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Monday Photo Meditation: Until the Butterflies Depart

Early September: hot, bright, mostly clear save for the persistent haze of smoke. It’s an absolutely beautiful day today, and yet just beneath the surface there thrums a feeling of anxious waiting, of breath held in abeyance.

It’s not just us who feel it; we can see the birds gathering, some refueling before their next stage of migration, others calling their own home to settle in for what signs seem to indicate will be an early winter. Most of the hummingbirds have vanished over the last few days, leaving behind only a few of the tiniest but hardiest of their kind; conversely, the flickers and the scrub jays and the chickadees are arriving in numbers now.

It seems that we are entering autumn early again this year; early, to, the season when the butterflies depart, although precious few have spent much time here over the course of this summer anyway.

That, too, is a loss to the land, and to us.

Butterflies hold a special place in some traditions: messengers of the spirits; symbols of romantic love; pollinators who keep the land alive. It seems a heavy weight upon such fragile wings, but they bear up under it with apparent ease. What’s harder to endure is the climatic and seasonal changes that make the land inhospitable to their kind now.

The one above is known by the colonial name of white admiral, a name that is not particularly apt given that the only white on its outer cloak is a single band set against a velvety expanse of solid black. But that seems to be the norm for colonial names — inapt, even flatly incorrect, certainly nondescriptive. Our peoples would name it by what it does.

Even so, it’s not one typically found here, at least not anymore, and in point of fact, this particular visitation dates back four or five years, if memory serves. This one was in need of rescue, as it happens; Wings found it on the ground at the garden, stunned and incapable of movement; apparently one of the larger birds, perhaps a magpie, had thought it would make a meal, and then dropped it. We rescued it, allowing it to climb onto our hands and then finding it a safe perch in the garden, well camouflaged and quiet. In return, it allowed Wings to snap a couple of shots, one with wings outstretched, and a second in this unusual underside view, showing the gorgeous interplay of white and black and coppery brown in the veining of its wings.

It seemed a fine trade.

All the moreso, given that its kind seems a rarity here: I believe we’ve only seen one other since that time. In this place, early summer is the time when most of the butterflies appear, the mourning cloaks first and then the swallowtails. By mid-summer, it’s mostly the fluttery whites and sulphurs, plus a mix of the tiny grays and periwinkles. The monarchs don’t tend to appear until August and usually remain until mid-September or so before moving on.

And yet, all bets are off this year, and all usual patterns, too. This morning, a solitary mourning cloak appeared as if out of nowhere, dancing around the edges of the stand of red willows outside the kitchen door. As their kind go, they are relatively unbothered by our kind, it seems, willing to float and spiral and dance in proximity, as long as we are quiet about it. Most years, their clan has long since vanished, usually gone by early July at the latest.

Their wine-colored wings are not the only rarity now.

A few weeks ago, I caught multiple glimpses of an unknown cousin of their, a large specimen with coppery-brown lower wings. Over the last two to three days, I’ve seen a giant butterfly spiraling past the windows and deck, backlit and so visible only in silhouette. It was probably simply a large monarch, since this is their time, but if so, it was an extraordinary specimen.

Their appearances here now are gifts, the sort of small blessings that turn an everlastingly ordinary day in something gilded with magic.

It’s a little something from Spirit to get us through these last days before the cold settles in hard and deep, to warm our own spirits in advance of winter.

Winter is not far off now.

But for this moment, hovering on the sharp edge of fall, we still share space with these last spirits of summer. And until the butterflies depart, we can be sure of both warmth and light.

~ Aji








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