A December Butterfly Brings Hope
Updated: Dec 30, 2021
In the middle of the brown landscape of winter a flash or orange and silver movement caught my eye. It startled me and when I looked a little closer, I realized it was a gulf fritillary butterfly. The joy of a new beginning and the sadness of knowing it was the wrong season for this butterfly to be eclosing (coming out of its chrysalis) hit me at once.
This happened on Christmas Eve, which is such a symbolic time. A butterfly emerging in December in Atlanta is as magical as Christmastime snow in Houston or Atlanta. I was lucky enough to live in both cities when this happened and there was only joyfulness all around at the improbability of it all.
When a butterfly emerges and you realize it has a slim chance of survival, the joy is mixed with heartache though. To stop perseverating about the incongruity of the situation I took three meditative breathes and gave myself a space to appreciate the wonder of seeing a newly emerged butterfly in December.
Naturescaping my small, semi-urban yard gives me an insight into the natural world that I would never know if my yard was more traditionally landscaped. It’s a gift I cannot fully appreciate because I only have a rudimentary understanding of how everything works together and why. The possibility of miracles every day in such a tiny piece of the earth transcends human explanation.
The peek into the natural world also challenges my wish that nature be kind and gentle. I took a few photos because the wings and body of the butterfly didn’t look right, came inside, and looked on the internet to see if there was anything I could do to help this poor butterfly. I try hard not to interfere with what goes on in my yard as much as possible, but I still have a hard time seeing any living creature die. One of my rules (that I don’t always follow!) is that if the danger is manmade, I can intervene, but if it is part of the natural order of things, I need to leave it alone. When I helped save gulf fritillary caterpillars from someone who didn’t want them on her passionflower vine, it fell in the manmade category. When I saved a caterpillar from a native spined soldier bug, I knew I was interfering and felt a bit guilty. Saving a caterpillar from an invasive stink bug is a little more of a grey area plus telling the difference between the spined soldier bug and stink bug can be tricky.
Last winter, I found a green owlet looper caterpillar that had stowed away on a basil bouquet I brought in before the first frost. When it made a cocoon on the basil, I put it outside under some leaves. This time I also knew what to do about the butterfly. I still consulted the internet before reaffirming my decision to let it be. Whether it’s because of La Nina, climate change, or just a fluke of nature, I needed to just accept the butterfly was there for a reason. Maybe this happens all the time and I was just connected enough to my yard to see it.
I decided to have another moment with the butterfly and maybe document it a bit better. I stopped when I saw a brown thrasher poking around the yard through my backdoor window. I’ve noticed the cardinals, thrashers, towhees, and other ground feeding birds like my yard better than the supplemental feeders and tend to show up just before it gets dark. I waited a few minutes until I was sure I wouldn’t be disturbing any birds getting their last bit of food before nighttime.
When I looked where the butterfly had been she wasn’t there. It was dusk so I looked a little closer around where I thought she had been. My heart sank when I saw that all that was left of her were wings on the ground.
In my world a beautiful butterfly is more desirable than other insects, but in the context of a yard habitat, the butterfly’s two essential roles are as a pollinator and a member of the food web. In the summer and fall a butterfly can take cover and blend in with foliage and the flowers it pollinates. In the drab winter landscape, a butterfly stands out exposed to predators and there are few if any of the flowers it needs to survive around. A butterfly emerging in the winter is also an unexpected gift of much needed nutrients for a hungry bird. In less than 10 minutes I saw a healthy ecosystem in action and proof that there is great hope for restoring nature in rewilded yards. One of the challenges is accepting the complicated relationships nature creates and remaining a bystander, not an active participant.
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