Thursday, September 23, 2010

September on the Porch by Sarah O'Connor

Martha note: Who doesn't need a vicarious porch break? Sarah O'Connor teaches in the Writing and Rhetoric and Technical Communication at JMU. The following is one of a series of  her nature-related essays.

 AP Photo/Julia Malakie
Soaking in the warm September sun on my deck, trying to read the newspaper, my attention keeps getting hijacked by the crowd scene around the butterfly bush. Over 100 species of Buddleias (butterfly bushes) exist, with names like Black Night, White Profusion, Sungold, and Purple Ice Delight. Some grow as tall as 15 feet and some, like the Himalayan Butterfly Bush, only reach four feet. They can be found in almost every climate, hardy to minus 20 degrees. Their colors range from dark purple to pink to pure white, and the flower spikes grow from 3 to 10 inches long. Each February I cut our butterfly bush back to about a foot of woody growth, sure I have killed it, and each summer it springs up in an effusion of conical purple and yellow blossoms. One website theorizes that gardeners plant butterfly bushes to bring life to vacant spaces. I did not plant our bush, but it is certainly the happening place in our garden.

©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
What other plant except the Venus flytrap so completely fulfills its name? The butterfly is a giant mother of a bush. Butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, and bees cannot resist it. Today the small Cabbage White butterflies are like the ballerinas in Swan Lake in their white chiffon costumes. One settles for a moment on a blossom, probing for nectar, then floats up in the air, meeting another one and engaging in a pas de deux. A third flits in from the side, then all three spin around each other and fly off in opposite directions. They play, not in a hurry to go anywhere, concerned less with gathering sweetness and more with celebrating flight and sunlight and the gift of abundant blossoms. Now I notice a tiny black butterfly like the shadow of the whites, so dark he is almost invisible, settling on a purple flower. When he spreads his wings, he shows off two white eyes on the bottoms. I have read that butterflies spread or fold their wings for many purposes: for camouflage, for warning, to attract females, and to warm or cool themselves.

Today the big fellows, the black and orange monarchs and the black swallowtails, are nowhere to be seen, but usually one or two of these grand canvases reign over the bush in crowd stopping orange and black, or in black iridescence studded with white and blue jewels. Perhaps they have already started their winter vacations. With a life span of nine months, the Monarch is one of the longest lived butterflies. Every year when the weather turns cool, this butterfly, weighing no more than .3 grams, travels up to 3000 miles as it migrates south to places such as Mexico. Generations return each spring to the same locations, so maybe the monarch I see is the newest member of the Woodcrest Circle family. Somewhere in its DNA is inscribed this address, handed down from great grandparent to grandparent to parent and so on. Maybe the cities on our maps are the flowering bushes on theirs.

I go back to my newspaper, but the rise and fall of the whites, like breaths in and out, pulls me away again, and now I notice other movement on the bush. While the gossamer whites play, the black and yellow bumblebees are hard at work. If the butterflies are air, the bumblebees are earth. Their short, strong bodies bend the stems of the flowers, and they move purposefully through the clusters of tiny blossoms gathering nectar, ignoring their frivolous neighbors. Unlike the extensive colonies of honey bees, bumblebees form small colonies of about 50 and do not make honey. They can only store a couple of days’ worth of pollen at a time. Bumblebees’ bodies are covered with soft hair, called pile. The pile insulates a bee from the cold but also acquires an electrostatic charge from flight that attracts pollen once the bee lands on a flower. As a bee moves from one blossom to another, the pollen collected on its pile passes to other flowers. Bees do the critical work of pollinating 80 % of flowering plants.

I gather my papers. Shadows are spreading and the temperature is dropping. Bumblebees would rightfully charge that I have wasted the afternoon, and I would agree. Since each day now will see fewer colors and less activity in the garden, since soon warm patches of sun will be memories, like the butterflies, I have chosen to wantonly celebrate the now.

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