The Last Butterflies of Summer

I took an unintended hiatus when I realized that I had nothing to say. I go through periods like this, where writing words fail to comfort and when I’m so tired of my own story, my own patter, that I go dark. It becomes a time of frenetic activity, physical labor, compulsive reading, long walks where all I hear is my breathing and the sounds of furtive nature. It is a time to refill the reservoir, to get out of my own brain, to seek solace in the words of others, to feel my muscles contract and expand, to roll up my sleeves, and wipe away the sweat.

canstockphoto8464155 I’ve spent a lot of time just standing in my garden, watching butterflies and frantic bees. We’re experiencing the largest migration of Painted Lady butterflies in 30 years. It’s the time of year to start cutting and clearing and preparing for the winter, but warm temperatures have offered a reprieve to all those creatures with long to-do lists: gathering stores of food, laying eggs for the spring, building overwinter shelters, making the long trip south.

Humans have their own to-do lists: cleaning gutters, clearing gardens, trimming trees. In addition to all of that, I think about what will get me through the long six months of winter. These days, the Twin Cities hasn’t really had a severe winter in a few years. And the upcoming one is predicted to be mild. This bodes well for getting outside more, but there is still a sense that keeping the mind a fertile garden might require a little effort.

So, I’ve signed up to get re-certified in Adult and Pediatric CPR/ First Aid and for a weekly Spanish conversational class. My book piles are high and at the ready. My Y gym membership in good standing and my list of indoor house projects long and unwieldy. It’s not enough to say I’ll get some writing done. I need to feed my brain, grow my skills, move my body, and let in other voices besides those repetitive ones in my head.


In my dreams last night, I was once again a vigilante, interrupting a knife attack. I knew the first step: control the knife hand, but was frozen on the next step. Eye gouge? Kidney punch? Cross sweep? Foot stomp? I woke up thinking I need to train. It’s a funny thing, being a middle-aged unpublished suburban housewife and having a brain wired with longings to be a superhero (while knowing the reality would be awful and violent and demoralizing).

canstockphoto4928698I’ve been having vigilante dreams off-and-on since my early teens. As a child, poverty and domestic violence made me feel powerless. I daydreamed a lot about taking that power back. Those conquering daydreams fed my subconscious and my imagination and eventually, my sleeping hours.

As an adult, I’ve tried to honor those impulses. I joined the Army, I did martial arts training and took self-defense courses. My husband gently mocks me about the fact that I’ve never had a physical confrontation except in generally safe sparring scenarios. Despite this, I’ve heard him brag on occasion that in the case of danger, we would defend him (my daughter also has martial arts training).

Perhaps it’s the fight-or-flight instinct, so lost and beleaguered in modern society, that leads some of us to workout intensely or put ourselves through rigorous physical testing. Part of me has an apocalyptic bent – everything is done in preparation. And perhaps it is worth questioning if all this preparation adds to or detracts from one’s quality of life. Until I figure it out, I keep returning to training.


I’ve been reading erratically, surrounded by piles of books and magazines. At least six books have bookmarks in them. I had to give up reading Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones. Good writing, a little heavy on metaphors, but the subject was a tough read – a combination of family and natural disaster, dog-fighting, and cringe-worthy sexuality. I recognize that sometimes my need to be comforted outweighs reading for the art of it.

So I rcanstockphoto8858462eturn to those voices that resonate with me: James Baldwin, Arundhati Roy, Bertrand Russell, Alfred Adler, Anne Lamott.  I read a rather funny piece by Maria Edgeworth (Anglo-Irish Writer, late 1700s) called “An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification”, inspiring me to write a modern version.  I also have started to read C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings. It’s a work of fiction on a topic I have no interest in (horse racing), but the writing is pure bliss.

I find sometimes, that when I’m in a reading streak, talking seems like a waste of time. I can remember being a child and not wanting to put my book down, only engaging with people because I had to, and returning to the pages as quickly as I could. It’s a joy when you rediscover that feeling as an adult. With so many things that demand one’s attention, it’s a delightful luxury to think Not now, I’m reading.


canstockphoto12720256I had a conversation with someone the other day who only gets their news from the television. When we started talking about a political situation, they spent a lot of time saying, oh, I didn’t know that or that or that. Was I any better off for having read The Economist or only getting my news from online curated sources? In the scheme of things, what was the difference between knowing a little or knowing a lot?

