Handling the tricky stuff

Handling the tricky stuff

Sunday, January 10, 2016

We're All Not In It Together: Fantasy Trout Fishing in Delusional America -- 6

6: Butterfly Effect

When I was a boy, I loved butterflies and I really still do.

My poor mother, circa 1969, on a trip abroad, paying the price of having a very odd son.

I never really thought about it, but being a lepidopterist was not an easy thing for a boy to be. While other boys were learning how to throw and hit a baseball, I was out running around open wild fields, swinging a goofy net around. There was actually about the same amount of athleticism involved, but, as we said when I became a teenager, not cool. While other kids were collecting stamps or watching Saturday afternoon monster movies, I was poring over entomological guides, learning about insect biology, butterfly species and their distribution and ecology,  invertebrate behavior, evolutionary theory… I was, as people are fond of saying about other people’s children, a weird kid.

The red spotted purple, a common bug here.
Mainly though, I was just a boy, captured by an odd detail of our planet and sucked into the fascinating minutia you find when you start looking at anything closely, when you start focusing  on something in life with passion. I guess I loved butterflies because they were extravagant flying flowers, elusive as the first crocus, and often unnoticed the way magical things are, difficult to get close to but full of subtle, complex beauty once you did.  Perhaps you see a blue-black butterfly floating around your backyard right now, but have you ever been close enough to see the perfect iridescent blue sheen of the delicate scales on its lower wings, the aerodynamically elegant design of its strong upper wing, fragile and light yet expertly braced by rigid veins, the bright red scallops at the wing’s edge, more artistic and striking than the finest painterly detail? Have you ever looked at the stunning complexity of its two giant compound eyes, covering both sides of its head like a helmet (giving it nearly 360 degrees of vision), the neat geometric coil of its long tongue, nearly as long as its whole body, yet packed tight as a pressed spring for flight? I have, and, though I really know precious little about life, I guess I’ve seen God in small things.

I know a lot about butterflies (certainly far more than I would ever dare bore you by telling) but in learning it all I also learned humility: to know about butterflies is, almost by definition,  to know about something totally trivial; to talk about butterflies is to invite mockery. (I learned this lesson pretty quickly as a kid.)  We use the world “butterfly” to stand for something that is silly, unimportant, temporary, flighty, insignificant. They are beautiful, yes, but in a ridiculous, minor, trivial kind of way. They don’t fly purposefully like a bee, they “flit.” They don’t make honey, pollenate or destroy our major crops. They seem more like ornaments, whimsies of nature – not anything serious to think about. They are all around us, but we barely notice them. They are insects, phylum arthropoda, but the alien insect/arthropod part is hidden away, obscured by the large, colorful wings. With a very few exceptions, they aren’t even important as pests in your garden. They live at the fringes of our consciousness. Well, perhaps your consciousness.

This is how most people feel about the butterflies in our lives, but we also know better. Almost everyone is familiar with the meme of “the butterfly effect”:

Even the flutter of a butterfly's wings can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world.” (Urban Dictionary)

As the dictionary says, this is “the theory that everything matters.” Now, at the age of 60, I am long past being that boy who was seduced by the romance of the natural world, but I’m here to tell you that this is hardly a “theory” – it is, as far as I have seen, an obvious truth.

Dark form tiger swallowtail, common in the South
So, back to the butterflies. Here in Charlotte, they have been all over this summer, like a cryptic little message from God, trying to alert us about something.  It’s been hot and dry, really unspeakably hot and dry, and, as we stupidly argue about climate change and global warming (stupid because the warming is an undeniable fact, stupid because humans are obviously responsible and stupid because there is not much we are capable of doing to change it), this is a bit alarming, with water supplies dropping, lawns browning, trees dying.  With such unfavorable conditions, you don’t expect butterflies, yet here they are, clouds of them.

I grew up in the northeast, and one of the pleasures of living in the southeast has been the extravagance of  butterflies. As a general rule of thumb in nature, the further south you go, the richer the butterfly fauna. There were plenty of butterflies for me to hunt where I grew up, but here I see butterflies every day that would have really excited me when I was 12.

