It’s been several weeks now since I found a black swallowtail female flapping on her side across the garden floor. She banged into culver’s root stems and spun across the pathway into some bronze fennel — I think she sensed the direction she had to go even from an unfamiliar angle.
When I first saw her, one wing was hanging on by a thread, and eventually she worked it off completely. I’ve never felt such compassion and honor. Maybe I feel especially aware in this season of lack, few monarchs, few butterflies, few moths. Just the loss of one butterfly might be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
I reached down and cupped her, scales flecking off. She scrambled up my palm and then my wrist. I maneuvered her back down, crossing my arms like some interpretive dancer waving into the air my own strange flight. I lifted the swallowtail to a fresh stem of fennel and she grabbed hold, furiously beat her wings and placed an egg. I lifted her to another stem, and she placed an egg. Together we walked to other nearby host plants and together we fulfilled her purpose one last time.
She only laid a few eggs, and after the last one just seemed to huff and stay still. She was empty of life. I promised I’d look after her eggs if they hatched. The next morning she was gone, perhaps dead in the shadow of some perennial, or even the meal of a predator; neither is tragic, no more so than the petals falling from the sunflower even now.
Not all of the eggs hatched, but most did. I’ve watched them grow slowly, more slowly than in earlier summer months. Two have already run off to form their winter chrysalis, some are near that time. Though it is hot again and the prairie drought rages on for a second year, we find our way, butterfly and human. Sometimes we’re lost and defeated, but sometimes we are lifted up by the smallest acts of grace and remember who we are with determination and soul. This is a wildlife garden for all of us.
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