I was eighteen when I wrote “The Prayer of the Butterfly” into my journal, copied from Prayers from the Ark. The poem enchanted me. I was enchanted also by butterflies and the ditzy life they led. Imagine your life work being to flutter beautiful wings and go from flower to flower, tasting nectar.
Over the years, there wasn’t a lot of time in my life for butterflies, though when one fluttered by, it always felt like a visitation, as if a flower had taken wings to delight the eye.
But the summer of 2010, two things happened. One, a huge oak in our front yard began to die. Though its leaves were still green, dark sap wept through the bark and turned the whole tree trunk sticky and oozing. Beautiful butterflies of all descriptions gathered on the oozing surface. I hadn’t realized that some butterflies exist for just such a feast. I wrote inside the guidebook cover whenever I identified something new: red-spotted purple, red admiral, question mark, tawny emperor…and on and on. It was a fascinating treasure hunt! I just never knew what I would see next.
The second thing that happened was the companionship of four-year-old Everett. He is even now a great butterfly spotter, and never forgets a name. Adults do a double-take when he casually identifies a black swallowtail or a monarch. One day he came home from preschool announcing that the class had seen a buckeye flutter by at playtime. “Oh, did your teacher know its name?” “NO! I had to TELL her!” he said. Everett kept my fridge supplied with butterfly art as well.
That year and the next, my two butterfly bushes were alive with tiger swallowtails and black swallowtails.
There were so many, I hate to confess it, that I was almost bored with them. And the cabbage whites! So commonplace.
When we cut down the second huge oak in 2012, those butterflies enjoyed the wider swath of sunshine, along with fiery skippers, silver-spotted skippers, and long tailed skippers. It was butterfly heaven.
But in 2013 I suddenly asked myself: where are the monarchs? That whole summer I saw only one weak one in my wild flower garden. I began to fear. Other varieties seemed in short supply as well.
This year I have watched the season wear on with bated breath as others also expressed concern.Where are all the butterflies? Will the monarchs come back? What would a world without butterflies mean? If we lost our butterflies, what else would we lose after that?
I am happy to say some are coming back. Though in nothing like the numbers of previous years, butterflies are here. The oozing tree is now dead and dry, so I don’t see the sap-sucking ones. But every few days, I see a gorgeous monarch.
Today I saw two tiger swallowtails and a black swallowtail at the same time. The skippers are busy, and the cabbage whites flutter here and there.
I don’t know why the butterflies are struggling. Perhaps it was the hard winter of 2014. Perhaps it is the use of pesticides eliminating milkweed. Perhaps it was bad timing on the part of mowing operations along interstate highways. Perhaps it was too many gardeners crushing the caterpillars that fed on their parsley.
Some butterfly experts are trying to come up with a mowing plan for highways that encourages butterflies. Some are working on the pesticide issue. Whatever, I will keep on planting the plants butterflies love, and I will keep on hoping, hoping, hoping.
It’s funny, I don’t think of butterflies as ditzy anymore. They appear fragile and precious.I see them on the edge of calamity. Their work, gathering nectar, suddenly seems as important a job as any of us might do. In that spirit, I offer a new version of:
The Prayer of the Butterfly
Where is the milkweed?
Wait! I have to go.
Where? I do not know! Maybe to Mexico?
Oh, yes, Lord,
I had something to ask you….
What was it? Oh!
Please let flowers grow on the roadsides.
And let caterpillars live to eat the parsley.
Your world is beautiful, Lord.
Let my painted wings flutter till night comes.
Where was I?
Oh yes, Lord, this flower, this sun, thank you. Amen.
Susan Yoder Ackerman is a writer and gardener in Newport News, Virginia. Both her writing and her gardening are enhanced by tending a century-old family farmhouse and eight grandchildren that come and go. You can email Susan at [email protected]