Chasing the Butterfly
Sometimes the field out back was our place to grab our mitts, a weather worn ball and play a pickup game of neighborhood baseball. Sometimes it was where our cheeks got sunburned from staring up into the sky, as we frantically bobbed our arms up and down, trying to keep our kites afloat in the fickle wind. On occasion the field was a place to explore the swamp in the northeast corner for bullfrogs and orange newts. Sometimes it was a place to lie down in the purple clover and listen to the crickets chirping and stare at the clouds as they rolled by. A couple of times it was a launch pad for our newest treasure – an Estes rocket. Once, and only once, it was a place where we shot our arrows straight up into the air to see where the arrows would land – but even as children we quickly realized how brilliantly stupid that was and quietly put our bows and arrows back in the garage before our mother caught on to what we were doing. But for me, the field was a magical paradise of life, color, beauty, and wind blown movement. It was where the butterflies lived.
I rarely ventured into the dark shady land to the west of the field, beyond the ancient apple trees bordering the long-deserted hay field. After all, there were nests of bees among those apple trees that one time I stirred up when a crowd of us were exploring (but that painfully is a different story). Nor did we venture into the neighbor’s farm to the northwest end of the field, where there were coops of loud guinea fowl and chickens (except once, when we all stood and watched a chicken lose its head on the farmer’s chopping block. Somehow the body got loose and ran around the chicken yard spewing blood. With our mouths gaping open and eyes wide shut, that experience left its impression on us kids to stay away). The swamp at the northeast end of the field was really off limits too. That’s because it was a swamp. We had lost too many homerun balls in there, and I lost one too many sneakers in the mud as I sloshed through looking for the errant balls. Besides; the swamp was right next to the woods that eventually led to that forbidden sacred ground – the pond. Our parents convinced us as little kids that we would drown just by looking into the string of trees that led down the path toward the pond. To the east of the field, a chain linked fence and the wrath of my mother kept me from getting too close to the neighbors pool. And the back stop my dad built to keep our foul balls from smashing our windows, a green wire fence, and a string of twenty blue spruce trees bordered our yard to the south. No. The safe place was not outside these defined borders. The field was hallowed ground. This was some kingdom! A green world filled with vibrant life. A place to explore. A place where I could dream, and invent, and be lazy, and rule the world. A place to hunt butterflies. For a boy, in so many ways this idyllic field was a place that seemed to go on forever, even within its borders. Because though there were borders, the sky went up and up and up.
As a youngster, I whiled away hours in the field out back, net in hand, eyes peeled to the sky, running as fast as my little legs would carry me after my elusive prey. The restless white cabbage butterfly; the common yellow copper; the tiny blue skipper; the bark colored spotted wood nymph; the majestic orange monarch; its copycat, the viceroy; the graceful, yellowy green lacewing; the bold royal blue and black tiger swallowtail; it’s more common cousin the yellow tiger swallowtail; the orange camouflage patterned fritillary; the luminescent pale green luna moth; the nervous red eyed dragonfly; even the armor plated grayish green grasshopper. All were fair game for a young huntsman with a net.
Crouching down to make myself small, sometimes walking very slowly and silently in the young, green summer hay, and sometimes running in circles, I would sneak up on my chosen victim as it feasted on the delectable nectar of a wild flower; an Indian paintbrush, bluets, dandelions, sweet clover, golden rod and the tall course milkweed. My only known enemy? My arch nemesis? That crafty criminal of the plant world? Ragweed. By lunchtime, if the unsuspecting insects could elude my capture, they were safe, because when my mother called me in for lunch she would take one look at my face, grab a cool wet washcloth, press it against my swollen eyes, and call it a day. My face would be red and blotchy, my eyes swelling shut from my allergies to the ragweed pollen that I had kicked up and run through. But it was worth it, to see the iridescent colors up close, to feel their velvety wings, to marvel at these graceful, refined creations. A bag of gemstones was less precious to me as a child than these jewels of the sky.
I fear that I decimated the insect population in our rural post-farm field. Each catch was delivered to the morgue – a Skippy peanut butter jar that housed an ether soaked sponge, a protective cardboard circle above the sponge, with cotton atop that to protect the delicate animal. In moments, the fluttering beast would painlessly sleep in eternal rest and become another trophy pinned in the glass case. Some hunters hang deer, elk or moose heads from their mantles. Some have a bear skin rug in front of the fireplace. Me? Give me a glass case with the fragile, refined, elegantly colorful butterfly on display.
As an adult, when I go back home and see that the field has been taken over, where first base has a tall pine tree growing out of it and third base is occupied by a house, where the apple trees are long gone and replaced by a street with homes, where the back stop has vanished and the spruce trees were decimated by a twister a few years ago, it but takes a moment to go backwards to my childhood days; to remember lazily lying amongst the clover, a strand of grass clenched in my teeth, net in hand, peering up into the sky. I have to admit, there are days when I have an urge to close up shop for the day, forget my grownup pursuits and once again grab a cheese cloth net and go out to the field to chase my darting, fluttering, butterfly dreams.