The Virtue in Uncertainty
Photo: Northern Crescent / Vermont / 31 May 2012
One of the best things about nature is that even seasoned biologists and naturalists sometimes have no clue what’s living our own backyards — even when we’re told otherwise (especially when we’re told it on the internet). So I now present to you a gossamer reminder that in nature, as in all life, there are often no easy answers, which can be a very good thing.
Meet the Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos), among the most widespread and abundant butterflies across the eastern United States. Actually, if you live nearly anywhere in the US or much of Canada you are now not too far from this lovely butterfly or one of its relatives. And yet across a sizable swath of the continent, one of Pearl Crescent’s in-laws, Northern Crescent (Phyciodes cocyta), complicates the lives of even skilled lepidopterists. As these two butterfly species float and flutter around us in abundance, we often cannot tell them apart.
This is a hard thing to accept for Homo sapiens (who might more appropriately be named Homo hubris). We like to think we know such charismatic “insecta-fauna” as butterflies, particularly because we also like to put names on things, especially on the more poetic creatures among us. I name therefore I am. I myself have nothing against naming, mind you. Not only does it bring order to the world, it also brings, at least to me, a kind of constitutional satisfaction — an intrinsic sense of fulfillment. Knowledge is human nature, after all. Especially knowledge of nature.
And yet we can’t always name the crescents posing for us in plain view, which seems, well, unnatural. Our not being able to tell a Pearl Crescent from a Northern Crescent is a bit like a birdwatcher not knowing whether that putative American Robin pulling up earthworms in the yard is in fact an American Robin. Our world becomes unsettled, uncertain (surprise, surprise).
Even so, I welcome the unknown. One of the reasons I treasure crescents is that they can be tranquil or pugnacious or indifferent — four wings and multiple personalities. Males might be fluttering about your knees in one moment, chasing a female the next, or just sitting there with other males on dirt roads sipping nutrients like businessmen at a three-martini lunch. Females spend a good portion of their day floating around, nectaring on flowers, laying eggs, and avoiding those pugnacious males.
The real reason I treasure crescents is for the uncertainty in their identity.
But I think that the real reason I treasure crescents is for the uncertainty in their identity. Uncertainty breeds inquiry — at least among those of us with the temerity to explore and learn and find gifts among the prosaic. For the last few days the season’s first crescents have been on the wing here in my yard on a hillside in central Vermont. I have it on good authority, and a fair amount of my own study, that these are in all likelihood Northern Crescents. It would be easy for me to believe that I recognize them, that I can check them off as known, vanquished, and then move on to the checkerspots or swallowtails freewheeling among the flowers here in the garden.
And yet I can’t help but think I might be wrong about my backyard crescents. Or maybe I’m right most of the time and wrong some of the time. So I sit with them, watch them go about their business on the buttercups and phlox. And even if my catalogue of knowledge about these butterflies escapes me, when it all might fall apart, and when I find myself lost among them, well, hey, I’m lost among butterflies. Unlike the regrettable practice in birdwatching, I am not checking off this butterfly and moving on to what’s next.
Among my crescents there is no what’s next. No email to check, no virus to avoid, no president to defeat in November, no certainty in the future. Only a little orange-and-black butterfly and its multitudes: the patterns on the upper (dorsal) side of its wings, the pale crescent within a darkened patch on its tawny ventral hindwing, the color on the underside of its antenna club, even the way it flaps and glides and rests.
As it turns out, I began writing this essay Saturday evening with another objective in mind: to describe for students in my online butterfly class all the reliable and unreliable field marks in the pantheon of crescent identification. (It is the females of these two crescents that are most often unidentifiable in the field or even with a good photograph; and there might even be a third crescent species in the mix here, Phyciodes diminutor, which I don’t believe has a common name.) But now, Sunday morning, 700 words later, I still haven’t written down those field marks. Maybe I’ll write them later in another blog post or handout. At 10am today, the sun has forced its way into my day; the air is crisp and clear and comfortable.
Any minute now, the crescents will be taking flight.