Walden on the Wing

Broom in one hand and coffee balanced in the other, I made my way to the dawn-lit patio, intending to sweep up birdseed scattered by my messy eaters.

One quick sweep of the broom caused an even quicker flutter. Startled, I bent to look into the tangled leaves of a Hawaiian schefflera, and found the source of the flutter: a Gray Hairstreak butterfly (Strymon melinus) hardly larger than a penny. Lizards and snails visit the patio frequently, but I’d never encountered a butterfly there, so I backed away, put down the broom, and fetched the camera.

Perhaps instinctively, the creature had chosen the darkest and least accessible corner for its refuge. Fearful that the use of flash would send it flying, I took a few photos to document its presence and came inside. An hour later, the hairstreak still lingered, perfectly still, in the same spot. After two hours, and then three, it occurred to me that it might be newly hatched, and was drying its wings.

By that time, the sun was shedding more light on the schefflera, so I reclaimed the camera and clipped a few leaves from the plant for a better view of the tiny creature. As I clipped, the butterfly never moved, and the photo you see is the result. An hour later, it had flown.

Initially, I had planned to finish my sweeping and coffee drinking before visiting a local nature center for a few hours, but the time I spent watching the hairstreak put an end to that. No matter. As John Burroughs wrote in his essay “The Exhilarations of the Road”:

A man must invest himself near at hand and in common things, and be content with a steady and moderate return, if he would know the blessedness of a cheerful heart and the sweetness of a walk over the round earth.

The presence of the hairstreak, a creature both common and near at hand, seemed worthy of investment, however moderate the return. It also brought to mind Mary Oliver’s affirmation of Burrough’s perspective in her poem “Going to Walden.”

It isn’t very far as highways lie.
I might be back by nightfall, having seen
the rough pines, and the stones, and the clear water.
Friends argue that I might be wiser for it.
They do not hear that far-off Yankee whisper:
How dull we grow from hurrying here and there!
Many have gone, and think me half a fool
To miss a day away in the cool country.
Maybe. But in a book I read and cherish,
Going to Walden is not so easy a thing
As a green visit. It is the slow and difficult
Trick of living, and finding it where you are.


Comments always are welcome.

114 thoughts on “Walden on the Wing

  1. Thanks for the picture of the gray Hairstreak, dear Linda. Dina started to photogaph butterflies and moths as well. You were lucky that the Hairstreak was resting for such a long time.
    Wishing you an easy week
    The Fab Four of Cley

    1. I’ve spent enough time chasing butterflies to appreciate those willing to pause, no matter the reason. After this one had flown, I searched for an empty chrysalis, but found no evidence of one. Of course, given its small size and dun colors, I could have missed it.

      I hope Dina will be posting some of her butterfly and moth photos. I can only imagine how beautiful they must be.

      1. Dina has the same problem that the butterflies hardly rest. We read it’s best in the early morning, they don’t move that much when cold.
        Dina has to photograph them for the magazine of the National Trust.

  2. If only we would all take the time to gaze upon nature’s marvels and learn to appreciate them more. A slow journey to Walden should be prescribed medicine for everyone harried by the pressures of modern life. And sweeping the porch can always wait, Linda. The coffee not so much,

    1. We’re in full accord when it comes to coffee, David. As luck would have it, coffee and nature often combine perfectly well. As for those pauses in the midst of life, it’s worth pondering something Annie Dillard pointed out in her book The Writing Life: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” The butterfly stands as a reminder to consider every hour.

  3. You’ve got the ‘stop and smell the roses’ advice of life down pat. When I grow up I want to be more like you.

    1. One thing I’ve learned, Jean, is that saying “yes” to one thing means saying “no” to another. For me, saying “yes” to butterflies, dawn-lit flowers, and that long-sought turn of phrase has meant saying “no” to certain other things like social media and television. My choices don’t have to be everyone’s, but the necessity of choice always is there. This time, choosing to set aside the broom and the morning’s plans turned out to be exactly right.

    1. The hairstreaks are among my favorites. Despite their tiny size, they’re amazingly detailed and sometimes quite colorful. Besides: who wouldn’t admire the cleverness of growing antennae-like ‘tails’ and eye-spots that can be used to confuse a predator?

