–A butterfly graces equally the idyllic mountain meadow and the urban flower box.–
On a cedar fence post near Rabbit Lane an old sign announces “No Trespassing.” The letters were burned or carved into the worn and weathered plank. The sign has been cracked by the black head of a rusting iron nail driven into the cedar post. The sign has long ago lost any intimidating aspect, and it now resembles the endearing smile of a gap-toothed old man.
On Church Road, long rows of abandoned pens are all that remains of the Russell mink farm. The corrugated metal roofing flaps like flimsy paper in the wind, anchored by a few remaining nails. The sheet metal crumpling and twisting in the wind groans and booms like distant thunder claps.
Old, white enamel bathtubs spot the pastures along Rabbit Lane. Once enjoyed by luxuriating humans, they are now used as watering troughs for cows. Clean water arrives through an assortment of pipes and hoses and valves and clamps. One tub still sports its antique clawed feet.
Fields of grain stretch out before me as I walk. The grassy stalks rise high and green, with the tassel tips just beginning to turn yellow. The crop seems to be a feathery soft sea, the supple stalks swaying in unison in the breeze, undulating gently with the slopes of the submerged soil. I desire suddenly to leave my feet and swim, snorkeling, through the swells in search of hidden treasures of sea life. The breeze falls suddenly, and the sea turns in to a still life, looking for all the world like an ocean stroked with Van Gogh’s colorful textures.
A humble stream trickles and winds through the irrigation ditch, choked with Willow bushes and Watercress, coursing inexorably on through heat and drought, through intense cold dipping at times to zero degrees. In the night, a raccoon left its tracks in the mud as it searched for crayfish and munched on watercress. Its prints look like the hands of small, long-fingered child.
In the dim light of early morning, I see a young raccoon curled up asleep at the base of a tree growing out of the ditch bank. The iconic masked face does not stir despite the loud scuffing of my boots on the gravel. It sleeps on despite my soft calling, followed by my less timid “good morning” salutation. On my return trip, the awakened raccoon looks sleepily up at me, uncaring, unperturbed. Having expected it to scamper anxiously off, I wonder if it is sick.
A powder-blue butterfly the size of my fingernail, a Blue, lands on a patch of ditch-bank mud. Crouching for a closer look, being careful not to block its sun, I can distinguish its pretty markings and tiny tails, two on each underwing. The delicate arrangement of shapes and colors on the wings astonishes me. I have looked at such wings under a magnifying glass, and have seen vague beauty transformed before my new eyes into exquisite tapestries of color and design, texture and pattern, more beautiful than anything the artist can paint. Even most photographs do not capture the vibrancy of the life, let alone the beauty, possessed by tiny creatures like this Blue.
Water trickling through the ditch slowly erodes the soft soil shoring up the Weyland grain field. Each Spring a few inches, sometimes more than a foot, sloughs off and tumbles down the steep bank into the water. Enough of the bank has worn away that several of the old cedar posts have toppled into the ditch, wrapped in their rusted barbed wire. The whole fence line will eventually fall over.
By the month of June, shiny young stalks, green laced with purple, have pushed up through the hard dirt at the edges of the road. Leaves have begun to unfold. At the top of the stalks sit clusters of little balls, hints of buds, that in a month will burst open to form generous heads of small, pink starlets. The Milkweed bloom is a convex, spherical arrangement of petite, pointy, pearly-pink flowers emitting a rich, sweet fragrance. Milkweed perfume is compelling and attractive, rich and sweet, with just a touch of tart. I bend over to breathe deeply of the exotic fragrance, and am overcome in a moment of aromatic ecstasy. Stop and smell the roses? I say, stop and smell the Milkweed.
Red, black-spotted Milkweed Beatles proliferate, though only they and the Monarch larvae enjoy eating the plant.
In September, Milkweed seeds sit white in their pods, packed tight, each pod holding a baseball-sized poof of cotton.
Winter’s big winds will spread and scatter the seeds across the fields, each seed floating on a white, downy sail. Walking with Hannah (6) in October, she observed a single Milkweed seed caught in the tall, dead weeds. She rescued it with clawed fingers. Holding up her open palm, she blew the seed high into the air, setting it free to float slowly to the soil to sprout in Spring.
