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SOME BUTTERFLY FRIENDS
AT dusk all the edges of the pond are lighted with the white candles of the clethra. Its fragrance has in it that fine essence which goes to the making of the nectar and ambrosia of the gods. He who would sup with them may do so by taking canoe of an early August twilight when the purple arras of the coves glow softly golden with the reflected light of the sunset's afterglow. Then the coarser air seems to have let the light slip from between its clumsy particles, leaving its more ethereal essence still clinging to a more subtle interatomic fluid.
The fragrance of the clethra seems always to me as fine as this spirit of light in the ambrosial twilight of the ripened summer. It is no air-borne delight like the resinous scent of the forest pines or the pasture sweet-fern when the hot sun of midday distills them and the hot wind of midday sends them far to you across the quivering fields. It is something finer, softer, more silkily subtle, which, like the rose gold of the afterglow of the sunset, tints the dusk of the cove between the air atoms, not by way of them.
Then, as the gold glimmers and fades and the pink faints in the cooling purple of the dusk, and the outline of the cove shore slips from the front of your eye to the chambers of memory behind it, so that you else might see it best with the eyes shut, the white candles are lighted and the eager moth sees by them to sup with you and me and the gods on this essence of ambrosia, to tipple on this spirit of nectar which the night reserves for those that love it.
I do not know why the clethra which gleams so white in the dusk should need anything more than its own white beauty to call the moth to its wooing. Perhaps it does not need more. Perhaps all this fine fragrance is but the overflow of its soul's delight at being young and chastely beautiful, and trembling in the ultra violet darkness on that delicious verge of life that waits the wooer. I half fancy that this is true of all perfume of flowers, that it is less a call to butterfly or bee to come to their winning than it is a radiation of delight from their own pure hearts at the dawning of the full joy of living. I am not always willing to take the word of the scientific investigator on these points as final. The scientists of the not very remote past have known so much that is not so!
It is possible that, just as a hunting-dog picks up a scent that is strong in his nostrils and has no power in ours, so the flowers that we call scentless send out an odor too faintly fine for our senses, yet one that the antennae of moth or bee may entangle as it passes and hold for a certain clue. Perhaps the scents that are only faint to us carry far for the butterfly, but if so, and if flower perfumes are made only for the calling of insects, why need they be made so intoxicating to the human senses? The scent of carnations is as pleasing to the soul as a strain of beautiful music, and equally arouses high aspirations and noble longings. So to me the odor of the clethra at nightfall is a tenuous thread of ethereality that reaches far toward a realm of spiritual ideals. It ought to go with a ritual and a vested choir.
I do not find the odor of the pasture milkweed speaking thus to any inner sense. It is just a gentle, lovable, stay-at-home smell that surely does not float farther than the pasture bars. Yet of all the plants that have bloomed within my world of garden and pasture this summer it has been by far the most popular among insects. It is not that it is the most attractive to the eye, in any of its forms, for there are many flowers of colors more vivid and to be seen farther, as well as of much stronger scent. Yet all day long you will find it besieged by bees, from the aristocratic Italian worker from the farmer's best hive down to those scallawag bees that make no honey for themselves but lead a vagabond life and lay their eggs in other bees' nests, leaving their young to grow up in unendowed orphan asylums.
Many varieties of ants seek the milkweed blooms, and you shall find about a large clump more sorts of wasps than you would believe existed, yet it is the butterflies who most of all make it their rallying place. Every butterfly in the whole region makes it his business to know each large clump of milkweed, and to make the rounds at least daily.
There, if you watch, you may see the pretty little pearl crescent, whose range is from Labrador to Texas. The shy meadow browns flit out from the shadow of the brook alders and feed for a moment before they take fright at the fact that they are out in society and flit desperately back again. The angle wings flip about like animated question-marks, and fulvous fritillaries soar sedately, now and then lighting to feed and fold their wings that you may see the big silver spots of the under parts. And so you might name them all, almost every butterfly of early August, all besieging the milkweed so eagerly that you may hardly drive them away.
