Little Brown Butterflies and the Pandemic
Photo: Brown Elfins (not Bog Elfins) copulating at a bog in northern Vermont
Although it is an undisputed prize among North American lepidopterists, let’s be honest: the Bog Elfin is not a particularly attractive butterfly. Brown with messy black and rusty markings, and no bigger than your thumbnail, the elfin displays none of the flash and glitter of fritillaries, for example, or even the emerald hues of its many elfin cousins.
And yet for two decades I have been searching for the Bog Elfin here in Vermont — and not finding it. During my most recent expedition last week, I devoted three days to not finding any Bog Elfins. And what you probably do not know is that unlike many butterfly outings, a Bog Elfin search is no walk in the park or jaunt among the wildflowers.
In order to find a Bog Elfin you must first get yourself to a bog in late May, which usually requires bushwhacking with a map and compass or GPS — all the while with a cloud of black flies attacking your head and neck. Your 62-year-old, arthritic right knee does not help — it is in fact worse than black flies on these bushwhacks. That is until you reach the bog, which is open, wet and squishy, and therefore better than ibuprofen. Bogs temporarily cure old knees.
And although you will find plenty of lovely pink, purple and white flowers on the bog, you will not find nectaring among them any Bog Elfins (Callophrys lanoraieensis). You might, however, find their close cousins, Brown Elfins (Callophrys augustinus). That’s a mating pair of Brown Elfins in the banner image above. And the only reason I can bring you this photograph is because of the stedfast reluctance of Bog Elfins to show themselves, and the particular antics you must employ to find Bog Elfins (even when they are nowhere to be found at a bog).
Rather than prance about sipping nectar, Bog Elfins spend a good part of their lives sitting around on Black Spruce (Picea mariana) trees that grow from the bog mat. From those stunted-yet-lofty perches, Bog Elfins have no interest whatsoever in visiting with the likes of anyone or their bad knees and black flies. We are beneath them. Although I am somewhat reluctant to make the comparison, it’s as if a Bog Elfin were up there dispatching its battalions of biting insects to attack even the most earnest lepidopterist, like the Wicked Witch of the West deploying her flying monkeys at Dorothy.
So, in order to dislodge one from its perch, you must thwack Black Spruce trees with your insect net and watch for a Bog Elfin to dart away. And you cannot perform this exercise casually. Remember, these are among the smallest butterflies on the continent. When you thwack a Black Spruce, all sorts of stuff might come tumbling or flying off: bits of lichen or spruce cone scales, for example, or little brown moths (which, fortunately, are distinguishable because they fly with none of the dignity of a Bog Elfin).
Over the course of our three-day search, my partner on the expedition, Josh Lincoln, and I thwacked or tapped no fewer than 800 black spruce trees of all sizes on bogs across northeastern Vermont. Never did a Bog Elfin launch from any spruce (at least none that we could detect). In fact the only butterflies to launch were that mating pair (end-to-end) of Brown Elfins above, which landed on the leaf of a Labrador Tea (Ledum groenlandicum) for the photo. Josh and I also noticed another female Brown Elfin laying one of her powder blue her eggs on a leaf of a Bog Laurel (Kalmia polifolia).
And through it all we did not notice any Bog Elfins. No matter. And no regrets. I have a policy about bogs: No complaining on a bog. Ever. And at this point in this essay I am committing an unmitigated nature-writing cliche by telling you that my failed Bog Elfin expedition was in any event about the journey. Yeah, we missed Bog Elfins. No surprise there. But on our first morning a bull Moose sauntered past us close enough to smell. A Canada Warbler, gunmetal-gray above and highway-paint-yellow below, with a jet-black necklace, posed full-frontal for us and sang his fidgety song. A Fisher emerged from the woods and practically bumped into Josh. And Lucia Azures (Celastrina lucia), another thumbnail butterfly, flashed like little blue flames at our feet across the bogs.
But beyond the cliche, our failed Bog Elfin expedition gave me something even greater than the journey: normalcy. As strange as it might seem for grown men to thrash around the woods and walk across bogs thwacking trees with butterfly nets, the Bog Elfin, mythical or not here in Vermont, rescued us for a three-day furlough from the pandemic. Once we cleared “civilization,” Josh and I saw not a soul on or around these bogs in northeastern Vermont. Nobody. For three days I could rub my eyes, pick my nose, not wash my hands, forget about the plague and simply chase butterflies with a dear friend.
Butterflies know nothing of the plague. They wear no protective masks. They dance on the winds carefree and sip nectar from shared meadow wildflowers and communal backyard gardens.
The coronavirus pandemic has broken so much of what it means to be human: to gather together with family and friends, to exchange love and ideas, experience and opportunity. Virtually every facet of our lives, every pillar of society and culture, has changed — perhaps for a long time. And yet nature remains among the few things in our world unchanged. Butterflies know nothing of the plague. They wear no protective masks. They dance on the winds carefree and sip nectar from shared meadow wildflowers and communal backyard gardens. Or just sit there atop Black Spruce trees in remote bogs.
To be sure, a bog in northern Vermont is the epitome of physical distancing. Yet perhaps you yourself, seeking refuge, need not bushwhack so far and search for a little brown butterfly. Maybe your respite is closer to home. After all, we humans have for centuries philosophized about the sublime and transcendence to be found in the natural world. In that sense, the human mind is indeed a potent force, maybe even stronger than a plague.
After all, to escape a virus I cannot see in my community, I found refuge in a little brown butterfly I never saw on a bog.