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Monday Photo Meditation: A World Transformed

White Admiral Underside By Wings Resized

That is what summer is: a world transformed.

In this season, Mother Earth at her most transcendent. The early stages of the year are larval, on a seasonal scale: From the moment Earth and Sun cross that line demarcating the Winter Solstice, all hours lead up to this, the chrysalis of spring that opens, full-bloom, to release the rarified spirit of summer.

Officially, we have just passed that opening day. But the small seasonal spirits chart their paths by more elemental powers than paper-and-ink numbers hanging on a wall, and they have always known that the lines are less sharp.

Never more so than now, as our climate continues to change.

Such changes inevitably alter the form and shape of the seasons’ own chrysalis, too, creating a second layer, a second spiral, of metamorphosis. What emerges this year differs from last year not merely in the identifying features of kin and clan, but in the more fundamental markers of identity.

The butterflies are instructive.

Every year, the first to emerge to dance upon the winds are the small ones, the white and sulphurs, the moths that, from the distance their speed and activity dictate, appear more like their butterfly cousins. In recent years, the hummingbird moths, once creatures of late summer into the early days of autumn, have begun to appear in these early days. But the first butterfly of any size to return to this place each year is nearly always the same: the mourning cloak, all garnet wings edged in cream and cobalt and black.

The next to arrive is usually the swallowtail — here, the Western tiger swallowtail —, giant soft yellow wings barred and edged and tipped in black. Usually, it’s only one, although occasionally we will be blessed with a pair. On one occasion, once only, we were visited for part of a single day by a its black cousin, jet wings dotted with electric blue.

The painted ladies, those pretenders to the throne, typically arrive in midsummer, but the monarchs they resemble usually don’t appear until the latter weeks of the season— at least full August, often into September, last year remaining into the first half of October. But a monarch is here already: Wings saw it first, more than a week ago; I saw it for the first time a day or two later, and then again, adance around the willows with a much smaller cousin.

And then, four days ago, something never before seen here: the white admiral shown above. I almost missed it; I was walking around one of the aspens, making my way back indoors, and halted midstep just in time. It lay in the grass beneath the trees, so perfectly still that I was not convinced it was still alive. It allowed me to take a few photos, then suddenly moved, trying desperately to fly, but able only to hop clumsily to the next blade of grass.

Far from home, all alone, and injured.

We could find nothing obviously wrong with it, and concluded that perhaps it was simply stunned. Wings gently carried it to the flowering rhubarb next to the chicken-wire fence we had just set up around the garden, and there it stayed, wings slowly opening and closing in time to its labored breathing. Eventually, it settled, wings closed, into the position above that showed its beautiful multicolored underside. We resumed work, and suddenly it rose up, staggered a little in mid-air, and hopped clumsily onto the fence next to us.

It stayed there for a few moments, but we remained concerned about its well-being, given that it clearly was not fully stable yet. Gently, I gathered it into my hands and carried it the butterflies’ favorite: the stand of purple sage in full wild bloom next to Griffin’s grave. I put it on a particularly lush stalk, and it grabbed hold eagerly, immediately stretching to reach the open blossom at the top.

There it stayed for a good twenty minutes or so, moving to and fro, climbing a bit in this direction, twisting a little in that, then settling back down to rest. Eventually, it arose into the air once again, and flew straight to us, settling once again on the chicken-wire fence right next to where I stood. It remained there for a few more minutes, then suddenly, it spiraled straight upward, as though utterly unfettered by the laws of gravity, turned and danced so close past my face that I felt the wind of its wings on my cheeks, whirled in the air a final time, and then was gone, between fence and hay barn, off toward the north.

She could not have said thank you any more plainly than if she spoke our languages.

It seems oddly named, this white admiral whose outer wings are a glossy blue black, the white evident only in bands and dots. But it is perhaps fitting, such a name for a butterfly who seems to be more spirit creature than tangible being. In our cultures, there are old, old stories of spirits come to a village in disguise — as an elder, a child, someone sick or injured or destitute, or as an animal spirit, as the cast off and cast out, to see how the most vulnerable will be received. Perhaps she was one. Or perhaps she was a scout for her kind and a harbinger of climate change to come, seeking a receptive place to land on future migrations.

Perhaps climate change is a chrysalis for her kind, and their emergence will send them here, a vulnerable population seeking welcome and safety.

I do know that thanks to her, our day underwent its own metamorphosis. What had been a hot, hard, harsh day suddenly softened, as though every aspect of it had been touched by the gentle flutter of her wings.

We are moving into a world transformed, often dangerously so. But this new world brings with it unexpected blessings, too.

~ Aji








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