About the Urban Naturalist
Walter H. Laufer
Metamorphosis: How the Butterfly Turned a Man into a Naturalist
There once was a man who liked nature, but hated butterflies. Well, he didn’t really hate butterflies, but he wasn’t especially interested in them, either. Oh, as they flitted and fluttered around him on hiking trips, he thought their bright colors were pleasing to the eye and their patterns were pretty. Sometimes a butterfly would land on him or his clothes and he wouldn’t ever get excited and try to brush it off. Once he even let one ride on his sock for at least fifteen minutes as he walked along a trail, until the butterfly finally flew away.
Back in New York City, where the man made his home, he noticed butterflies in the new park that ran along the Hudson River. He commonly saw small white butterflies with pale black markings, in ones and twos and occasionally threes. Sometimes two would come together, circle closely around one another, and then begin to rise in a tight, off-center spiral until lost from view. At times neither would return, or maybe just one, or both, to resume feeding. He also observed larger orange butterflies with patterns of interconnecting black lines, ones he knew as monarchs. Often when flying or feeding they would glide toward him if he got near them, attracted by the motion only, regardless of the species or the size of the creature approaching, from smaller butterfly to bird to human.
However, at other times, if he read or heard the term butterfly, it brought to mind a particular image. The unattractive picture was of dozens, if not hundreds, of insects with out-stretched wings impaled on row upon row of pins in wood and glass display cases reeking of formaldehyde, decay, and death. Moldering away into dust, with an antenna sagging here, a leg dropping off there, these creatures invited thoughts of “great white hunters” and collectors slaughtering masses of wildlife, large and small, for the purposes of gathering vast numbers of specimens, primarily for self-aggrandizement, with perhaps a nod in the general direction of scientific inquiry. Butterflies are especially unfortunate in this regard, because their colors remain rich and their patterns vivid with little fading over time, making them ideal items in collections, unlike dragonflies, for example, whose colors begin to pale almost immediately upon death.
This image lead to his notion that butterflies were inert, sterile, and lifeless creatures removed from the context of their lives, from the warp and woof of the natural world, from the complex interrelations within and between species, with food sources, with parasites, with predators, and the opposite sex, rather than living, breathing, adapting, evolving animate beings. They were objects frozen in time and space.
Then on a trip to Canada the man’s trusty old camera took its last photo and died. In New York City, he bought his first digital camera, sometimes taking it with him on his occasional walks by the river. Soon he started to walk by the Hudson almost every morning, and one spring he began to carry the camera every time he went, so he could take photos of the blooming flowers. The man shot crocuses, white and purple, and daffodils, all yellow and different color combinations, and tulips, mostly red, and lilies, golden ones, dark ones, and some a cool yellow.
One June day he was kneeling in the small garden in the park, trying to get a picture of an Indian blanket flower, or firewheel, a daisy-like blossom of red and yellow concentric circles, when he noticed something out of the corner of his eye. He looked up and beheld the biggest butterfly he had ever seen. This time he was so excited that he fumbled with his camera trying to get the right settings for a photo. He took a shot of the butterfly and another, then followed it around the garden as it flew from the Indian blanket flowers to the coneflowers, big pink or white blooms. Perhaps he was just lucky, but his first photo of a large light yellow butterfly with black vertical stripes, each running from the leading edge of the forewing and tapering to a point, and with an appendage, or “tail,” on each of the hindwings, turned out to be the best of all he took that day. Later, using field guides at a bookstore he determined that the butterfly he had photographed was known as a Tiger Swallowtail.
From that day on, the man always carried his camera to the river and anticipated discovering more butterflies. As he was ever more successful with each passing month, he bought a butterfly guide book and he began to learn the identities and the behaviors of Painted Ladies, Red Admirals, Black Swallowtails, Clouded Sulphurs, Tailed Blues, and a dozen others. Watching butterflies caused the man to be more alert to other organisms he came upon and drawing on the knowledge obtained from naturalist-guides he’s met over many seasons in the US and Canadian west, he began to chronicle his observations of monarch-eating mantids and hummingbird moths, of web-vibrating spiders, of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, of diving Buffleheads and statue-like Green Herons, and of various types of shrubs and trees. When living creatures were rare or absent, he examined inanimate phenomena related to various aspects of naturally occurring light and color, from solar halos and sun dogs to mirages and reflections on the river.
So, thanks to that Tiger Swallowtail a man who liked nature metamorphosed into an amateur urban naturalist obsessed with butterflies.