Tag Archives: Gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)

Butterfly effect

I don’t always know what I’m going to say until I’ve said it.  That best describes what follows.  This represents more a rambling catharsis for me than anything else, as much a directionless mental and emotional ablution as it is an attempt to communicate.

A black-morph female eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) banging on a budding tree (2010_04_10_053365)

“Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”  Though the butterfly effect in fact first used a seagull flapping its wings as an example of how initial conditions in a dynamical system could vastly change the outcome, and though this was used as part of chaos theory where knowing the initial conditions of the system allowed one to model the outcome despite its complexity, I’ve always thought of the butterfly effect as being more appropriate for complex systems science, chaos theory’s unpredictable cousin.

In complex systems science, dynamical systems—large, complex systems—cannot be predicted even when the initial conditions are known.  The most common example of this is the weather, where generalized models, precedents and guesses make up forecasts while the actual weather remains truly unpredictable because the interaction of even the smallest things can vastly affect the outcome, and the same initial conditions can produce a different outcome each time.

An orange sulphur (a.k.a. alfalfa sulphur; Colias eurytheme) on a small aster flower (2009_10_23_032693)

Life—any life or life in general—is a dynamical system, a complex system, a system where every small variable can greatly impact the outcome.  Each event we face can alter our path: every hiccup in the fabric of normalcy can cause us to stumble and divert from our destination, every victory can turn us down a road other than the one we intended.  Who can say how different your life would be were one simple event changed in your past?

A Gulf fritillary (a.k.a. passion butterfly; Agraulis vanillae) feeding on a dandelion (2009_10_31_035393)

In late July I was stung by several wasps, an event that irrevocably altered my journey.  Being allergic to wasp stings—deathly allergic—meant several stings was a major problem.  Interestingly enough, however, the stings led to the discovery of an even larger issue, one far more dangerous.  And treatment for the wasp stings also slowed down the new enemy, an unexpected opportunity to react to the new assault.

But the newest enemy wasn’t to be deterred.  Instead of cooperating, it rebelled and became a bigger problem than it should have been.  Which resulted in my unexpected absence for a few weeks.  Yet even my return home would carry with it yet more unexpected turns.

A hackberry emperor (Asterocampa celtis) resting on a tree (2009_10_23_033250)

I sat at my desk several days after coming home, and I tried to catch up on e-mail.  That’s when I discovered that one of my close friends from high school had died in early November.  He was my age.  His death was so unexpected that the e-mail made clear that the cause of death was unknown at that time.  I was shocked and disheartened.  Michael had been the good friend in high school who read all of my early writing and who encouraged me to do something with it.  He mentioned to me several years later that he had spent much time watching for my name to pop up in book stores.  That he was gone so suddenly hit me like a punch in the gut.

Then less than week later another friend died.  She was in her nineties and her death came as no surprise, but it still hurt.  For as I’ve said before, accepting impermanence as a fact of the universe fails to soften the blow of death because we can expect it but never truly be prepared for it.  That her name was Glad carried a painful irony.

About a week after that my mother informed me that my father had fallen quite ill.  So sick in fact that he couldn’t sleep lying down because he would suffocate.  His health has been failing for many years, sure, and I keep telling myself that the call shouldn’t shock me.  Nevertheless, especially under the mounting circumstances, I wondered if this would be the turn for him.

And then just last weekend, just as I alluded to and wondered, my beloved Annie lost her dearest Jacques.  His decline had felt imminent, albeit coupled with the up-and-down unknowing that so often fills such times.  His suffering ended and her load relieved, it still felt like one more nail in the coffin, one more flap of the butterfly wings in my life, one more variable that would significantly alter the outcome.  Because in all honesty, I’d had my own downward turns coupled with so much death and so much bad news that I felt crushed beneath the weight of it all.

