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Orange and Metal
Butterflies, Charisma and Coronavirus
Say what you will about Vermont, about maple syrup or fall foliage, about Ben and Jerry or even Bernie. One thing is beyond dispute: my otherwise magnificent state suffers from a lack of orangetips and metalmarks.
Which is among the reasons I was fortunate to be messin’ with Texas again this past month. These two southern butterfly groups, displaying opposite “personalities,” will charm you into extreme vernal pleasure, so much so that you might decide to quit your job, sell your house and become a lepidopterist (or even move to Texas).
Orangetips are free spirits. Flighty and ephemeral, they appear from nowhere, dart past you as if you do not matter (and you don’t), stop to sip nectar for but a few seconds, and then fly away without remorse. Elegant and elusive, orangetips are like your unrequited crush in high school: you are in love and yet you do not exist. (Yes, I’ve moved on, Rosalind Hurwitz, I’ve moved on.)
Absent from most of the northern US (except across the far West), orangetips are springtime unleashed. I know of no self-respecting lepidopterist who does not love them. And we love them even as they are among the most difficult butterflies to observe — and photograph.
Yes, orangetips are nothing if not flighty, which is why for every 100 photos you take of them, 99 are blurry and one might be a keeper. But orangetips also land with their wings posed unlike many of their kin: in a V-shaped dihedral. Getting those orange wingtips and powder-blue eyes in sharp focus for your photo does not happen often.
And yet you do not complain in their presence. Whether you merely wish to watch them dance in spring or, like me, pursue them with a camera, you do not complain. I don’t care how often your mere thinking about taking its picture sends an orangetip into flight, how often you drop to your arthritic knee only to have the orangetip dart away before you even lift your camera to your eye, how often you think you’re finally getting killer orangetip photos only to discover that your camera’s exposure compensation is set for another planet, or how often you lean back on a cactus only to get glochidia in your butt for two days (instead of ass-kicking orangetip photos), you do not complain. Ever. There is no complaining in the presence of orangetips. Only joy. (All my glochidia are gone now.)
Orangetips could have ended the American Civil War. They are the South’s notice to the north: Spring is coming. Let us rejoice together.
We have six orangetip species, in the genus Anthocharis, and multitudes of subspecies here in North America, and not one of them in Vermont or adjoining states. And yet I have had the good fortune to find at least three of those species in beautiful places across America: Sara Orangetips (Anthocharis sara) in the deserts of southern California, Southwestern Orangetip (Anthocharis thoosa) in the Grand Canyon, and Falcate Orangetip (Anthocharis midea), pictured in the banner image above, flying in force most recently at Ringtail Ridge Natural Area in San Marco, Texas (I bring you all their tidings in more images at the end of this essay). Orangetips could have ended the American Civil War. They are the South’s notice to the north: Spring is coming. Let us rejoice together.
And yet if orangetips are flighty and fickle, metalmarks are phlegmatic and faithful. They sit on leaves or flowers or twigs and, in all their glittery glory, pose for you … and pose … often head-down … for as long as you care to look. Metalmarks are like found love, like something so beautiful that you must avert your gaze because you might not be worthy of such good fortune. Metalmarks are like the most beautiful celebrity or work of art, the most striking sunset or landscape you have ever seen, resting there, inches away, for only you to savor.
And like orangetips, metalmarks are true to their name: butterflies often marked with metal — either glitter or strands of silver, gold, aqua, blue or other sparkles. It’s as if a butterfly wasn’t already beautiful enough that it must also be adorned with jewels. Sometimes, as in that Little Metalmark (Calephelis virginiensis) above, the silver glitter is obvious among the orange. Or that Blue Metalmark (Lasaia sula), exceedingly rare here in the US, is simply a steely, cerulean overstatement. And yet sometimes you must look closely for your precious metals, which is the case with this Red-bordered Metalmark (Caria ino) pictured here. Click on the image to enlarge it and look closely toward the wing margins to find specks of aqua and violet glitter. (Go ahead, I’ll wait — the colors might at first be hard to find … until they’re inescapable.)
The metalmarks’ absence from the northern US (except in the far West) is, in a way, even more of a liability than our omission of orangetips. Orangetips are but one genus among many butterflies belonging to the whites and sulfurs family, the Pieridae. Metalmarks belong to their own family, the Riodinidae. The world has only six butterfly families, all or most of which are represented on most every continent. We’re missing an entire butterfly family here in Vermont and across most of the Northeast and points north.
But that’s okay. The Orangetips and metalmarks of the south fly by way of examples to the rest of us. Now back home in Vermont, I await my second spring with orange and metal: the orange flash of Milbert’s Tortoiseshells on the wing, for example, or the drips of maple sap into metal buckets. Soon our amphibian orgies will begin in icy ponds, and crimson will erupt on the wings of migrating blackbirds (among 50 shades of red in early spring here in New England).
No matter where we live, spring 2020 arrives in a climate of fear, with a virus invading our commons.
And yet, no matter where we live, spring 2020 arrives in a climate of fear, with a virus invading our commons. As if serious illness or death, however remote the odds, aren’t worrisome enough, as if we’re not already divided enough as Americans, a virus now also infects our companionship, our togetherness. It’s keeping us from gathering in cafes and bars, at museums and concerts and sporting competitions, and at some of our most cherished cultural events.
Coronavirus threatens a big part of what it means to be human: to gather together in shared spaces for friendship and the exchange of ideas and opportunities. It’s somewhat reassuring to know that I can face it, at least in part, with actions as simple as washing my hands and being responsible to others if I were to feel sick. And I have faith in my community, my small state, the best state anywhere (our lack of orangetips and metalmarks notwithstanding), and that we will get through this together as best we can.
It’s also nice to know that this spring I will meet with friends, head outside together, and find companionship, (with all due social distancing), sanity and simple joy in the company of our first emerging butterflies.
Addendum: An Image Gallery
A few more orangetips and metalmarks from various places, along with highlights (even a few birds) from my recent expedition to Texas, during which I encountered 80 butterfly species in total. Click any image for a bigger look or to start your slideshow.