Common form tiger swallowtail.
Especially cool for me is the very common Eastern tiger swallowtail, one of the largest and most visually stunning butterflies in North America. Where I grew up, this was a familiar insect, but it was hard-to-catch and by no means common – you would see them at a distance, generally, flying high in the canopy of trees when you walked in deep, old woods. Here, it is one of the most common butterflies in my yard’s flower garden in early summer and then again in late July (it has two broods), and the second flight is especially common.  The tiger swallowtail has a variety of “forms” here in the south that are missing in the north, as males and females are somewhat different looking – the females are larger, with bigger tails and larger blue spots – and some females look really different, becoming almost solid brown-black -- what is known as “the dark-form tiger.” It’s the same insect as in the north, but the south has a larger and more diverse population.

This is a rarity -- maybe a fluke -- an in-between form, seen in my garden this year. Nature is strange.

But this year, the population of tiger swallowtails was really over-the-top. In my small garden on most sunny days in July I would walk out and find it literally dancing with large yellow (and black) tigers, perhaps as many as 20 flying together at one time. It was a pretty season, and most people would leave it at that, but for me, with my butterfly-centric world-view, it was magically unusual, and, frankly, a little odd and unsettling.

A couple of butterflies amid a crowd.
As I said earlier, this year was a very hot and dry year. Did the odd weather have anything to do with the bigger butterfly populations?  Though it ‘s counter-intuitive (excessively hot weather is generally bad for the plants the butterflies feed on as caterpillars and adults), the thought occurred to me, and I began to wonder if changing climate might be pointing to future summers where, as the leaves withered in the hot dust we might be choking on clouds of butterflies filling the air, a colorful plague of, well, beautiful, big-winged locusts.  It would be like God laughing at us: global devastation with a smile.

The thought was not completely fantasy, as I know that ecology is complicated and has its own “butterfly effects,” where changes in the environment affect something that affects something else and leads to really unexpected results. Heat and dryness, for example, might be bad for the bird population (birds eat caterpillars and butterflies), or the parasitic wasp population (wasps kill a lot of caterpillars) or (most likely) the mold population (molds are common causes of caterpillar disease).  Or it might be good for something that is bad for birds, wasps or mold. It’s an “ecological web” out there, and if you change something, it tugs on it and you may very well be changing everything.

We’ve changed everything and the change in the look and feel of our world is inevitable. Should you panic? I didn’t, because I’ve seen 60 years of life and I know that things that slide out of balance also have a tendency to slide back the other way. Once, when I was about 10, I saw a year when the viceroy butterfly (this is a butterfly that looks like the monarch, but is unrelated – it’s uncommon here) population exploded and they were everywhere. The next year, they were rare. If you spend much time out in nature, you will see the same thing happening with many species of animal, plant, fungus, etc. Populations of common animals (especially insects) tend to do this, with changes in the availability of their food supply or in the populations of their predators or in the prevalence of diseases (which can spread better in dense populations).

But climate change has made a lot of us very gloomy and we have started seeing everything on the dark side.

For years now, I’ve been seeing dire reports about the coming extinction of the monarch butterfly, another large, common and “charismatic” (this means people know it and like it) American butterfly. The initial alarm with the monarch started with environmentalists noting that some of the Mexican sites where monarchs “roost” in large numbers (and that are thus popular with tourists) were being destroyed. If monarchs have no place to roost, where will they go? (Obviously, someplace else, since the sites have been being destroyed for decades and we continue to see monarchs flying through every year.) People were horrified, horrified.  Other environmentalists, looking for examples to dramatize their own environmental issues, noted the success of trumpeting the risk to the monarch. Some researchers at Cornell (my alma matter), trying to establish the possible risks posed by genetically modified “BT corn” (corn that has been modified to produce a compound only toxic to caterpillars), dusted a tray full of monarch caterpillars with BT corn pollen like it was a baby’s bottom… and some of them died! The research was published in Science, though it really wasn’t established in the article how much the mortality differed from normal tray-grown caterpillar mortality, not to mention what the mortality is to caterpillar who are dusted with other substances, sprinkled on as heavily as potato chips are with salt. People were terribly, terribly worried about what all the BT corn out there was doing to the beloved monarch… yet, a decade later, we still have monarchs. 

