Sunday, September 25, 2011


There is a scene that will probably remain in my memory as long as I am alive. I do not know why I was thinking of it today, but I was:

Behind my parents' house, there are woods, and in those woods there is a creek. Several years ago, in the late spring, a few days after some heavy rains, I went down through the woods to the creek, as I often do. 

It was a beautiful sunny day. When I got to the creek, I saw that it had been high but was back to its normal level. Along one of the sand banks on its shore, there were puddles and little pools of water that were no longer connected to the creek and were drying up in the sun.

I looked in the puddles and saw hundreds of tadpoles. The toads had laid their eggs in the shallow water in the high rains, and they had hatched to become tadpoles, but then the water level had fallen and left the young amphibians stranded. I knew that the water would dry up and kill them before they matured.

I felt a strange sense of kinship with the tadpoles, trapped in a situation beyond their comprehension, in a world that was slowly dying. I spent some time digging a canal between the pools and the creek, so that the tadpoles could swim to deeper water. Their chances of life would still be small, but they wound not be zero.

Then, further along the sand bank, I saw dozens of bright yellow tiger swallowtail butterflies, bright and beautiful in a patch of sunlight. I had never seen so many butterflies clustered so close together, not even in butterfly gardens or on my mom's butterfly bush. They were on the ground, not moving but obviously healthy, slowly flapping their wings.

I went to investigate. The butterflies remained where they were even as I approached. Normally butterflies will move away if they sense something coming, but these did not, even when I was less than a foot away.

The butterflies were clustered around what had been a small puddle with tadpoles in it. The sun had dried this puddle completely, leaving a dark gray oozing gelatinous mass of dead tadpoles stewing in the hot sunlight. The butterflies were greedily drinking this tadpole stew like a pack of wolves devouring an elk carcass.

There was a strange savage beauty to the whole process, a study in grim efficiency. The butterflies did not care about their image as cute and beautiful flower-loving nectar-drinkers. They had access to a wonderful source of protein, and they were taking advantage of it. They were going to turn that sickening mass of dead tadpoles into butterfly eggs, and they would not be scared away from their prize.

To this day I cannot look at a butterfly without thinking of dead tadpoles. Nature is what it is, and does not care about what we think it should be.

1 comment:

E said...

Did you know butterflies are associated with death (and the cycle of life) in some folklores? Yep, carrion feeders.