Rosie Bethel sent me the most marvelous picture of a dragonfly. Look at that brilliant turquoise! Dragon- and damselflies are spectacular creatures, flying jewels in many shimmering colors. Blues, iridescent green, sparkling black, red, orange. They customarily hovered over my pond…until this year. Not a one. And I miss them terribly.
Experts remind us the dragonfly’s survival is important to humans because it is an “indicator” species, a key barometer of the quality and quantity of groundwater. We are heedlessly drawing down the groundwater and not doing much to conserve it. We continue sucking up the aquifers.
(If it helps a creature’s survival to focus on human needs, sad but fine. Yet any animal’s existence is essential simply to itself, to the health of the planet and to Nature in all her diverse splendor. To those ends, they are all “indicators.”)
The monarch butterfly, too, is disappearing. Their numbers have been dwindling for decades. I used to have many in my garden and their caterpillars always seemed to latch onto the dill. My neighbor had milkweed in her garden — now removed in favor of tonier plants since the city has gone upmarket. Milkweed is a favorite monarch spot for caterpillar laying, so I tried to bring some of her seeds into my garden, but had no luck.
Just a few days ago, I saw one. The first monarch I’d seen in years. Susie and I were standing around gossiping over the fence when it floated by. We held our breath.
Soon they’ll be on their way, swarming across miles of land and sea, to Michoacan in the highlands of Mexico, where they will roost and where the residents will celebrate their arrival with carnaval. But fewer and fewer are surviving the migration. They lack rest stops along the way and their primary enemy is deforestation. Michoacan’s pine and oyamel fir — despite the forest’s status as a bio reserve — are being mowed down not only by loggers, but also by desperately impoverished people who need the trees to warm themselves through the winter. Poverty, not only greed, is a destroyer of the environment (one reason to pursue social justice).
Some Old Wives are Old Dolts. To wit: the belief among American settlers of German descent that caterpillars were made by witches with the devil’s help. They were called teufelskatze, devil’s cats.
The English poet and visionary William Blake (1757-1827) knew better. He wrote:
The caterpillar on the leaf
Repeats to thee thy mother’s grief.
Kill not the moth nor butterfly
For the Last Judgment draweth nigh.
There is an Irish saying that butterflies are the souls of the dead waiting to pass through purgatory.
Worldwide, people believe that butterflies are souls reincarnated. In the Celtic story of Etain, a girl is turned into a butterfly, then swallowed by a queen and reborn. In a famous Japanese story, the long-dead love of a dying octogenarian comes in the shape of a white butterfly to claim him, and in another legend, they represent filial piety. In ancient Greece, the words psyche, soul, and butterfly were virtually interchangeable.