A male northern crescent (Phyciodes cocyta) perched in the grass (2010_04_10_053138)

So I put on a façade, a mask as it were, and found myself wandering aimlessly in what seemed to be never-ending shadow.  I smiled when I was expected to smile, I responded when queried, and I pretended.  Inside, though, where no one could see, I sank into the depths of abyssal despair.  For all the flapping butterfly wings in my life, it seemed all the change they offered was bad.

Yet more and more I had clarity of thought, something that eluded me for a while, and in that returning lucidity I received one more bit of news, this time about me.  The news was good, surprisingly good in fact, and received well ahead of schedule and in direct contravention of all the prognostications that had come before.  Things were suddenly turning around, a course correction thanks in no small part to the sudden downturn I had in late October.  The very bad thing had required very aggressive remedies that resulted in a very rapid turnaround.  Like, um, wow!

An American snout (Libytheana carinenta) perched on a dry reed (2009_11_26_041608)

There remains a long road ahead, one stretching years into the future, and I must travel that road before I can put these troubles behind me.  At least my own troubles.  But where there once was nothing but bad news, now suddenly there’s not just good news, there’s hope.  I had considered it a luxury I couldn’t afford.  Now it’s been thrust upon me.

And that leaves me feeling somewhat confused.  I want to leap up and down, at least virtually, which seems counter to the suffering of others that has piled up so quickly.  I feel selfish for not investing more in them right now.  I feel glad to know I might see the metaphorical road home more quickly than I thought, that I might step off the bridge to nowhere even though I feared I never would.

I’ve been on the edge, hanging from the precipice as it were, and the flap of a butterfly’s wings got me back on my feet even while it took so much from others.  At this time and place, in the face of conflicted emotions, I’m embarrassed to say that today, after hearing my own good news, all I could think about was how the smallest variable can dramatically affect the outcome.  All I could think about was the butterfly effect and how it worked to my advantage this time.

— — — — — — — — — —


[1] Black-morph female eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)

[2] Orange sulphur (a.k.a. alfalfa sulphur; Colias eurytheme)

[3] Gulf fritillary (a.k.a. passion butterfly; Agraulis vanillae)

[4] Hackberry emperor (Asterocampa celtis)

[5] Male northern crescent (Phyciodes cocyta)

[6] American snout (Libytheana carinenta)

The slowly opened

A song whispers on cool air with the perfume of a thousand blossoms.  Lavender and gold and crimson and white intertwine with a rainbow infinitely diverse.  They paint meadow and field in the colors of spring.

A spotted cucumber beetle (Diabrotica undecimpunctata) perched on the edge of rough gumweed (Grindelia scabra) (20080921_12634)

Each petal reaches, each rising star shines grand and new.  These bright lives climb from realms I have never traveled but which are known to me.  And they seek the sky with faces upturned.

A black and gold bumble bee (Bombus auricomus) licking tiny droplets of dew from the blossom of purple bindweed (a.k.a. cotton morning glory; Ipomoea trichocarpa) (20080921_12798)

Just as the slowly opened rise from earthen slumber, so too does an army of faithful who find in the coming warmth a dance that steps only to the music of flowers.

Syrphid flies (a.k.a. hover flies; Toxomerus marginatus) mating atop a common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) (2009_03_08_012853)

It is a love story, this song, one of powerful longings and intimate embraces.  It likewise is a chorus of endings, an operatic aria that each voice must sing only in its season.

A western honey bee (a.k.a. European honey bee; Apis mellifera) on white clover (Trifolium repens) (2009_03_21_013732)

The kaleidoscope of winter’s gray falls before the advance of these voices now filling the heavens, and russet is washed away by waves of verdant song.

A Gulf fritillary (a.k.a. passion butterfly; Agraulis vanillae) with its tongue out as it flies toward western ironweed (a.k.a. Baldwin’s ironweed; Verbesina baldwinii) (2009_07_09_026290)

With each new voice, a cacophony of dancers shakes the ground with spirited waltzes and lively tangos, for every singer demands a select audience, a diverse group of listeners who perform at the behest of their favorite soloist.