  4. Ahhhh. Just ahhhhhh. Take the time to watch the butterfly dry off, the birds to peck at the seed, the leaves to settle after a wind, the grass to cool with its dew. Take the time to watch the Earth breathe. Ahhhh. (And perfect quotes as well). Thank you! I’m off to sit on the front porch rocker and take a slow mind journey with no hustle or bustle.

    1. Front porches and rocking chairs have become increasingly rare in these days of fences and security cameras. They not only allow for relaxed observation of the natural world, they help to build and sustain community as passers-by and porch-sitters exchange pleasantries. Time rocking on a front porch never is wasted; enjoy your morning journey!

  5. Wonderful contrast of colors—the splash of orange/red. As for the poetry…I was especially struck by “It is the slow and difficult
    Trick of living, and finding it where you are.”

    I recorded it in my daybook.

    1. It can be hard to sort out the various hairstreak species, but this one’s wing patterns are fairly distinct, and it does have that bright bit of matching orange on its head. Like you, I appreciate that last line. After the past year, I suspect a few others have learned the importance of finding their Waldens where they are.

    1. You’ve brought to mind William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence.” Taken as a whole it’s fairly gloomy, but I’ve always appreciated the opening lines:

      To see a World in a Grain of Sand
      And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
      Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
      And Eternity in an hour.

    1. It certainly was unexpected. I’m accustomed to lizards sheltering in the plants, or the occasional sparrow, but I never would have predicted a butterfly. It was quite a treat.

  6. It is often rewarding to pause and observe what nature is doing. It never really stops. Sometimes it is fast. Sometimes slow. Big and little.

    1. And isn’t it a good thing that nature doesn’t take a day off, or nag for a longer vacation? There are hints of magical processes all around us, if only we have eyes to see. I know someone who occasionally takes people on nature walks, and one of his demands is that everyone leave their ‘devices’ in the car. “Eyes only” is his rule, and it’s a good one.

  7. Your description of the gray hairstreak as common and near at hand could well apply in Austin. I wondered what Walden had to do with it until I saw the title of Mary Oliver’s poem at the end. The 1913 Webster’s Dictionary still included wald as a noun meaning ‘forest.’ The line “How dull we grow from hurrying here and there!” sounded to me like it could be from Thoreau, so I searched to see if it was. Apparently not. I found it credited to Mary Oliver in several places, including a book called Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight: Sheltering with Thoreau in the Age of Crisis, whose author I hadn’t heard of: David Gessner.

    1. I’ve seen David Gessner’s book about ospreys reviewed in several places; he’s a prolific nature writer, and apparently quite accomplished. Oliver’s work is somewhat different, but no less appealing. That line you quoted does sound as though it could have been written by Thoreau. I think it’s the use of ‘dull’ that does it: an old word put to a new but appropriate use.

      I learned wald as a word for ‘forest’ when I visited Germany’s Schwarzwald. I had to double check the spelling, and then the etymologies: sure enough, there seems to be a connection between your name and that of the Black Forest.

      1. And if I ever visit Germany’s Schwarzwald I’ll be the “black man” in it. So much for my “white privilege.”

        By the way: the letter z in German represents a ts sound, which is why there’s a t in the Anglicized spelling of Schwartzman.

        1. That’s interesting, about the addition of the ‘t’ in your name. Sometimes, of course, letters or even parts of compound names are dropped. When the Leinen family came from Germany, they were the ‘Leinenkugels.’ Eventually, in an attempt to sound more Americanized, they became the ‘Leinens.’ Not all of the clan made the change, of course; today, the Leinenkugel Brewery is alive and well.

  8. There’s so much to grab onto in this post, Linda. First, that’s a great shot of an unusually cooperative hairstreak.

    I’ve been doing everything I can over the past years to refuse to hurry and take life as I find it. After years of 50-minute hours, class schedules, and committee meetings it’s easy to slip back onto an imaginary, unnecessary treadmill. I got my weekly (mildly irritating) text message last night about a group of guys meeting for breakfast at 8 this morning and, wonder of wonders, I ignored it, continued reading my book, and then then rolled over to go to sleep. They’re a good group of guys and I enjoy breakfast with them, but I no longer race around to do optional things. And most things are optional.