The fact is they come neither for scent nor sight; they come for good taste --which they find in the honey glands of the peculiarly shaped bloom, which are obvious and sticky and within reach of all. I do not think it is half so much the odor of the flower which draws them, be it never so sweet or so strong, but memory of the honey dew sipped there yesterday or last week. No doubt the love of the milkweed bloom is an inherited tendency, also, bred in the bones from a line of milkweed-frequenting ancestors infinitely long. Indeed, one of our most splendid butterflies is the Anosia plexippus, otherwise known as the milkweed butterfly, rightly named also the monarch. Every boy who knows the country in summer knows him by his rich, red coloration, his strong, black-bordered wings with their black veins. Every bird knows him too and lets him alone. On the first median nervule of the hind wings of the butterfly is a scent bag whence he dispenses an odor so disagreeable to the bird who would eat him that he goes free, and is not afterward troubled.
Along with the monarch sipping honey with eager industry from the meadow milkweed, you will often see the viceroy, who, as a viceroy should, closely imitates, but does not equal, the monarch. He has neither the monarch's vigor of flight nor his means of defence from predatory birds, but his safety -- so the students tell us -- lies in looking so much like his superior that he also is let alone. The students go on to say that his is a good example of the imitative power of insects whereby they escape destruction by seeming to the casual eye to be something else.
The viceroy, which is a Basilarchia disippus, thus looks not the least like other members of his family, but consciously mimics the coloring of the monarch for safety. Thus many tropical beetles contrive to look like wasps that they may not be molested, and some insects look like brown leaves and others like green ones.
But do they contrive, imitate, mimic? It is no doubt true that because of the resemblance they escape, but to say that they imitate or contrive or mimic seems to me to be to assume a knowledge of the workings of the inner consciousness of an insect that not even the most careful student can have. I am more inclined to believe that the so-called mimics are fortunate in an accidental resemblance and so escape the destruction of their species which has fallen upon many a less fortunate type.
Yet no butterfly, however exquisite his coloring, or however strong and graceful his flight, twangs with his fluttering wings the fine heartstrings of romance as does the monarch. The first one that came dancing down the sunlight to the sweet rocket in bloom in my garden this spring brought to me a spicy odor of tropic isles. The beating of his wings shed, as he passed, faint fragrance of Mexican jasmine, and I thought I saw slip from them the infinitesimal dust of the pollen of stephanotis lately blooming in the glades of Panama. Three months before he floated serenely beneath my cherry tree he may well have soared through the tropic glades where crumble the ruins of the palaces of the Incas.
His flight, seemingly as frail as that of a red autumn leaf sliding down the October zephyr to carpet the nearby field with rustling fragrance, has matched that of that rifle-ball of bird life, the ruby-throated humming bird. Together they sip the sweets of my sweet rocket in the spring. Together they wing their way south to the region of perpetual summer when the winds of late September promise frost. Sometimes in this annual flight the monarchs pass the sandy stretches of the New Jersey coast in swarms that, stopping at nightfall for rest, refoliate with their folded wings the shrubs left bare by the autumn gales.
It may be that, like the birds, the knowledge of the route they must follow is bred in the marrow of their butterfly bones by the constant use of a million generations. It may be that they simply drift away from the cool wind from the North toward the Southern sun that shines so serenely in the bright autumn days. Put whether through the guiding hand of Providence, or inherited wisdom, or a fortunate fact that acting from day to day produces the happy result, this Southern movement in winter is the sole salvation of the species here in the North.
If they did not make these long flights we should have no Anosias with us each summer, for unlike other butterflies the frost kills them in whatever form they remain to brave it. All summer long their long, red wings bear them bravely from one clump of milkweed to another. They sip the honey which each floret of the umbels holds forth, the sticky mass the size of a pinhead. They lay their eggs upon its leaves and the black and yellow caterpillars hatch and feed there. Then they hang in a green and gold chrysalis from a nearby twig till the imago, the perfect butterfly, bursts its bonds and sails away to find more milkweed. There may be several broods, of a summer, but the frost stops all that. The monarch may not winter here, nor may his eggs or chrysalids survive the cold.