Undaunted, the monarch has recently been enlisted in yet another fight against GMOs, this time against “Roundup Ready” corn and soybeans. Though these plants contain no insect toxins, they are still a threat to the noble monarch (now as precious an emblem of nature to us as the bald eagle!). Round Up Ready GMOs are a monarch-extinguisher, the theory goes, because farmers are spraying herbicides willy-nilly and extinguishing milkweed, the monarch’s required food plant in the rows between fields. Without milkweed, the monarchs will starve! Never mind the fact that milkweed remains one of the most common wild plants in disturbed areas like roadsides, stream margins, badly mowed yards, etc. and the monarchs can simply fly a mile or so to find some. Further, some people claim to have done “surveys” and have noted “alarming declines” in monarch populations. (I’m not really clear on how you monitor the population of an insect that flies somewhat haphazardly all across the country, but there you go.)

You can’t prove it by me, because I still continue to see plenty of monarchs every year – this year I even had a dozen caterpillars on some of my ornamental milkweeds, as did a DC area friend. He posted daily reports on Facebook of the endangered caterpillars’ status, and went to semi-heroic efforts (to much public acclaim) to insure their survival to adulthood. Everyone saw this as the near equivalent of valiantly trying to save the passenger pigeon.
Monarch caterpillar. I had enough of these on my garden milkweeds this year that they ate all the plants.

Are monarchs really endangered? People are bound to hate me for saying so, but I really doubt it. They are a very common butterfly with a really broad geographic distribution. Are there more some years in some places than others? Sure – environmental conditions are changeable (as I noted with the tiger swallowtail) and bugs tend to have years of boom and bust. They breed up and down their several-thousand-mile migration route, having several generations between Mexico and Canada. Every adult female monarch can lay several hundred eggs, so if only a few happen to survive murderous GMO corn in Iowa or bad weather in Georgia, there is lots of potential to build up the population again when they hit Pennsylvania or Alberta, and who knows what locale will have a good monarch year and which will have a bad.

The bug has adapted to deal with adversity, and adapted very successfully at that. It migrates because keeping on the move gives it lots of options. A lot of other butterflies that don’t migrate and have less common food plants are much, much  rarer (Google the Regal Fritillary, if you want an example) and actually really in danger. Consider this – the monarch survived the last ice age about 12,000 years ago (the species is at least 500,000 years old), when a whole lot of its current northern migratory range (including those Midwestern corn fields) was covered by a mile of ice – think about that as an ecological game-changer. It’s a tougher bug than we give it credit for being.

But that doesn’t keep us from seeing the absence of a butterfly on a September morning  or the presence of a lot of another butterfly on a July afternoon as a harbinger of doom. It’s evidence, evidence I tell you! I’ve been watching and I’ve seen a pattern! The ancient Romans felt pretty much the same way, and three crows flying across the Appian Way was a clear sign that Caesar was about to get it, and good. And he did! So there!

So what’s my point? Reality is marvelous and complicated, and everything is interconnected and has meaning -- if we can only find it. Miracles happen around us every day, but there’s a reason for everything. The problem is, we don’t know what that reason is – we have to make a guess. Most of the time, we’re probably wrong, but if you accept your own obvious limitations that way, nothing will make sense, ever.  So we develop crazy theories, find evidence to support them and believe them and follow them like sacred roadmaps through the chaos of our messy lives. I do this, you do this – it’s ok (except I’m right and you’re deluded). I repeat – it’s ok -- it’s called being human.

At 60 years of age, I’m already past the point where delusion can do me any good, so I’m trying to be as realistic as possible about myself and about the world. But I’m also here to say knowledge and realism doesn’t help. Though the “honesty” should be bracing or freeing, instead I can’t help but feeling pretty gloomy.  I can’t help but wish I could see the world through the eyes of a child again, be Miranda (“What brave new world!”) rather than Prospero (“Tis new to thee”), and see wonder, not danger, in an unexpected thing, in a swirling cloud of tiger swallowtails, yellow and black, dancing on the warm wind like kites, tails flying behind, blue and yellow and orange spots flashing, the miraculous, momentary jewels of the summer air.

No comments:

Post a Comment