation.  Project leader Terri Lane told the audience at Cindi's presentation that the project is very close to success.


lilbatHabitat:  Already Given
The previous Letter from Crow's Cottage explored issues and ideas related to native habitat preservation.  How do we as individuals relate to the habitat on the other side of closed doors to home and office, school and shop?  Window box or Xbox?  Garden or four-wheeler?  Green space or asphalt?


lilbatBig Photographs 
If you'd like to see larger photographs of the flowers and plants featured on this page, just scroll back up and click any image except the fritillary on a leaf. The click will take you there. Presto.


Buckeye Butterfly on Lantana
August 3, 2011, at Crow's Cottage

another crow

Notices announcing the publication of each Letter from Crow's Cottage are sent by e-mail express to my list of family, friends, students, and fellow travelers. If you've come here by some other means than an e-mail invitation, and would like to receive notices, please write me so I can add you to the list. I share the addresses with no one but Godzilla the Atomic Road Lizard, who can't type, doesn't do e-mail, and won't tell.

     Ebenezer Bowles

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The stories
linked below
form the narrative "Travels with Godzilla."


The Journey Ends:
Bye, Buck Bowles.


Dispatch Eighteen
Monday, August 31


By the Hand of Man.


Dispatch Seventeen
Thursday, August 27


Shy and Wonderful:
In Pursuit
Of the Wild Image.


Dispatch Sixteen
Bowling Green,
Wednesday, August 26


It Wasn't the Flood.


Dispatch Fifteen
West Virginia
Tuesday, August 25


What Coal?
So Many Mountains
Giving Some Up.


Dispatch Fourteen
West Virginia
Monday, August 24


Illustrated Man:
Pay Is Pay
On the
Honorable Path.


Dispatch Twelve
West Virginia
Saturday, August 22


Which Road?
Counting the Lanes.


Dispatch Eleven
Bel Air,
Friday, August 21


An Easy Puzzle:
Shade Drenched,
Flat and Tidy.


Dispatch Ten
Thursday, August 20


Sea Cruise:
A Fine Old Motor Vessel Makes a Smooth Crossing from Jersey to Delaware.


Dispatch Nine
Wednesday, August 19


Mighty Joe:
From the River Valley To the Sandy Pine Barrens On a Road to Heaven.


Dispatch Eight
New Jersey
Tuesday, August 18


Sugar Hollow Road:
Not too Far
down the Way
from Mehoopany.


Dispatch Seven
Scranton, Pennsylvania
Friday, August 14


Lucky Stars:
Godzilla Wrestles
a Bear.


Dispatch Six
Scranton, Pennsylvania
Thursday, August 13


Off Balance, Agitated.


Dispatch Five
Erie, Pennsylvania
Tuesday, August 11


Success and Fear On the Sly Peripheral.


Dispatch Four
Kent, Ohio
Monday, August 10


You Want to Take Forever.


Dispatch Three
Howe, Indiana
Sunday, August 9


Army Truck:
Carry Me Home.


Dispatch Two
Watseka, Illinois
Saturday, August 8


Road Trip:
Go Fast.


Dispatch One
Muscatine, Iowa
Friday, August 7


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