Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Mysterious Beauties

"Dark-form females fly in steady streams along the Florida Coast and Keys, then venture out over open water, where they have little chance of reaching land."
-- description of the Great Southern White butterfly (Ascia monuste), from The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders
Suddenly I was looking at a massive flutter, the beating of so many tiny wings they made the wind pulse. A gauzy, undulating curtain weaving down the coastline, gray ribbons above white sands. Muting the sun's gold into pale yellow. Empty of so many eggs; gossamer-light.

Then, answering an instinctual whisper, they turn a perfectly-choreographed arc, ninety degrees, toward the waves. The ribbons widen, a shimmering blanket drawn out over rising tide. Virginia Woolf wades into the water, her pockets full of rocks. The butterflies exhaust themselves above a purpling sea, rain like bits of cloud from the air.

Audubon gives no hint as to why the dark-form females, those whose wings are brownish-gray, behave as they do -- especially since the white females (who look more like the males) "show no readiness to travel far." I honestly don't know if the dark-form females have laid eggs or not. Perhaps they are more like Amelia Earhart than Virginia Woolf, flying in a burst of confidence, straight on till morning only to vanish into legend. Maybe the tiny fraction that reaches land will in time breed a new robustness, an Ascia nautica that swoops beside flying fish, sucking nectar from floating flats of algae.

I haven't the foggiest idea.

I'd been looking in the book (and in the Audubon Field Guide to Florida, and on the Web) for a butterfly I'd seen in the yard -- a pair of them -- that kept seeking purchase on the tall weeds I was whacking. White-winged with round, dark orange spots, perhaps two spots to a wing. I haven't found anything that matched -- the Florida White (Appias drusilla) comes closest but doesn't really fit.

To my relief the butterflies finally abandoned the weeds I was after and settled on those flanking our volunteer saltbushes. Then it was just a question of waiting for the grasshopper to get out of the way, watching as it lumbered over tall blades that matched its neon green.

I like the weeds; they hold our soil in place in a yard of steep inclines and a gully that slowly fills with vegetation and no longer carves a hole beneath the driveway. We had first arrived here to broad wounds of sand that blasted us in the wind. Since then we've planted trees and shrubs; welcomed the non-invasive volunteers who've dropped by to stay; and learned that our new, beautiful ground cover is actually skunkvine, which will smother everything if not kept in check. We spent Saturday morning pulling up carpets of it.

Better that we nurture our carpets of pusley, which according to our Oxford English Dictionary is related to spinach and was hailed for its nutritional value before some killjoys decided it was an undesirable weed instead. It has pretty white flowers, the bees love it, and it doesn't taste half bad. Better, I think, than purslaine, another "edible weed" and spinach cousin. The pusley gets to stay.

But we've got to keep the tall weeds in check. Usually -- like today -- I whack them before our civic association sends me a courteous reminder that I am in violation of the rules. I waited until the day cooled to 91 degrees (heat index of 96, much nicer than Sunday's 111) and actually enjoyed a slight breeze as I became increasingly dusted with plant parts. Sometimes I'm showered with insect parts, which is why I encouraged the lovely pair of butterflies to seek sustenance elsewhere. I apologized for ruining their browsing grounds, which in this tropical clime will be right back where they were in a few days anyway.

Then I will again be out with the weed-whacker, racing against the civic association's clock. A mower would be faster, but it would be less kind to what fragile soil we have. And, likely, to its denizens.


Blogger Dave said...

Thanks for this beautiful description of the southern whites. Since (as it turns out) the lemmings thing was a hoax, maybe we can make these butterflies the new emblem of the folly of crowds?

12:08 PM  

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