Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Love and the butterfly-to-be

As I trudged across the shortgrass prairie Tuesday morning, my heart was doing emotional flippity-flops, and I wondered why. Why was my throat tight? Why were unbidden tears stinging at the corners of my eyes? Why was I on the verge of blubbering like a girl?

The emotion wasn’t sadness, it was joy. I’d just had a remarkable hour of photography, taking pictures of a Monarch butterfly caterpillar feeding on common milkweed and of some of my young cattle grazing on rich native grass.

The caterpillar was beautiful, both in its present intricate and colorfully banded form and in its gorgeous potential adult form. The cattle were beautiful too, but probably only to a stockman. Strong and healthy, with rapidly growing calves at their sides, they were busy turning the prairie’s grassy bounty into milk for this year’s calves and into energy reserves for next year’s calves, even now present as fetal calves in nearly every recently-bred cow.

Still, I wondered, why this upwelling of emotion? The prairie ecosystem, the cattle – these are daily bread to me. I deeply appreciate them. I revel in their paradoxical simple complexity. I am never more at peace with the world than when I’m amongst my cattle out on the native prairie. But I’m seldom near tears at those times.

As I hiked along my mind kept turning back to two things; the beauty of the caterpillar and the rough licking one of my young cows gave the bottom of my hiking boot as I lay in the grass snapping pictures. Those two disparate experiences seemed to be at the heart of the emotion I was feeling.

On the one hand, I’m pleased that my cows are quiet animals, accustomed to low-stress handling and to seeing me afoot on the prairie. As herding prey animals, their instinct is to flee any possible threat. The fact that they don’t dash away in panic when I approach seems to validate my efforts at low-stress handling and of the husbandry I provide them. You can click on the images for a larger view.

Cattle graze within a few feet of the photographer Tuesday morning on a ranch south of Kimball, Neb.
An inquisitive calf approaches the photographer Tuesday morning on a ranch south of Kimball, Neb.
But it was more than that on Tuesday. The cow that licked the sole of my hiking boot, for instance, is a first-calf heifer. Last summer I spent a lot of time afoot amongst her and her heifer group. As curious young cattle, they would always eventually approach and crowd around me, particularly if I stayed very still. One heifer, braver (or perhaps stupider) than the rest, would nearly always sniff at me and then lick me with her rough tongue. On Tuesday, she exhibited the same behavior, despite the passage of a year’s time and despite having a calf to care for and protect.

There’s behavioral continuity there, and that feels good to me. Does the cow “remember” me? Well, perhaps at some level. But she’s still only a cow, and so far as we know, the bovine brain operates very differently than the human model. The emotion I feel is almost certainly not reciprocated by the cow. This I know, yet that knowledge does nothing to dampen my emotional response. It might, in fact, enhance that response.

At this point, you may be wondering if I’m certifiably nuts. If so, you may be right.

Half an hour earlier I’d clambered through a four-wire fence to snap some pictures of common milkweed, a plant that had come up as a topic in, of all places, a facebook conversation last week.

Common milkweed is common in the ditches and in recently reclaimed grasslands, but not in native prairie. I spied this milkweed in a ditch alongside a county road that cuts through the prairie I was hiking, and facebook conversation in mind, decided I’d better grab some images while I had the opportunity.

Considered by many to be a weed, common milkweed is nonetheless showy and attractive. The plants I was photographing were partially obscured by tall, headed, western wheatgrass, so I moved along the ditch to where a single plant was growing right at the edge of the road grader cut. As I sat down on the sun-warmed, gravely incline of the ditch to steady the camera, I saw a flash of color adorning one of the pinkish flower petals. “Monarch caterpillar,” I thought immediately. Not exactly rocket science, of course, as Monarchs are known to feed only on milkweed and the caterpillars are prettily and distinctively marked.

A Monarch caterpillar feeds on common milkweed Tuesday morning along a county road south of Kimball, Neb.
I moved closer, set my camera to the “super-macro” setting, and began to take pictures. The caterpillar, intent on feeding, seemed not to care about my proximity or the intrusion of a giant, shiny camera lens.

Colorful? Breathtaking?
At one point I paused to peer closely at the inch-and-a-half bug, and was immediately captivated by its beauty. The bright yellow stripes, I knew, were a warning sign to potential predators. “I taste terrible!” Still, the brightly striped insect, perched on a pinkish, star-shaped flower and seen against the vibrant green of the plant’s foliage was breathtaking.

That’s when the flipity-flopping started.

Is it possible to love a butterfly-to-be? I think it must be.

How fortunate I am, I thought, to not only be able to see and experience nature’s beauty on a daily basis, but to be able to take the time to enjoy it, think about it, and in some small way, share it.

My thoughts turned to my great-grandmother, Maude Evertson, who so often told me of her love for the prairie, and her contention that most of it should never have been plowed and farmed. I couldn’t help but wonder whether she’d ever beheld the beauty of a Monarch caterpillar. Perhaps yes, perhaps no. I thought about the wonders she must have beheld back when the prairie was essentially undisturbed, when there were no county roads nor REA lines and fences were few and far between. When Indians still occasionally trotted across the landscape on short, colorful horses.

Maude Holloway and her mother, Louisa Quick Holloway, beside their "soddy" in Frontier County, Neb., about 1895.
I thought about other people across the length and breadth of our nation, the 99 percent who have never set foot on a farm or ranch. Do they find beauty in their daily lives? Do their hearts occasionally lurch from the sheer joy of experience? I hope so. Oh, I hope so.

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