Butterfly Days

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For me, growing up with a slew of boys had a lot of pluses, but it must have been exhausting for my mom. The back yard looked like a war zone with mounds of dirt and tunnels, and the hose running 24/7 so we could flood army guys when their battles took a turn for the worse. We had rolls of caps that were supposed to go in our cap guns, but we often streamlined that process and banged the whole roll out with a rock on the black top. Naturally there were BB guns pointed at targets in the back, and on more than one occasion I took some shrapnel in my buttocks and had to be bribed so I would not tell my mom. We had all the Dr. Seuss books and felt free to write on all the pages, and sometimes we would add our own creatures or draw one of Dr. Seuss’s animals doing something inappropriate. Despite having a mom who was a nurse, we practiced our own first aid down back, removing slivers with a needle and a lit match and applying mud poultices to our rashes from our encounters with stinging nettles. We commandeered my mom’s porch and set up row upon row of gallon jars resting on their sides with holes poked in the tops. Each had a garter snake or a milk snake coiled in some grass on the bottom. There were turtles in the galvanized tub in the driveway. We rounded up all of my dad’s tools in the back yard each day and often pounded our thumbs with hammers or barely escaped a bout with tetanus thanks to our affection for his saw with the rusty blade. Basically, a lot happened from the time we got up until we fell into our beds at night.

One of my brothers became interested in taxidermy, and there was a trio of brothers up the street who shared his interest in the Daniel Boone lifestyle. Boxes of glass eyes would arrive on our doorstep, and I would run my fingers through them. Around this time I would venture up the street to participate in a game of hide and seek which might bring me into the neighbor boys’ barn and there, to my horror, I saw several muskrat pelts being stretched out as part of the taxidermy operation. The glass eyes didn’t seem so neat anymore. I tattled to my folks and harassed my brother, and his dalliance in taxidermy was short lived.

Meanwhile, when I was seeking out more peaceful and happy encounters with the natural world around me, sometimes I needed to only go as far as the sidewalk. I noticed we had a resident red admiral butterfly who took to resting on our sidewalk. I adopted him as my pet, and he learned to crawl on my finger. I was most pleased, but one afternoon noted I he was not there and decided to get a Creamscicle while I waited for him to show up. When I opened the freezer, there in the front was a mason jar with my butterfly in it looking pretty distressed. I grabbed the jar and ran out the front door and released him before he was frozen and this prompted another round of tattling, but at least the butterfly survived. My brother finally decided he preferred our local wildlife alive rather than glassy eyed and dead, and as a result , things were much happier around the dinner table.

I am still a fan of butterflies, and it is pretty hard to find anyone who is not. There are around 750 varieties in our country . It’s hard to pick a favorite. Is it the black swallowtail and his delicate wings, ugly duckling chrysalis and affinity for parsley and dill? Or perhaps the classic monarch, the posterchild of attractiveness in each stage of his metamorphosis as well a hero in the migration department? Or is it the Red Admiral, more understated across the board. I think he has my vote as I read that he is the most people-friendly butterfly in these parts. As if that is not appealing enough, he throws caution to the wind and feeds on stinging nettle. That seals the deal for me.

Photo by Joan Heffernan
If you wish to avoid the nettle plants which are host to Red Admiral caterpillars, you may keep a closer watch in an herb garden for the Black Swallowtail caterpillar and later in the flower garden as an adult butterfly.

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