A Gulf fritillary (a.k.a. passion butterfly; Agraulis vanillae) feeding on western ironweed (a.k.a. Baldwin’s ironweed; Verbesina baldwinii) (2009_07_09_026298)

I find the silence of this song deafening, the loudest music I will never hear.

A large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) resting atop green antelopehorn (a.k.a. green milkweed, spider milkweed or antelope-horn milkweed; Asclepias viridis) (20080921_12670)

For now comes the time of the slowly opened and those who must needs be with them.  In all my years I have never tired of this presentation.  And in all my years, I watch for their voices and listen for the dance it portends.

— — — — — — — — — —

Photos (all from White Rock Lake):

[1] A spotted cucumber beetle (Diabrotica undecimpunctata) on an unidentified bloom.  The compound flower remains a mystery to me.  But I’m not the only Texan wondering what this plant is (e.g., here).  Introduced?  So easy to identify that it’s left out of all the guides we have access to?  It’s a unique plant and a unique blossom, so it’s not like I’m mistaking it for something else.  Well, I’ve said before that flowers vex me more than any other kind of life.  Hence this one goes on the diabolical challenge pile for later identification.  (And it’s probably something so evident and so common that I’ll kick myself for not recognizing it.)  [Update: I have since identified the flower as rough gumweed (Grindelia scabra).]

[2] A black and gold bumble bee (Bombus auricomus) licking dew from the blossom of purple bindweed (a.k.a. cotton morning glory; Ipomoea trichocarpa).  I’d watched the bee flit from bloom to bloom where it slipped inside for a sip of nectar and a spot of pollen.  It then paused on this flower for a few minutes.  Only when I approached did I realize it was licking tiny droplets of dew from the flower.

[3] Syrphid flies (a.k.a. hover flies; Toxomerus marginatus) mating atop a common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale).

[4] Western honey bee (a.k.a. European honey bee; Apis mellifera) visiting white clover (Trifolium repens).

[5] Gulf fritillary (a.k.a. passion butterfly; Agraulis vanillae) with its tongue hanging out as it approaches western ironweed (a.k.a. Baldwin’s ironweed; Verbesina baldwinii).

[6] The same Gulf fritillary (a.k.a. passion butterfly; Agraulis vanillae) feeding hungrily after landing on the western ironweed (a.k.a. Baldwin’s ironweed; Verbesina baldwinii).

[7] A large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) standing atop green antelopehorn (a.k.a. green milkweed, spider milkweed or antelope-horn milkweed; Asclepias viridis).

Farm life – Part I

Hidden away in the Piney Woods of East Texas, the family farm can be exhausting at its worst and magical at its best.  Plenty of hard work awaits those who tend its chores and care for its animals, yet the surroundings provide ample nature in which to wallow, not to mention the resident population of family critters who offer up joys beyond compare.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) around a feeder at the family farm (139_3998)

Ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) are ubiquitous around Big Cypress Bayou in all but the cold months.  Mom keeps several feeders available for them, each carefully and diligently supplied with sugar water, and so the hummingbirds come year after year, their antics providing hours of entertainment.

In fact, Mom often stands outside holding one of the feeders right next to her face.  As soon as the birds realize she’s not a threat, they begin visiting, buzzing around her head and brushing her cheeks with their wings.  It’s more than fantastic, more than beautiful; it’s divine to see.

Adult and juvenile cows roaming through one of the pastures at the family farm (194_9494)

Even the cows enjoy roaming from pasture to pasture, some fields cloaked by dense woodlands drawing a barrier around them and others set within those very same woodlands.  A serenity befalls the place no matter where one looks.

When calves are about, fun spills over the grass like so much rich honey.  Large enough to hurt you if they ran you down, these little guys spring and leap in ways that puppies and kittens would envy, and it doesn’t hurt that the mothers always have a fresh drink of milk with them at all times.  It can get pretty hot in Texas, so a bit of play is always followed by a rapid search for and happy reunion with mom—then a tasty bit of nourishment and energy for more play.

A Gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) resting on the ground in the main yard of the family farm (214_1441)

Gulf fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae) dance in the main yard, flitting about with abandon as though they had not a care in the world.  They appreciate this place.  At times the yard reminds me of a field of waltzing flames as a dozen or more of these butterflies converge.

The farm boasts a magnificent insect population that ranges from giant moths to giant beetles, from katydids and grasshoppers to spiders and wasps.  The air is often filled with dragonflies and butterflies, and with leaping grasshoppers and katydids, not to mention the chorus of a thousand species.  Only in winter do these sights and sounds disappear, a lonely echo creating a void they once filled and will fill again.

Purple bindweed (a.k.a. cotton morning glories; Ipomoea trichocarpa) growing alongside one of the pastures at the family farm (214_1442)

Purple bindweed (a.k.a. cotton morning glories; Ipomoea trichocarpa) offers up perfume and lavender beauty, flowers fully open in acceptance of morning sunshine.  Like so many other wildflowers, this stunning plant, considered a weed by so many, grows readily along paths and trails running throughout the farm.  There can never be too much life here.

Wild berries grow on the hillside in a pool of varied briers, grasses and flowers.  Dense woodlands stretch across rolling hills with pine, hickory, oak, ash, dogwood and magnolia trees defining the landscape, each skirted with an assortment of brush sometimes too thick for the average walk.  Cypress grows along the bayou and its tributaries.  Just north of the only natural lake in all of Texas, the area gives rise to springs and marshes that dot the landscape like a patchwork of wonders.  In fact, no one has been able to count the number of springs on the farm because they are so numerous.

A cow sticking its tongue out hoping my mother will give just one more treat (216_1650)

Then there are the treats, the special goodies that deserve kisses—even if from a cow.  Always listening for Mom’s voice, these domestic giants lavish themselves in the affection and care they receive.  In fact, they call out to her—rather loudly, I might add—if they believe she’s late to visit.

But Mom is not the only one who enjoys such special attention.  Dad happens to be the person who gives them maple, a sweet, delectable goody for which they mob him like children begging for candy.  He’s forced to push and shove his way through a herd of drooling mouths and suppliant scroungers desperate to smell the scent and taste the flavor of nutritious yet obviously addictive syrup applied generously to hay.

A cow sticking its head through the fence with a wanting, begging look on its face (216_1660)

And the looks of wanting mixed with cuteness as bovines beg and plead for just one more taste of heaven leaves us simple humans laughing with pure delight.  They know a good thing and waste no time putting on the Oliver act: “Please, may I have some more?”

An eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) arriving at the nest with food for its young (20080414_03434)

Joining the various farm animals is a contingent of wildlife.  Nesting in an old can wired to the utility shed because their house had been invaded by wasps, eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) rear their young with a diligence all of us at the farm notice.  Both mother and father spend their days bringing food to always hungry, always talkative young hiding away until it’s their time to fledge.  One need only walk out the side door to see this spectacle across the main yard.

Male brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) perched atop a pine tree (20080414_03445)

Meanwhile, male brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) gather atop a pine tree to plan their day.  Looking for mates and planning nest invasions undoubtedly requires a group effort.  Along with these avians can be found a litany of birdwatching gifts, from egrets to cardinals to flycatchers to hawks to owls to a plethora of winged beasts both great and small.  It’s not uncommon to see vultures flying low overhead as a hawk circles in the clouds.  The fact that Mom provides food for many bird species helps draw them in like clockwork, various groups and individuals visiting the feeders throughout the day as though scheduled in shifts to arrive and depart at preset times.

Those who don’t indulge in such handouts still surround the farm as they live out their lives in a vast wilderness that reaches through four states.  One need only stop, look and listen to enjoy a dynamic show of feathers.  And if the local population isn’t enough, my parents have a close friend who happens to lead the local bird banding efforts.  What might only be an unidentified shadow seen peripherally at other times suddenly rears up as large as life when a beautiful morning is spent identifying, cataloging, banding and enjoying the always surprising abundance of these creatures.

[To be continued…]