    Loretta and I were discussing maintenance we needed to do up here on the hill yesterday and debating cost, should we sell when the market is good, etc, etc. We both looked out the window at the birds and our evening visit by the deer family we’ve come to know. That settled it. We’re here, looking out the window, for the duration. And we’re fixing the deck back up so we can be out there, too.

    1. I worried about the hairstreak for a time, but eventually it began twitching its antennae and changed its position slightly; that’s when I began to think of wing-drying as the reason for its willingness to linger.

      I did smile at your description of post-retirement temptations to get back on a treadmill: imaginary or not. I have a friend who left a position of some responsibility several years ago. She had a list of things she wanted to do. Some involved travel, but many were as mundane as finally sorting through family photos and mementos. Almost immediately, she filled up her days with volunteer work which entailed committee meetings, long hours at the computer, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but I did have to bite my tongue occasionally when she’d complain about not having the time to do the things she wanted to do.

      I’m glad you’re staying put. Now that the developers are touting Kerrville, Bandera, et. al., on Houston radio and tv, it won’t be long until land like yours won’t be available at any price.

      1. I hadn’t heard that Houston media was running those ads, but I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. We’ve certainly seen an increase in development near us. Bandera County has developed more slowly than Kendall, Comal, and others but the world seems to be noticing us now.

        It took me a long time to learn to say no to requests to be on committees and take on organizational responsibilities but I’m getting better at it. I still have to sit on my hands at times when something comes up because I know how seductive the work can be and how easy it is to fill your days with trivia. It’s been over 20 years since I walked away from a meeting I really had to go to, but old habits die hard.

    1. As well you should. After all, now the “Aaahs” have beaten the “Ooohs” by 2-1. (Is butterfly watching an Olympic sport? It should be; it’s as worthy as skateboarding.)

    1. Easy. I ‘balanced’ it by leaving it on an inside table. I try to keep liquids far, far away from cameras and computers: well, except for the coffee cup on the desk, of course. I have some friends who’ve learned what can happen if you don’t keep that separation, and it turned into a costly lesson.

    1. There’s a little saying I love: “We can do everything; we just can’t do everything at the same time.” You’ve had other activities vying for attention, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The butterflies will be there when you’re ready.

  9. I had never heard of the penny-sized hairstreak. It’s amazing you could even see under the foliage. Thanks for the photo.

    In my circumstances I’m attending to those things near at hand. Yesterday I photographed a bunch of cherry tomatoes on a wild tomato plant. A bumblebee on a marigold. The honey bees working the French lavender. There’s peace to that approach.

    1. There are hairstreak species galore, and some are quite colorful, like this juniper hairstreak I found in the Texas hill country.

      I’d say you’re doing just fine with the little things in life: veggies, flowers, and bees make fine subjects for both photos and contemplation. I found a completely delightful post about an inchworm in my inbox when I got home from work tonight; I think you’ll enjoy this one.

  10. How true and wise. I’ve invested hours in the parks or nature centers only to come home and discover right outside my back door the best Walden experience of the day.

    1. The utter unpredictability of what’s going to show up, and where, is part of the delight of the natural world. A friend once asked me why I insisted on always going back to the same prairie. Easy, I said — it’s never the same.

  11. What a lovely thing, to catch a new butterfly drying it’s wings before it’s maiden flight. A nice surprise in a small package!

    1. To be honest, I was a little worried that a bird might snatch it up; the plant it had chosen was only a couple of feet from my bird feeders. But, by the time the birds had finished their morning feeding and were gone, it still was there, so I think it escaped that particular fate.

      I have wondered whether the birds might be responsible for a sharp decline in my lizard population. I suppose the February freeze could have played a role, but I haven’t seen more than a half dozen this year.

    1. I’m especially fond of the hairstreaks; they’re so tiny, and yet so distinctly colored. This one provided a lot of pleasure in a very small package.

