Each afternoon of late, among the fragrant blooms of the Willow Acacia trees on our little campus, a wonder of Nature dances across our day. Orange and black butterflies flit and fly, casting subtle shadows on the students sitting in the sun, below. I wonder if they know the complexity of the ballet, the theme of the art form above them. I wonder, “Do I?”
Awareness is the key to survival. Are you aware of shadows crossing your path, shadows of birds of prey high in the sky or of delicate butterflies only a few feet overhead? Does the gentle movement in your peripheral vision penetrate your perception? Or, like me, are you sometimes too engrossed in thought?
It is a simple concept, really, Nature as art. If I invented it, I am certainly not the first. Aboriginal cultures always look to their natural world to inform their own lives—a set of metaphors for the rules of human existence. Nature teaches us how the world works.
I have stopped trying to define God. It is not because I am no longer curious or interested. I have just accepted the limitations of my understanding. Instead, I try to learn something of God the artist by studying the art, and that would be Nature.
Birds live in those Willow Acacia trees, the Lantana bushes the butterflies also frequent, and the fruitless mulberry trees, small-fruited fig trees, and both date and fan palms. But, the birds don’t eat the butterflies, the large, bright-orange and black adults flying with apparent disregard for the danger of predation, as though they sense no vulnerability.
Such freedom. How do they get away with that? Are they special? Somehow immune?
They are noble. I actually do not know the species, for they are not all the same and I have not classified them with a reliable key. But, I am close.
There are at least four common types of orange and black butterflies that frequent Yuma: Princess, Viceroy, Queen, and Monarch. Princess is a rather generic term for various species. Most of these butterflies avoid getting eaten, and all of them are orange and black. That is a clue.
We now have a project at Arizona Western College to propagate native milkweed plants to support migrating Monarch butterflies. They actually fly hundreds of miles seasonally—well, not individually, but as a species, for it takes multiple generations to complete one cycle. They must reproduce.
Milkweed is required. Monarch females only lay eggs on milkweed plants, and it doesn’t seem to matter much which species of milkweed. The babies eat the milkweed which contains toxins, but the caterpillars store the poison rather than succumbing to it. Birds that eat the caterpillars are not so fortunate. They get sick. They learn to not eat Monarch caterpillars or butterflies.
I suppose PTSD can be compared to Monarchs. If I am filled with enough poison, people learn to leave me alone. It’s hard on families, though, and I am not immune to my own poison. I am no Monarch, although I may take some lessons from their migration habits.
Remember me telling you that I didn’t know if these butterflies were Monarchs? That’s because Nature has other tricks, and one is mimicry. Other butterfly species that look like Monarchs are also spared by the birds. No, they do not eat milkweed and are not poisonous, but they look toxic.
Hmmm. Maybe I only need to imitate mean, scary people to be left alone.
Somehow, I think the lessons are deeper than that. Whether these butterflies are Viceroys or Monarchs, for I have it narrowed down to those two, they are teaching me something. They are being butterflies—the best butterflies they know how to be—and that is all they are doing.
Being myself, both humble and noble. That is my lesson, today. That is what Nature is teaching me. Be myself, and enjoy the being.