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Red Willow Spirit: Hope Transforms

White Admiral Top View By Wings Resized

Sometimes, a visitor from out of nowhere brings a gift: a challenge, a hope, a promise, even if as yet unrealized, of a better world.

Last week, we hosted one such guest, the beautiful small spirit in the image above.

This is not to say that white admirals are not found here at Red Willow. I’m sure they are at least occasional migratory guests. But on this particular bit of land? Until now, Wings and I had never seen one. That, in itself, was a gift (although given the rapid changes to our natural world, a gift no longer as rare as one might otherwise think).

This place has long been a haven for butterflies, both the larger region and this small space within our own boundaries. the former is a product of the our very local climate, one with four discrete season, a relatively substantial amount of annual precipitation, and significant watersheds that all support a diverse and thriving ecosystem, including those plants and animal species, migratory and otherwise, that require access to water. Only three hours’ travel south of here, the land begins to flatten out, the air to heat up, the water to dry up. In the southern end of the state, almost the only butterflies that put in a regular appearance are the small skippers, the white and sulphurs, and their cousins the moths.

Here, we are more fortunate. The mourning cloaks are usually our first visitors of the year among the larger species; the monarchs make their home here at the appointed time, as do the painted ladies and the tiger swallowtails. Once, we were given the gift of a visit from a black swallowtail, a vanishingly rare occurrence.

And, perhaps, the admirals, although if they have come to this land in the past, they have stayed thoroughly hidden from view.

The mourning cloaks are a mixed blessing. They are not the fastest-moving of the butterflies, but they are particularly resistant to allowing their images to be captured. Neither of us has ever managed a photo of one of these small spirits cloaked in what seems almost royal raiment, robes the color of rich red wine, edged in ermine and bejeweled with tiny sapphires. But more to the point, I am as unsettled as I am glad to see them each year: glad because they herald summer’s return; unsettled because they so often seem to live up to their name too well, appearing shortly before a death occurs. That has happened on several occasions now, and while it’s easy to write it off to painful coincidence, it’s also true that I associate them with the gentle and nurturing spirit of my late sister, which leaves the link between identity and occurrence always freshly open in my mind.

Perhaps that is why they permit no photos, because they are heralds and escorts with other, more solemn work to do.

The swallowtails, by contrast, seem animated by sheer joy.

Western Tiger Swallowtail Resized

They are the color of the sun studded with sky, the shade of the day barred and banded with night. Their pronged “swallowtails” give them a balletic appearance, like dancers moving from graceful arabesque to grand jeté in a single beat of their wings. They, too, dance rapidly, up and down and over and under and through and spiraling around in a golden vortex. They love the purple sage blossoms, but they will spin around the aspens, too, and occasionally alight just long enough to permit a photo, provided that one is quick and quiet and focused. They seem better ambassadors of their kind, at least as regards local symbology: emissaries of joy and romantic love, substantial, but not weighed down by more somber messages.

We get royalty, too, and what might be termed mere landed gentry: the American painted lady, often mistaken for the larger, bolder monarchs.

American Painted Lady Resized

I love both for reasons similar and very, very different. Their coloring and patterning are obviously close, and beautiful in either iteration. But there is a softness, both literal and metaphorical, to the painted lady that is absent in the monarch. Part of it is the coloring, intense shades that blend together like rich oil paints, and yet seem to flow like watercolors — soft, subtle, easily perceived but much harder to define and articulate.

Part of it is that they are genuinely softer, with smaller bodies that bear the velvet more often associated with moths. And while our society jokes about moths to flame, the painted lady is flame, a brilliant reddish-orange the color of fire, or a summer sunset here in this place.

But the story of the butterflies is also a story of climate change, and not all such velvety visitors are so helpful, or even benign.

Maple Borer Moth Resized

Two years ago, in the early weeks of autumn, this tiny creature appeared. He was a frenzy of activity, wings a constant cream-colored blur in the grass. He was also friendly enough, perfectly happy to sit on my shirt.

I had never seen a being quite like him: a head covered in thick shaggy fur — there was literally no other word for it but fur — with matching velvet wings. His legs and antennae were the color of old coral, and so were the edges of each segment of his body. Wings picked up the stalk that had captured his interest so thoroughly, and he as quite content to have his food source held in the hand of a much larger being, provided he could eat uninterrupted. His antennae seemed to be made of some fine coppery netting, like delicate metal mesh gently molded and shaped at the proper angles.

Maple Borer Moth 2 Resized

He was quite beautiful, and very nearly cuddly.

He could also do great damage here.

He is a maple borer moth, one indigenous to the lands my own people call home, where maple trees are an inherent and organic part of the landscape. Neither of us had ever seen one here, but in recent years, all sorts of creatures are departing from their usual migratory patterns and paths to seek sanctuary in our small space in this place called Red Willow.

About three years ago, Wings gave me a great gift: He planted a more wild strawberries, wild raspberries, and a pair of trees that, while, not unknown to this region, are hallmarks of my own homelands. One is a birch, the other, a maple — living plant spirits that would make this place feel more like home to me. All are thriving. But this tiny fuzzy moth has the power to change that, at least with regard to the maple.

