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BUTTERFLIES: SYMBOLS OF HOPE

September 19, 2020

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those who are in need. We have decided to continue our support to the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to St. Luke’s Free Clinic 162 N Dean St, Spartanburg, SC 29302 – (864) 542-2273.

Last summer, our daughter Betsy, her husband Jay, and their two young daughters joined us in our family home. When they moved in, Clare and I welcomed them with open arms. It is a part of a long-range plan to help us navigate life.  Clare and I are officially elderly people with diminished capabilities. We are just not as sharp and as spry as we once were.

Little did we know that our new arrangement would be as timely as it has been. The COVID-19 pandemic has limited us all more than we could have anticipated. Jay is a nurse who works on the COVID-19 unit at Spartanburg Regional Medical Center. He is our resident superhero, serving with many others on the front line of the battle with this dread disease.   

One of the joys of our arrangement is the time we have with our granddaughters. While Clare and I miss being with our other grandchildren, the two who live with us bring us great joy every day. One morning this week I was sitting on the screened back porch with the girls when we noticed a pair of large tiger swallowtail butterflies fluttering from purple cone flowers to orange zinnias to pink phlox. They seemed to be dancing as if they were performing a ballet. The bright yellow wings of the butterflies catching the sunlight added a touch of even more beauty to the flowers.

In the late summer and early fall days of September and October, something happens in our garden that is nothing short of amazing. The miracle of metamorphosis occurred yet again this year in our backyard.  It’s the season for caterpillars and for butterflies. By late summer, our garden is aflutter with butterflies of all varieties. Once they take wing, they are drawn to flowering plants that provide a feast of nectar.

Creating a butterfly garden requires a little planning and some maintenance. And it is well worth the effort. Among the favorites of butterflies are ageratum, aster, butterfly bush, bee balm, black-eyed Susan, catmint, coneflower, coreopsis, cosmos, goldenrods, honeysuckle, hyssop, lantana, marigold, phlox, salvia, sedum, verbena, yarrow, and zinnia.

Butterflies are difficult to count because they are constantly on the move.  One sunny afternoon last week, I went to the mailbox. I paused to look at the lantana that anchors our front flower bed.  There were no fewer than thirty butterflies on, above, and around the bush.  There were several varieties including majestic monarchs, deep orange fritillaries, and an American painted lady.  The lantana in full bloom, attended by a bevy of flittering guests, created quite a display.

There are literally millions of species in the biological order Lepidoptera. Every one of them has a larval stage we know best as caterpillars. There are both Jekyll and Hyde varieties, that is to say, some are malevolent while others are benevolent.  

In my backyard, I have a volunteer sunflower, now taller than I.  It sprang up when a sunflower seed escaped a birdfeeder and landed in a flowerbed. Out of curiosity I decided to let it grow.  Recently, I have noticed that several of the leaves have been chewed to a pulp.  I have yet to see the caterpillar that is doing the damage.  I imagine his eating binge occurs after dark.

Caterpillars have been rightly called eating machines.  They can devour the foliage of plants seemingly overnight.  Some cause great destruction and do millions of dollars in damage to agricultural crops each year. 

The boll weevil has wreaked havoc in cotton crops across the South. Armyworms attack cotton and soybean crops.

Every vegetable gardener knows to be on the lookout for cabbage worms and tomato hornworms. Earlier this summer I noticed a webbed tent, the characteristic abode of tent caterpillars, on the branch of a pecan tree.

Some caterpillars are desirable. Fishermen know that the delicate purple blossoms of the catalpa tree attract Sphinx moths that lay eggs on the underside of the large green leaves.  When the eggs hatch, catalpa worms start eating the leaves of their host plant.  Bream fishermen treasure these tiny worms because bluegills and shellcrackers consider them to be such a delicacy.

Other caterpillars are raised because of their economic importance.  The silk worm is perhaps the best example.  The minute threads produced by the silk worms are used to make valuable cloth that can be fashioned into fine garments. Most of my old neckties were made from the secretion of caterpillars.

In my garden, I have planted bronze fennel.  With their lacy leaves the dark green plants make a nice backdrop.  The fragrance reminds me of licorice.   I have fennel in my garden because it is a favorite host plant for a particular kind of caterpillar, the larvae of the swallowtail butterfly, our early morning visitor. 

Near the back of our property, grows a patch of wild flowers.  There is some goldenrod, but more importantly, there is milkweed.  The orange blossoms of the milkweed plant attract monarch butterflies.  They lay their eggs on the leaves. The larvae eventually become butterflies. These orange and black beauties are migratory. The majestic insects fly 3000 miles each fall to winter in the high mountains of central Mexico. In the spring they wing their way back to North America. 

All butterflies begin life as caterpillars.  After a time of chewing on leaves, they hang upside down and enfold themselves in the silken case they spin.  In this chrysalis stage, they resemble a dead leaf until the moment comes when they emerge from their cocoon.  Spreading their newly formed wings they fly away, gloriously transformed. 

This metamorphosis has made butterflies a reminder of new life.  They are beautiful symbols of hope.  Sometimes butterflies are released at weddings, just as the bride and groom are pronounced husband and wife, to mark the beginning of their new life together.  Early Christians saw in the butterfly an apt symbol for the resurrection. This weary world needs as much hope as we can find. Butterflies are gentle blessings, tender mercies from a divine creative hand.

I’ll never forget the funeral service for a woman who loved butterflies.  She had decorated her home with a butterfly theme.  She tended a special garden in her backyard designed to attract her flying flowers. 

After her death following an extended illness, it was only natural at her memorial to emphasize her enjoyment of butterflies.  Flower arrangements sent by friends and family members included silk butterflies. 

At the cemetery on a mountainside in Western North Carolina, the crowning touch to her service came as a complete surprise.  As I finished reading the scripture, a monarch butterfly fluttered into the funeral tent and descended upon the Bible I held in my hands.  The tiny orange and black creature perched like a bookmark between the open pages.  For a few silent seconds we marveled in amazement. The choreography was beyond anything I could have planned.

Some years ago, I sat with a man who was dying of lung cancer. We were in his backyard next to his butterfly garden. The afternoon was pleasant. The air was still. The garden was alive with swallowtails, monarchs, buckeyes, two or three spicebush, and one mourning cloak.  All sipped nectar from the array of blooms.

We sat in silence for a time before he spoke.

“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”

 “Yes,” I agreed. “You know the butterfly is a symbol of resurrection.”

  After a long pause, he said, “No wonder I enjoy them so much.”

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. His new book and first novel, December Light 1916, is available at all bookstores and online booksellers. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

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