Then I thought of a new Suzanne Collins series called The Brain Games. To-the-death trivia games. I’d make it up the bracket a ways, only to be killed off by the photographic memory guy. Information is power, photographic memory guy would say, reminding me that he was paraphrasing Francis Bacon from his 1597 Meditationes Sacrae, shortly before skewering me.


I hope that I can stop flittering about soon and settle down to write coherently. But the sun is out, my garden is full of butterflies, and I have some reading to do.

Dragonfly Summer

canstockphoto0529698Extreme weather and the loss of natural habitat have made my garden a little lonelier this year. No butterflies. I’ve seen a couple of Cabbage Whites, but usually I see Swallowtails (black and yellow), Painted Ladies, Fritillarys, Monarchs, Skippers, Checkerspots, Sulphurs, and Coppers, as well as a pretty good range of moths.

The monarch population has dropped significantly over the last 18 years, with 2012 being the lowest year ever (a 59% drop in one year). The push for biofuels (aggressive large scale farming in the Midwest) and the use of GMO and herbicide tolerant crops has eliminated huge amounts of milkweed, a plant that Monarch larvae feed on exclusively.  The population of Monarchs may rebound, but when the numbers are low, vulnerability to other factors is high. It wouldn’t take much to decimate the population.

It seems we are headed into a zero sum game. People can argue all they want about climate change and farming practices, but all it takes is a little common sense math – the more resources we gobble up, the fewer types of crops we cultivate, the less biodiversity this planet will have.

At times, I feel despairing that any of us will get the message before it’s too late. I’m not sanctimonious on the subject – this is not about them, the other, those people. It’s about me as well – the resources I casually blow through as a human being. The water, food, gas and electricity I’ve grown up with and take for granted. The footprint I leave and the narrower the path my child will have to walk on in the future.

I’ve read about living off the grid, conserving, trying to live smaller and more efficiently. I’ve adopted some of the practices, but I’m still in denial that my mere existence is doing real damage. I’m a suburban consumer – a predator on a planet whose only real defense is natural disasters, pestilence and disease. Predators are useful in natural population control. When there is nothing left to control, they turn on each other.

When people argue and point fingers about conservation, they seem to be in one of several camps:

  • Ignorance is bliss. There’s enough for me, so why worry?
  • Stop exaggerating. There’s more than enough for everybody (in my house, city, state, country) and we humans are super smart. We’ll solve the problem.
  • The sky is falling! The sky is falling!  And P.S. – humans suck.
  • Overwhelmed by the problem. There’s too many ideas/solutions/choices and I’m just one person, so I’ll just continue living in my paralytic state.

I tend to bounce between the latter two. Torn between time-consuming tasks of kitchen composting, hanging laundry outside to dry or mixing my own household toxic-free cleaners, I’ll take door number 4 – a nap. I’m being facetious, but there’s a reason things are called modern conveniences. People didn’t become ungainly, sedentary putty when they had to spend four hours scrubbing clothes on a washboard. When there’s an easier way, it’s human evolutionary nature to take it. Sometimes we have to push back against our own nature and work a little harder.

The dragonflies are here. Not in tremendous numbers, but enough to notice. They are super predators, effective and efficient, with bottomless appetites. They catch 95% of the prey they pursue. We like them in Minnesota and Canada, because they eat mosquitoes and the aerial shows at dusk are amazing. They also eat beetles, ants, bees, sometimes butterflies and on occasion, other dragonflies.

Dragonflies are marvelous and slightly creepy. In a lot of ways, they’re like humans – adaptable and voracious. Unlike us, though, they are preyed upon by other predators, such as birds and spiders, as well as humans, who gobble up the natural habitat needed for the dragonfly larvae. Survival instinct dictates that we’d always choose to be the dragonfly over the butterfly or a bee, but a world of predators is not sustainable.

Last summer, I didn’t write blog posts for a couple of months, but I think this year, The Green Study will be gettin’ its green on, figuring out how to take more steps towards leaving a smaller footprint. I’m visiting some wildlife and conservation centers over the next month as part of our family vacation. I’ll share those experiences here, while trying to transform knowledge into action.

Because I’d miss the butterflies.