Many butterflies, frail though they seem, do pass the New England winter successfully. The Antiopa vanessa, otherwise known as mourning cloak or Camberwell beauty, a handsome brown fellow with blue spots and a pale yellow margin, well known to every one, flits joyously through the woods with the very first warm days of spring. He has been snugged up in some dry crevice, numbed and torpid, but very much alive, all winter. The first genial warmth sets him free, and later I always find his children browsing on the willow twigs over in the cove. They are rough chaps, horrid with bristling black spines and with dull red spots relieving their otherwise plain black hides. But they grow fast, and by and by go out upon a twig and hang themselves, head down, by a little silken rope, swinging there in the wind, simply a dead caterpillar that has imitated Judas.
One day the caterpillar part sloughs off. It is a fairly sudden process. You may paddle by the willows in the morning and see all your little Judases hanging in a row. Paddle back at noon and their skins have shrivelled and slipped off, and you have chrysalids, queer, impish-looking things, swinging there still, head down. You know they are alive; indeed, if you poke them they will wiggle impatiently, but they swing in the wind and give no other sign for a week or ten days. Then they cast a second skin, and pop out full-grown butterflies that stretch their wings for a time leisurely, then suddenly dash into the air and go off over the hill like mad. The whole thing is so sudden! The change, when it does come, is as if some woodland magician had waved a willow wand and said “Abra-ca-dabra; presto, change!” Time and again I have watched to see that caterpillar skin fall off, and again to see the vanessa step forth from the domino in which it has been masquerading, but they have always been too quick for me.
Other butterflies survive in the chrysalis all winter and come forth full grown and fit in the spring. Such may speak to your listening imagination through their beauty, which is often great, or through their resurrection from seeming death, though if you will observe them closely in the chrysalid form you will see that they are not even seemingly dead. Evangelists who have held up the butterfly to us as a prototype of that resurrection which we may expect if we are good, evidently never closely observed the chrysalis of a good healthy butterfly, else they had not been so sure of their corpse.
Lately I have had chrysalids of the Papilio asterias, the common eastern swallowtail, in my study. I found the fat black and yellow worms on my parsley and caged them. They soon hitched themselves to the wire netting by their tails, hanging from overhead on a slant, their shoulders (so to speak) being supported by a single loop of silk. If you did but tap on the wire netting or scratch it these chrysalids would wiggle and jerk quite angrily, their action saying plainly, “Can't you let me alone? I'm just having a nap!” No; it is plainly no death and resurrection which makes a butterfly. It is merely a caterpillar who was dressed for the fancy ball all the time. He came to the woodland ball in his greatcoat. This he sheds for a domino, in which he masquerades for a time. Then he bursts forth for the final festivities in a robe of princely beauty.
My chrysalids did this only the other day. Wonderful creatures of black and yellow came forth, stretched their wings till I could see the dainty shading of blue and the peacock-feather eye of red and black on the lower part of the secondary wings; then, as I opened the window they dashed madly away as the vanessas do from willow twigs in the cove. The butterfly has been held up to us as an example of lazy dalliance. I have never watched one that was not as busy as a politician on election day. Especially do those just wakened from the chrysalis form rush away as if they knew all their work was before them and they longed to be at it.
Of them all the monarch is not the most beautiful, but I rank him as surely the ablest. His annual migration shows him to have wonderful strength of wing, and either much wisdom or an extraordinarily developed instinct. Very likely he has both. Further, through accident pure and simple, or else a spirit of adventure fostered by the joys of long annual journey, he is steadily extending his habitat to embrace the known world. Originally of North America only, he has within the last dozen years taken ship for Australia, where he has multiplied greatly in the warmer regions, and has wandered again over sea to Java, Sumatra, and followed the flag into the Philippines. He is well established at the Cape de Verde Islands, and is doing his best to be happy in the pale sunshine of the south of England, whence specimens are reported yearly.
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