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A Butterfly By Any Other Name


There is a wistfulness to days like this one – late October days when the sun is bright and the breeze balmy, when a sweater is unnecessary, when my walk is interrupted by hunters slowing their pick-up trucks when they go by so as not to choke me and Owen in the dust. There is wistfulness and almost a melancholy as my mind invariably races ahead to the darker, colder days ahead.


I have learned, though, that the antidote to the creeping poignancy is deliberate awareness. An intentional noticing of what is, concentration on that which I can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch in this moment keeps me from whining, bemoaning, and lamenting about the moments to come. So, as Owen scampers ahead, darting off into the woods and back again, in search of his own sensory delights, I slow my steps and scan the landscape for wildflowers that have bloomed since I last walked this way.


Within moments I identify, with the help of an app on my phone, two species I’ve probably passed hundreds of times over the years, but never taken the time to notice: Painted Spurge (Euphorbia heterophylla) and Wild Marigold (Tagetes minuta). They are both growing close to one of my favorites, Purple False Foxglove (Agalinis purpurea), which blooms in such abundance that from a distance the edges of the road look like they have been painted with watercolor.


As I am bent over staring at yet another plant, a butterfly lands gently on one of the stalks, sending it trembling like an eyelash. I don’t remember having seen such a butterfly before and I want to know its name, I want to be able to call it – like the Painted Spurge and Wild Marigold – what it is. I gently pull out my phone and, just as I get the camera zoomed in, the butterfly flits away. I try to follow it and realize that there is a whole swarm of them looping among the marigolds and foxgloves. With long wings striped black and white, they stand out among all the green.


I move slowly, trying to make sure that my shadow doesn’t alert them to my presence. I step softly, unsure of how well butterflies hear. I hold my breath. Sometimes one must disguise one’s humanness to get close to the rest of nature.


I get the photo and load it into the app which identifies the butterfly as – and I can’t help laughing out loud – a Zebra Longwing. Well, of course, it is.


I find out later that the Zebra Longwings aren’t even supposed to be in Georgia. That they are tropical butterflies and that their natural habitat reaches no farther north than Florida. That they are probably here only because a hurricane blew them this way.


At this moment, though, in a world in which definitional names and titles can rarely be trusted – in which no one is sure what a person is when he claims to be a conservative or she insists she is a liberal, in which one can never know what to expect from someone who identifies as an environmentalist or an entrepreneur or, God help us, a Christian – , it is reassuring and amazing and downright magical to find out that Nature has given us a butterfly with long black and white wings whose name is Zebra Longwing.


I call Owen back to the road, stuff the phone into my back pocket, and head for home. Thoreau may have gone to the woods to live deliberately, but I go to be amazed. And on this day, this late October day when the sun is bright and the breeze balmy, I am more than amazed. I am grateful.


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