  12. Once again, Mary says it so well — we do miss a lot by hurrying here and there and by forcing ourselves to stick to some rigid schedule. You didn’t do that, and look what beauty you found to share with us! How cool that butterfly hung around long enough for you to get such a splendid shot!

    1. The most amusing part came when I decided to do a little pruning to get a better view. I already had some not-so-good photos for documentation, so I figured it wouldn’t be any great loss if it flew. But, it didn’t. I got the scissors and proceeded to take off one leaf and then another until I had a good view, and it never made a move to leave. To say I was surprised would be an understatement!

  13. I’d say a most worthwhile time cost. It makes a lovely image with the light color of the butterfly and the rich greens in background. You can almost feel the dusty velvet of the wings and body. If only my gray hair streaks were as agreeable.

    1. I was glad it stayed until the sun moved enough to light it a bit. I thought about using flash, but I was afraid that would startle it away. As for gray hair streaks, I don’t need to worry about that any more. I’ve turned completely gray — or more accurately, white. Genetics is a funny thing. When my mother went gray, it started with a single streak of gray through her hair. When it was my turn, the same thing happened. I just hope I have the genes that gave her a long life, too.

        1. No, I don’t normally use flash. I know several photographers who do, especially for insects, but the only photo I can remember posting where I had used flash was of a white orchid in the deep shadows of a woods. Even there, I only used the in-camera flash, greatly reduced. I don’t own a separate flash device.

  14. …and finding where you are. Those of us who watch those in nature practice that daily. I have lots of Gray Hairstreaks in my garden, they’re common. I love to watch them work the blooms, but I’ve never seen one newly hatched.

    1. The first Gray Hairstreaks I found were in the hill country, and Steve also mentioned that they’re common in Austin. Is there a particular plant in your garden that they prefer? I’ve seen them on green milkweed and boneset, but I’m sure there are many others they enjoy.

      1. With your question, I had to think what I hadn’t seen hairstreaks on. I don’t think I’ve seen them on the 3 ruellia species that I grow, or the flowers of red yucca, or the blooms of Texas craglily. I’m sure there are others that they don’t visit, but the nectar on most of my plants. Such pretty little things, it’s always a treat to watch them.

    1. The photo did turn out nicely. Of course, clearing out a few leaves helped. I suspect your neighborhood has more than a few, since the photos you’ve shown us of the landscaping makes clear there are plenty of flowers around to attract them.

  15. I’m so glad the creature flew away as I feared it had ceased living or had been damaged by your broom’s sweep.

    1. No, this was an example of “they all lived happily ever after.” Now and then a hawk decides to make an attempt on one of the birds at the feeders, but it doesn’t happen often, and when it does I remind myself that hawks have to eat, too.

  16. Ah yes, wise words from Mary Oliver. Being where you are allows you to see a Gray Hairstreak butterfly! I recall a story, I think from Annie Dillard, of a scientist who decided to see the world during his sabbatical and didn’t get out of his backyard from his fascination with what he found.

    1. I’m not sure if I found the quotation in Dillard, but I know the one you mean. It’s from the Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz, who said, “I spent the summer traveling; I got halfway across my back yard.”
      His comment’s a good antidote when I start imagining that the truly wonderful sights always are “out there” rather than closer at hand.

      On an entirely unrelated subject, I couldn’t stop laughing when I came across this news tonight:
      DOJ Seizes Epic of Gilgamesh from Hobby Lobby. I didn’t realize until I did a little digging that they have a history of accumulating ancient artifacts. If there were an improbable headline of the year contest, I think we might have a winner.

      1. And here’s the limerick that sums it all up (author unknown):

        “It happened in kind of of a blur”
        Said the Bible Museum, astir.
        They could not get away
        With Cuneiform A
        Detailing the legend from Ur”

    1. The color scheme is different, but it does bear some resemblance to the Queen’s Guards. I suddenly wondered how you could tell a male from a female Gray Hairstreak, and found that wing shape and color are those clues. But look what else I found: “Males perch all afternoon on small trees and shrubs to seek receptive females.” It was morning, not afternoon, but perhaps there’s a different explanation for what this one was up to: our boy may have gotten an early start!