A flutter of orange and black—a Monarch butterfly—descends upon young Milkweed plants to deposit her eggs. The larvae will eat only Milkweed, filling their plump, tiger-striped bodies with the plant’s bitter juices that birds dislike. The eggs on the plants set farther back from the road’s edge will survive. Other eggs, like the plants to which they are glued, will fall prey to the county mower. The Monarch doesn’t know any better. She has done her job and trusts the other players—water, sun, and soil—to do theirs. The natural instinct inside her has no way to account for man’s machines.
Several years after planting seeds in the tulip beds in front of the house, Milkweed plants finally sprouted. They proliferated ten-fold the following Spring. The plants are tall and gangly and drab, out of place juxtaposed with tulips, daffodils, and low groundcover. They wave fragrant clusters of pink star flowers in the breeze. I asked Angie to tolerate the plants until the blooms faded, promising to cut the plants down before the seed pods grew. This would not hinder the perennials from rising again. Approaching the house one evening after work, I startled a Monarch feeding on the flower clusters. I froze and stood completely still, hoping the Monarch would return. She soon did. I watched her land on a leaf, cling to its edge, and curve her abdomen to press it against the underside of the leaf. With a thrill I realized that I had just witnessed a Monarch mother deposit an egg. I hurried to retrieve my jeweler’s loop (which I had bought years ago for rock hounding that I never did), put on my reading glasses, and examined the tiny, delicate, striped, cream-white egg up close. Over several weeks the egg color turned to charcoal with silvery stripes.
Clusters of small sunflowers grow on the rough berms piled on the east side of Rabbit Lane, between the road and the irrigation ditch. The new gravel-and-clay berms aren’t bare for long, the weeds and grasses growing eagerly within mere weeks. Sunflowers and Milkweeds follow the next year. In the dark of my early morning walks, the sleeping Sunflowers still bow to the west, acknowledging the faded warmth and light of yesterday’s setting sun. An hour later, the yellow heads have turned to the east, welcoming the sun’s new rise.
As I walked with Brian and Erin, Brian (12) explained with superiority to Erin (9), “They turn their heads toward the sun.”
“Nu-uh,” retorted Erin testily, mostly to avoid conceding to his apparent knowledge. Still, her admiration for the bright flower overcame her pride, and she whispered a fascinated “wow.”
To the Sunflowers, the sun means more than mere light attracting the attention of curious petals. The light of the sun is to the Sunflower the source of simple but life-sustaining truth. With an instinctual faith, the Sunflower relies on the sun as the plant sinks its roots into the soil in search of stability and moisture, as it sprouts new leaves and pushes its stalk to greater heights, as it soaks in water and breathes in air and manufactures energy through the miracle of photosynthesis. Sunflowers love light and life. The sun invites them to grow, to extend, to become more today than they were yesterday. Each day they begin again the truthful task of looking to light, of recognizing truth and power. They are not ashamed to yearn upward and to seek light.
A black llama browses amongst the sheep. Sitting obscured in the tall grass, chewing its grassy cud, the llama’s head resembles in shape and movement a submarine periscope rising to see the undulating ocean of new green grass. Wanting another bite, the periscope submerges through the grass to the unseen craft below. The llamas are unconcerned at my approach on the crunching gravel of Rabbit Lane. They sit monk-like in the grass amidst the flock of sheep. They don’t twitch their heads nervously to see who I am, if I’m a threat. Unlike the sheep, they don’t tense their muscles from a pre-decision urge to bound away. They hold their ground, unintimidated. They turn their heads slowly toward me … if and when it suits them. Masticating their course grass cud, the llamas lower one ear, then the other, then both, as if the ears are each consulting with the brain, and then both ears lift sharply up again.
“Llamas keep away the coyotes,” Craig told me.
His llama-guard sits demurely in the field. Its body obscured by the tall grass, its head and neck poke up out of the grass, looking like a mammalified duck, its snout the magnified bill.