Life on the Rock | The butterfly effect

By Steve Ulvi, Journal contributor

A couple of weeks back, during that delightful warm and dry sequence in our long symphony of spring, I reveled in watching a first Swallowtail butterfly flitting to flowers beneath our open canopy of columnar firs. The large butterfly, slow flapping in a solo pageant of color was landing on plants in that wonderful casual way in its most advanced form, in a phenomenal transformative staged life. Soon a quiet death, but why?

I moved close to watch, so easy with this species of butterfly. The momentary pause cleared my cluttered mind and reminded me of casually raising Monarch butterflies, my adolescent mind boggled with the notion of such drastic metamorphosis. Quart jars as terrariums contained arranged soil, milkweed, tiny eggs or barrel-striped caterpillars and jade green chrysalis oddly decorated with a belt of golden microdots. Releasing the stunning burnt orange and black butterflies to mate and lay eggs in a week or two of flamboyant life felt like completing a mysterious circle.

Many other creatures, great and small, from the deep past or now extant also sharpened my deepening curiosity. In far less remarkable ways, my own journey to satisfy a growing inner need to meet nature on its own terms in wilder places, as I faltered socially trying to find peace in myself, would eventually necessitate several personal transformations and relocations. A purposeful transformation counter to the dreams of most of my peers and decidedly self-centered with little social benefit.

In the explosive change from the white frozen world to a subarctic summer of the midnight sun I came to realize some of the profound adaptations of creatures large and small to survive winter. Tattered Mourning Cloak butterflies emerged from the leaf litter under paper birch stands after many months of suspended animation beneath the snowpack and regular air temperatures of 70 or more degrees below freezing, necessitating elegant physiology beyond my comprehension.

On summer days, spots where we pissed on the beach often attracted dozens of Swallowtails flitting and dancing in circles in an orgy of salt uptake, while the murky waters of the vast Yukon River lapped close by.

Later, as the Chief of Resource Management for a newly minted National Preserve straddling the Yukon River below the tiny community of Eagle, I eventually met Dr Kenelm W. Phillip of Fairbanks who was an astronomer, with an ear for classical music and an avid interest in fractals, was also the founder of the Alaska Lepidoptera Survey. Upon death, he left over 80,000 mounted specimens that I had the good fortune to see. I came to understand that collecting butterflies, even rare species, had no adverse impact on populations, and was the first to permit his collections on national park land in Alaska.

I will never forget watching Dr Ken stalking butterflies on a green ridge of uplifted marine limestone above the tree line, his custom net poised for a quick lunge, a swipe and wrist twist, unaware of a young grizzly bear feeding on spring grasses and roots across the narrow valley. A Gary Larson cartoon for sure.

Of the fascinating life stages of these delicate creatures, the hidden process of self-digestion into a protein-rich soup within the cacoon, to reorganize into a completely different creature, assures me of the “godliness” of nature and evolution.