  17. A beautiful moment – and it goes so well with the last lines of the poem. (They really resonate with me.)

    1. I do enjoy pairing photos and poems or other writings. I’ve had this one by Mary Oliver in my files for some time, and at last found a good use for it.

  18. Beautiful photo of the butterfly! Well done, but more important well seen!
    Yes, going to Walden is not easy, but when we learn where it is our life will be better. Great photo, great post with many good comments.

    1. Thank you for those kind words; I’m glad you enjoyed the photo. I certainly enjoyed the experience. We have a saying here that “home is where the heart is.” Perhaps Walden is where the observer is — particularly if the observer is willing to take just a little time for the surrounding sights.

  19. In my experience not all butterflies are cooperative about having their pictures taken. This one was a perfect model. I like the phrase “…be content with a steady and moderate return, if he would know the blessedness of a cheerful heart…” Would that more people in the world understood that.

    1. That gave me a grin. In my experience, most butterflies are non-cooperative. They’re not trying to be difficult of course; it’s their nature to flit and flutter and float just out of camera range. As for Burrough’s remark about that ‘steady and moderate return,’ it’s a good reminder that chasing after the extraordinary can be as exhausting as chasing after a butterfly.

  20. I am going to send your blogpost to my friend and butterfly expert in Alabama, Paulette Ogard. She has written a book chronicling most of Alabama’s butterflies and will be tickled to read this post. The connection to Walden and the challenge that Mary Oliver expressed in the arduous and maybe slow walk were bonuses today.

    1. Given what I’ve seen of some of your recent roads and walks, I’d say you have your own version of Walden near at hand. Seeing Sugar Pi looking down the road and imagining you close behind, another of Thoreau’s great lines came to mind: “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”

      1. Thank you for that quotation! Reminds me that there is always something new to learn. Although I taught Emerson and Thoreau for 26 years, I have never read that quote. Wasn’t he clever and don’t we understand why he annoyed so many of the Concord citizenry!

  21. Hi
    Enjoyed this post so much
    First – the way you let us encourager the butterfly with you – well I felt like I was putting the broom down!
    And then I was feeling some of the Henry David Thoreau vibe and see the subtle connection – and have not heard the name Mary Oliver in quite some time – but the quote – don’t eh one before it – were woven in well and maybe we all make room in life to have more moments like these
    Awed and moved by nature and present enough to savor it !

    1. There’s a time to sweep, but there comes a time to put the broom down, too. I certainly was pleased to have this opportunity, and it made me smile to know that you felt the pleasure of “putting down the broom,” too.

      It’s an interesting thing. When we plan some special event, there’s often a sense of slight disappointment or chagrin if things don’t work exactly as we hoped. On the other hand, these unexpected and quite unplannable events can be pure delight. As you say, being present enough to savor them is key.

      1. Well it is also fun to hear about sweeping twice in one week / earlier another blogger said an old phrase her grandmother said it was something like “you don’t tell me how to sweep my porch and I won’t tell how to sweep yours”
        Something like that
        And loved the social psych note there
        But it also reminded me of the delightful pleasure that a bit of sweeping can do – that indirect attention that can refresh too heavy a cognitive load!

  22. Just beautiful! And yes, I agree, we all need those “Walden moments” and they are closer than we think. Nature is almost always a gift, we just have to be willing to see it.

  23. Often the simple pleasures in life are the most satisfying as your quotes attest. So does your experience with the beautiful hairstreak so near at hand. People often travel far looking for themselves and the answers to what is life when all the clues are right there at home.

    1. You’re right in line with some of our greatest philosophers, including this crew. Of course, Thoreau had a thing or two to say about simplicity, too — and simplifying life. Who needs Marie Kondo when we’re got Thoreau and Skynrd?

      1. Well, I didn’t know whether I needed her or not as I had never heard of her. Latest and greatest maybe? That seems to be a growing industry. Lots of folks want to help us sort things out these days. We are comfortable with our mess.

        1. Believe me: you don’t need her. Self-help gurus come and go, and one of these days she’ll be gone. Besides, if we got rid of everything that doesn’t bring us joy, as she advises, there wouldn’t be much left of life.