Still, we let him be; it was not our place to determine the length of his life, and with October only a day or so away, he would be moving on to warmer climes anyway, if he made it through the night. And so we left him in the grass to feed, and allowed him to make his own choice, He did not return, so perhaps his instincts called him elsewhere, where his preferred diet would not be limited to one young and still-spindly tree.

He didn’t appear last year, either. But another of his extended clan did, and much earlier, too: In midsummer, on a cool and rainy late afternoon, I caught sight of this creature in the grass, wings spinning in a frenzy.

Hawk Moth Resized

The scale is not apparent from the photo, but it was huge — a wingspan at full spread wider than the palm of my hand. Outside of photos of the sorts of giant moths found in places like Madagascar or the Amazon rain forest, I’d never seen one of such size, certainly not in real life. What is also not apparent from the photo is the unusual coloring on its innerwings, a bright salmon-like pink. In full flutter, the wings themselves are a blur of pink and beige, moving too fast for the human eye to track, so that their edges disappear and they become one swirl of constant motion.

It was a hawk moth, another species new to us (or so we thought). It appeared to belong to the poplar hawk moth subspecies, a true giant of a moth, and probably the least colorful of its kin and kind. They, too, are velvety of head and body, with enormous soft wings and an ability to cling, despite their size and weight, with unlikely softness to a single leaf.

They can also do a great deal of damage to the leaves.

On this late day, as the showers turned to rain and the sky darkened prematurely, we left the creature safely ensconced on the leaf, the whole world dripping around him. When the next morning dawned, bright and sunny, he was gone, and has not returned since.

Hawk Moth 2 Resized

And as we would later learn, he was not the only species of hawk moth to visit us here, and not all are known solely for the damage they can do.

It turns out that one of our regular residents here, a creature that, until this year, had only appeared in late August through early October, is also a species of hawk moth.

Hummingbird Moth

It’s the hummingbird moth.  And unlike her relations, she is known — here, at least — as a welcome spirit of renewal.

Because from a distance, the hummingbird moth looks just like a hummingbird, and thanks to her long and efficient proboscis, she performs a similar function: pollination. Thanks to fast-beating wings that allow her to hover, innerwings also barred with salmon pink, she even buzzes a bit like her avian namesake.

Normally, they are spirits of early autumn, attracted by the chamisa that blossoms largely in September. But this year thus far, midwinter was spring and early spring was winter, and the purple sage was in full bloom by May. And since at least April, and possibly since the end of March, the hummingbird moths have been here, searching out early blossoms and spreading their fruit far and wide. In a world rapidly transforming, and most often not for the better, these small spirits have been transcendent in very literal terms, appearing early to do their work, so that both they and numerous plant species survive in the face of climate change’s existential threat.

But they are not the only small wingéd spirits who have transcended instinctive boundaries of time and space to transform our world here.

Monarch on Aspen Leaf Resized

Like the hummingbird moth, the monarch butterfly is typically a late-season arrival, a part-year resident who appears for a few weeks along its migratory path. We rarely see them before August, and often not until into September. Depending on the weather, they may depart in early September, or stay, as a few did last year, into the earliest days of October before the first snow flies.

Because of their endangered status worldwide, knowing that this small space is a regular stop on their migratory path is itself a blessing, a benediction of sorts bestowing an informal sanctuary status. We have always known, instinctively, that this bit of land is sacred, a refuge, but the annual return of our own few monarchs confirms it in a way that only a spirit who, despite its rare rate of appearance, nonetheless belongs to the land can do.

One is here already.

This is a record, as far as we can tell; neither of us has ever seen them this early in the season. And they are highly skilled pollinators, dancers attuned to the rhythm of the trees and the song of the wind. Wings saw it first, a couple of weeks ago, and I was skeptical; I thought it was perhaps an unusually large painted lady, or one of the very similar queens or viceroys that are themselves not known to spend much time here.

A day later, I saw it myself, floating past the picnic table and over the hay barn.

A few days after that, I found it spiraling around the weeping willows above the pond, engaged in its own competitively delicate dance with a different, much smaller species of butterfly.

We have seen no others, yet. I suspect, given the sudden high heat and the early sporadic monsoon season, they will arrive sooner rather than later. And I hope we are fortunate enough to host, as in recent years past, at least one mated pair.

DSCN1720 Resized

There’s a reason Wings entitled this image Hope. As its entry in the Photography Gallery says:

In the face of climate change and seasons’ change, of looming winter snows, still it burns like the fiery color of the monarch’s wings.

The urge to live, to pass on one’s spirit, to the future generations comes as naturally as flight to creatures delicate, endangered, and so wholly alive.

Soon there will be birth and rebirth, genesis and regenesis, creation and transformation.

And so, we are given the gift of one final possibility before the snows descend, bright orange wings against a turquoise sky: spiraling, beating, merging, melding into one, and stopping to rest just for one moment before carrying on with life in a cycle of endless possibility . . . of hope.

In a world as dangerous as ours has become, hope transcends the gloom of even the darkest days. Our world is as threatened as these bright small spirits, awash and eroded simultaneously by new and terrible risks. And yet, in the face of extinction, they continue to fly: to return, year after year, to their refuges and sanctuary spaces; to mate; to pollinate; to transform the world — to renew it as it is even as what is was vanishes upon the winds and what it will be remains frighteningly unknowable.

That is what they are, what they do, and our peoples know this lesson better than anyone.

Hope transforms.

~ Aji








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