Swallowtail

newly emerged spicebush swallowtail 1

On a twig next to my sidewalk, a few feet away from the spicebush I found a spicebush swallowtail drying its wings, the empty chrysalis below. It was just past noon, but the sky was growing dark. The storm broke an hour later, just as I was dozing off: booms of thunder, the rain loud on the roof. I had to get up because, though I don’t ordinarily suffer from loneliness, it’s hard to lie on a bed alone listening to the rain.

One cool thing about including a photo in a post like this: readers know I’m talking about a real butterfly and not just something I dreamt. This ain’t no Zhuangzi bullshit.

Zhuangzi's butterfly dream

Then again, Zhuangzi’s parable isn’t really about the butterfly as metaphor, either. It’s about that sudden and destabilizing shift in perspective which I think any intent observer, poet or scientist, must sooner or later experience, too, that feeling of becoming lost in another being to such an extent that its reality begins to seem more real than your own. How do you know that you’re not just something a butterfly dreamt up? “This” — not the metamorphosis per se — “is called the transformation of things.” Granted, it might be possible to experience that sort of thing through romantic love, too, or so I’ve heard.

I went out after the downpour to look for the swallowtail, but it was nowhere to be found. A yellow tiger swallowtail with one wing strangely bent back was nectaring at the bergamot, setting off small showers at each new flower head.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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  1. Wonderful photograph, as usual. I’m curious about why you chose this translation of the butterfly perceptual shift tale. (I’m used to reading the name Chuang-tzu, as opposed to Zhuangzi. I am sure you have good and interesting reasons for the choice.) “There is a dream dreaming us”….I read that somewhere recently but can’t recall where. I’ve always liked that story. Thanks for this.

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    1. this is the day to day living which makes us write, and get up every morning, and fall in love: ” It’s about that sudden and destabilizing shift in perspective which I think any intent observer, poet or scientist, must sooner or later experience, too, that feeling of becoming lost in another being to such an extent that its reality begins to seem more real than your own”
      love it
      Dianne

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      1. Thanks, Dianne! Yes, this can happen to one degree or another on virtually a daily basis if we’re alive enough. I know I’m often not, but I aspire to be.

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    2. It’s a serviceable translation, if not a particularly graceful one. I chose it for the simple reason that I could link directly to it. If I’d been quoting rather than linking, I would’ve used A. C. Graham — who did use the Wade-Giles romanization, Chuang-Tzu, for some reason. I suppose he was a fervent anti-communist. But like it or not, Pinyin is the standard now, and Zhuangzi is a somewhat closer approximation to how it’s actually pronounced, presuming one knows that zi stands for the vowel-less “dz” sound. (Similarly, I write Daoism rather than Taoism — too many people assume it’s a soft t sound if you use the latter spelling.)

      Glad you liked the post. I would’ve liked to have done something more, but I’ve been kind of preoccupied with qarrtsiluni-related stuff.

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  2. Love the photo, and the poem, and the thought, and the pinning of the thought to a moment, as you wake to hear the rain.

    And, Dave, I rather think you are romantically in love with Plummer’s Hollow. At the emotional, if not the physical, level, I have not found there is much difference in feeling tone between deep love of a place and of a person.

    I was surprised that the sound of rain makes you feel lonely. It makes me feel the opposite, keeps me company. But then I thought about rain falling on the Hollow and perhaps this is like not being able to sleep while a loved one is kept awake or feeling something deeply.

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    1. I rather think you are romantically in love with Plummer’s Hollow.

      That sounds plausible. I don’t know.

      Sometimes it’s a good kind of loneliness, sometimes not. Depends on hormone levels and such.

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  3. Gorgeous. One year we had quite a lot of European swallowtail caterpillars on the carrots and parsley we were growing. Then they were disappearing in the night, something was eating them. So I cut carrot tops and planted them in an old bottle garden, and kept four of them in there, over quite a cold winter. Three of them pupated, of which two emerged. We watched and watched but with both of them we missed the moment of emergence. It was in pre-digital times but somewhere I must have the photos.

    I find those shifts into another perception are very fleeting, and once aware of them they evaporate, but still.

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    1. Quite a lot of butterflies and moths overwinter as pupas, of course. Most of our indoor caterpillar-rasing adventures have been with monarch butterflies, whose chrysalises are among the most beautiful natural artifacts.

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  4. Another keenly-felt and beautifully written post, Dave. I love the illustrations too. A lot of people with human companions don’t connect to the world 1/10th of the way you do. Which is probably hollow comfort during one of those rains. Long distance {[o}}.

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    1. Well, I don’t know if I’m that special in that regard, actually — just a bit better at expressing it, perhaps. Those who are what I consider true naturalists leave me in the dust. Some of our hunter friends fall into that category.

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  5. I had a slightly similar experience a couple of years ago watching and photographing several mourning cloak butterflies up on Fort Mountain (Gahuti)here in the mountains of North Georgia. It’s a hard thing to describe, but I should try sometime. The photographs were accidentally deleted, unfortunately; I’d just started taking pictures.
    I find Zhuangzhi more interesting than Lao-tzu. Have you a book called The World of Thought in Ancient China, Dave? I can’t lay my hands on it but I want to revisit it. I looked at Wing-tsit Chan’s translation of the butterfly story and am also curious if you know it. I may try to write something about the mourning cloak experiencel; it was quite affecting for me at the time.

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    1. Didn’t you write about that butterfly experience a while back on your Gaia community blog? That story’s ringing a strong bell.

      Yeah, Zhuangzi is way more entertaining than Laozi. The latter work has been so popular in the West because it fits our stereotype of Eastern wisdom, but it’s Zhuangzi that’s been treasured by Chinese drop-outs and intellectuals for the last couple millennia. I don’t have Wing-tsit Chan’s translation but I’ve looked at it in the bookstore and it seemed O.K. Haven’t read the work you mention, no. I do remember enjoying Arthur Waley’s Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China, though I’m not sure how many of his conclusions would hold up in the light of more recent scholarship.

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  6. How is it that I’ve lived my whole life without ever considering that “nectar” could be a verb? Thank you, thank you.

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  7. I think maybe I did write about it, Dave. Thanks for remembering. I did save some of those blogs. I want to build a stronger blog presence at my newer blog.
    I wrote a rather confounding paper once on alchemical imagery in the I Ching and the Tao te Ching. Interesting topic but I wish I’d had more time for it. I still have the Waley book…maybe I’ll give it a look. This stuff is very compelling for me.

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