October 07, 2002

Insect Epistemology

image copyright Fred First

The other day I lamented the fact that I had not yet seen the first Monarch butterfly throughout September and now into October. I have heard the species is under some pressure, and I anguished at the thought the world might lose yet another familiar creature from its repertoire during my lifetime.

Then, while raking the leaves from the lane yesterday, a pair of wings the same color as the leaves below me sailed quickly by. I wasn't sure at first, but when it finally lit for a moment on the chrysanthemums, I was certain. My first Monarch, at last. And this one obviously had hatched close by, a new floor model, low mileage, spotless and smooth and full of pep.

Maybe because I had already given up this sighting for good for this year, and was even thinking it might be good-bye to Monarchs for all time that I paid more attention to that first umber and black and white-speckled specimen than I ever have before. It was good to know they were still around, these old friends. "Let me look at you", we say, after months, years, decades of apartness. "Why, you haven't changed a bit!"

This particular fellow (we shall call it 'him', since, if I ever knew how to tell these butterflies apart by sex, I have now forgotten) seemed quite full of himself, expending more energy than was wise for one who still has an enormously long late Autumn voyage ahead of him. Skittish and flitty, as I would approach for a portrait and come close for a good composition, off he would flap-flap-flap in a large erratic circle, flying as far as the barn and back. It seemed to me that he migh have been out earning his learner's permit on new wings and was about to leave the neighborhood for good, but he always came back to the big cluster of pale pink mums, which, opening only a day before, were as pristine and unblemished as this brand new butterfly.

What I do not remember noting before is the very different pattern of flight in the Monarchs compared to the Spicebush Swallowtails and Frittilaries that have been so common around here all summer. The Monarch pattern is very definitely flap-flap-flap G L I D E. And this gliding makes sense, now that I think about it.

I would suppose that, if the Monarch did not know how to glide on the supportive and propulsive conveyance of air, it would never be capable of its winter vacation (and death) in southern California and Mexico each year. It would not be able to rise in the thermals and coast effortlessly for miles, heading south, and west. Watching this Monarch soar I remembered that I once knew how to fold a piece of wide-ruled school paper to make a glider airplane that would have amazing 'hang-time', almost floating on the air. It is that bit of aerodynamics that the Monarch knows.

What all does a Monarch know, I wondered? I suppose it knows how to respond aerodynamically to air currents so that it can cover vast distances with little effort by gliding and soaring on the thermals. Monarchs know how to orient to the invisible pull of unknown energies or to landmarks in the sky or on or under earth, and how to migrate over unfamiliar thousands of miles to a place they have never been before. They know how to feed on milkweeds so as to make themselves taste disgusting to their would-be predators, insuring that at least some survive long enough to meet in Baja with hundreds of thousands of their kind. All of this they know.

There is no committee of Monarchs in High Council weighing the evidence from studies in unapproachable journals; no experts holding court in ivory towers who debate and argue and question validity and reliability in the test design, or examine the statistics in order to trust the 'truth' of their knowledge. Butterfly knowledge is not the consensus of experts.

What they know about buoyancy and loft, about milkweed toxins and about the geography of the continent is somehow hardwired, ordained, immutable and the same from one butterfly to its offspring, truth unchanging through an infinite regression of a thousand generations. A Monarch, with its tiny pinpoint brain simply knows that it knows what it knows and that is enough.

We possess so much more than the Monarch in the realm of knowing, and so much less. Knowledge is both a burden and a blessing, a great tool in answering the questions we call science, but much less help than an insect brain in discerning those invisible lines of force called meaning and purpose that determine how we move and how we orient ourselves to reality during our lives; our migration toward our intended end, so to speak.

Monarchs know where they're going and how to get there, born with Heaven in their wiring and their wings. When I see these messengers again next year, I will stop what I'm doing and consider solemnly my own personal compass and map, my desert wanderings, and that Place I have never been.

Posted by fred1st at October 7, 2002 08:44 PM

I see the struggle was successful. Beautiful essay, Fred. But then, yours always are.

And now that I know how you take your photographs, I'm even MORE impressed with your talent in that realm.

Posted by: susanna at October 8, 2002 08:15 AM

Wow. I will now definitely be a regular reader.

I have also noticed the Monarchs, up here in Arlington - I suppose some of the ones the flit through my neighborhood may be of the same that flit through yours, since Floyd is in the path from here to Baja. I'll send some good intentions and kind thoughts on one or two of them, just in case.

Posted by: pup at October 8, 2002 01:16 PM

I live in Roanoke County, and we seem to live right in the middle of a Monarch Super-Highway. Last week I counted over two dozen of the south-bound beauties in less than 15 minutes. BTW, I love the site, keep up the good work!

Posted by: ronbailey at October 11, 2002 04:48 PM

After reading these testimonials, I must confess what I am doing on the internet. I have this butterfly or moth (Brownish and small, a little orange and two white patches on the lower back of his lower wings)? This moth mounts on my laundry pole every day, and when another bug comes near his territory he chases them away! Doesn't matter if they are bigger than he, he rushes right after them. As soon as I come out in the morning he flys around my head untill I hold my hand up and he lands on my hand as if to say "Good Morning". Can't seem to find out what type he is though? This is the third year for one of these? Thanks for listening.

Posted by: Mary at June 22, 2005 04:13 PM

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