            1. Every now and then I remember the Russian toilet paper that was sold in Liberia. It most closely resembled waxed paper. On the other hand, the old Sears catalogues weren’t just for reading.

  24. One of those lovely moments when nature is oblivious to human activity. Having spent far too long this morning chasing after peacock butterfly photo, I can certainly appreciate your gift!

    1. Chasing butterflies with a net is easier than chasing one with a camera, that’s for sure. I’ve seen a few skilled net-chasers at work, doing research for a class, and it’s amazing to see how skilled some of them are. On the other hand, chasing butterflies is better than chasing our own tails.

  25. I can just see you — the look on your face when you discovered the rustling, the discovery of such a wonderful butterfly, the careful trimming of the leaves after a suitable wait and then finally, a fabulous photo. The poem is almost as perfect as our glimpse into your magical world of the hairstreak.

    1. It recently occurred to me that even those of us who can’t write as well as Mary Oliver at least can learn to pay attention in her way. I certainly lavished attention on this little hairstreak, and it repaid me by hanging around to have its portrait made. Of course I’m sure it had its own reasons for staying put on the leaf, but it was a delightful experience for me.

  26. What an elegant fellow in his cape of tea-dyed linen with just that splash of brilliant yellow-orange. Have you noticed? Nature always seems to get it right — the right base, the right accent color skillfully applied. Makes you sit back on your heels and say, “Yes. That’s it exactly.” I may have to design a shawl that is shaped like a butterfly’s outstretched wings. I’ll have to think about how to get that shape. Hmmmm.

    1. I’ve been trying to remember whether I’ve ever seen that shape used in a shawl; I don’t think I have, although it does seem as though I’ve seen the shape elsewhere. I just don’t know where. If you take a closer look at the pattern on the back of the wings, you’ll notice the little hairstreak ‘trick.’ The orange splotches and the ilttle tails might fool a predator into thinking that was the front of the critter; by mimicking itself, the butterfly might only risk a bite out of their nether regions.

  27. That is quite a lovely and unexpected butterfly encounter and you didn’t have to go any further than your porch. I loved reading about and seeing the photo of the little hairstreak. They are so tiny and flit about quickly making it difficult to capture one with a camera lens. I have gotten a few that were perched on some flowers but getting the shots were difficult. In fact it was down right tiring.

    1. Butterfly chasing can be a bit of a chore: no question about that. If it’s early in the morning and they’re warming up, or if they’re nectaring, the chances are better. In this case, the problem was a lack of light under the plant’s leaves, but a pair of scissors and the natural movement of the sun took care of that. Right now there’s no butterfly around, but a trio of young bluejays has left their nest and are visiting my feeders. With their touseled feathers and raucous cries, they’re clearly turning into ‘teenagers.’

  28. Excellent image of the Gray Hairstreak, a beautiful butterfly. It’s a happy occasion for a photographer when a hairstreak sits still!
    In my area, Gray Hairstreaks are never around in large numbers, but you see them in all seasons. One year I found one in April, perched high in a pine, but most often in mid to late summer.

    1. In the process of responding to comments here, I learned something new about hairstreaks: or, at least, this hairstreak. I knew they would remain still after emerging into the world, or in the morning when they still were cool or damp, but now I know the males sometimes will just sit around on foliage waiting for the girls to show up. I’d assumed this one was newly hatched, partly because it seemed so perfect, but perhaps not.

      In any event, I was glad I didn’t have to chase after this one.

      1. Hairstreaks are beautiful and there’s a variety of markings. Texas has a number of hairstreak species that aren’t seen anywhere else in the US. In my area, most of them fly just once a year, in late June to July. Gray hairstreak has multiple flights each year, it’s different than the others.
        Some butterflies are cooperative – you found one at the right moment!

  29. Thanks Linda for sharing your morning discovery. Mary Oliver’s poem reminds me of my morning walks. There are many treasures waiting when my feet follow each path. There are times when my camera shares in my discovery.

    1. With or without a camera, those times are so special, and there always is something to see. I’ve been roaming around for several years now, and I have yet to experience a day without a surprise. It’s what makes each day worth getting up for.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.