Lessons from the World’s Smallest Butterfly

Have you ever seen a Western Pygmy Blue? They aren’t rare or endangered. In fact, they’re all over the map, north to south, wherever there’s desert habitat that suits them. But they’re hard to notice. It’s easy to walk past the flutter of such small wings and not realize whose wings they are unless they arrive in a flock.

The yard of my apartment building has been honored with a little flock. One of my neighbors and I get wrapped up in gazing at them, the exquisite patterns on the tiny wings, the mingled flight as all the butterflies rise and flutter and change flowers, as if a square dance caller had directed a new part of the dance.

They remind me not to overlook small wonders. The scent of purple sage in bloom. A baby greater earless lizard with perfect little orange forelegs. The silver fuzz on green creosote berries. Breath. Movement. Friendship. Another day of being alive, connected, and grateful.

Image source: https://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/sighting_details/1236172

A Day Outside of Time

Tuesday July 21, as I was leaving Las Cruces, one of those big highway signs with electronic lettering said “7/21/21 Time Begins.” It looked ominous. Usually, they say things like “get vaccinated and you could win the lottery,” or “construction at exit such and such.” After that strange announcement, I was happy to get a Day Outside of Time. The opening prompt in my online writers’ group the following Sunday said July 25 is an extra day in the Mayan calendar. There are thirteen moons, so the 365th day is outside of time.

I literally ran with that idea, alone in the beauty of the desert, allowing my mind to be unconstrained by past or future, by any sense of time pressing on me from one side or the other. Nothing impending or demanding. To be free, I didn’t have to run off on some great adventure, because the moment was the adventure.

When I got home, I realized I hadn’t walked down to the Rio Grande lately. The river looked like a long, fast-flowing mud puddle after recent monsoons. I stood at the edge. Strands and wreaths of desert willow branches floated past, green and flexible, torn off by wind and water. Time and thought are the branches. The present moment is the river. Beyond that, the mountain. Steady. Tadasana.

I walked home past the “cat house,” a trailer that houses a cat colony—at least in the yard. (I don’t know if they have indoor access.) Someone feeds them. Among them are two unusual and beautiful cats I plan to use as feline characters in a future book. They were snuggling and sunbathing with their friends. Animals always have all days outside of time.

 

Green and Present

For a year, I’ve been making few plans and not giving much thought to what I was doing without. When I got my vaccine appointment, though, I began to think about the future. Then my appointment was rescheduled for a week and a half later, and this brought me back to the present. It’s better than leaning too far ahead. More peaceful. The future will still come.

On a typical spring day, I tried to squeeze in a run at Elephant Butte Lake before the wind kicked up. The lake was blue, the sand staying in place on the ground, the sun warm—and then the blowing started. At one point, the flying grit was so thick I had stop and turn my back to the wind. I couldn’t see, could hardly move forward, and the sand was stinging my skin. In a few minutes, it eased enough that I could proceed, grateful for a visor and for wrap-around sun goggles, and the view was stunning. The wind made the water appear bright green, whipped into miniature whitecaps. Thin clouds of white sand streaked over the surface. I was still being pelted, but even a dirt storm has its moments of beauty.

When I got home, I discovered new greening on the fig tree. Its first leaves had unfurled, tiny but thick and sturdy, and a few velvety, bead-sized green figs had popped out. Later, the fruits will flower inside their skins, and little wasps will somehow slip in and pollinate, unseen by human eyes.

A few weeks ago, my friend Bob loaned me his copy of Tales from the Tao: The Wisdom of Taoist Masters. As I walked home with it, honored by the surprise, I opened the book randomly and came across this passage from Lao Tzu.

Without going out your door,

You can know the whole world.

Without looking through your window,

You can see the Tao of Heaven.

 

Nothing but Nature

To my surprise, I hardly miss my favorite trail. By leaving it to the unmasked dog-walkers and the political sand-scribblers, I’ve found peace. Peace along the sandy lake shore, a strangely un-desert-like experience, running only inches away from the vast blue water and little peeping beach birds. Even deeper peace in my secret place, running on a set of hidden trails with bizarre rock formations, some like geodes made of geodes.

When the weather was warm, bees greeted me two days in a row when I emerged from my car, about to head for my new running routes. I paused to let a bee walk on my hand, honored by its gentle, curious attention. Most of the time, I like people. I enjoy company. But when I’m out in nature, my soul is happiest with nothing but nature.

A Writing Lesson

Those of you who’ve followed this blog for a while know that a certain trail in Elephant Butte Lake State Park is my sacred space, my refuge where I run in beauty. This fall, it began to lose some of its peacefulness to people who vented their feelings by writing. They could have done it in journals, blog posts, poems, or song lyrics—but they wrote in sand and on rocks.

Today, I decided to do something about it while in the park and later by writing a letter to the editor of the only local print paper. My original letter was 376 words. The paper allows 250. I had to find 125 excess words in what I thought was already perfect.

This was a fascinating process. The original version wasn’t perfect after all. It was wordy. I’d like it better with three of four more words. But I removed 120 I don’t even miss. Can I cut excess words in my fiction this ruthlessly? I’ll have to remember the lesson as I revise my works in progress.

The letter:

At first, I thought the wind would blow the words away. It didn’t. More appeared, political words, in the sand along Luchini Trail. Then words spelled out with pebbles. Then words scrawled on rocks in black marker. Not bad words—honor, respect, integrity etc. But it’s still graffiti. If one person starts defacing the rocks, what’s to stop others from doing it? (Except respect, honor, and integrity.) I turned those rocks over. The graffiti writer returned with yellow paint and rewrote the words. Every time I run, I stop to flip a heavy rock. The person responsible for the graffiti flips it back later. Dear scribbler, I don’t object to your words, but to the fact that you painted them on rocks.

Most of the sand writings were angry. When an f-bomb appeared, I couldn’t wait for wind erasure. With a fallen twig shaped like a broom, I swept away the rage, whether I agreed or disagreed with the writer. I tossed the political-opinion pebbles. One landed in sand so untouched it simply vanished.

The sand I swept was soft and warm. There were delicate little quail tracks in it. Peace. Beauty. It’s what people seek on this trail. But every time I passed those angry words, my mind snagged on inner noise and argument.

We benefit from a space that calms our spirits rather than aggravating our outrages. Perhaps the graffiti writer thinks they’re sending positive messages. But nature can do it better, without black marker or yellow paint.

Rock Watching

Trying new running routes, I have to be mindful, a rock watcher, even on a broad, sandy trail. I dare look up only for seconds at a time to admire the view—a cliff in the distance, blue water even further off—under the bluebird-blue sky. Little flying silhouettes might be bluebirds, but the light is so strong behind them, they have no color at all. The same slant of light does wonders for the view at my feet, though. The late afternoon sun makes them stand out in the sand and dirt, dull gray tricksters I might otherwise trip over. Strange formations like a giant’s petrified bubble-bath bulge from the sides of hills, scrubby junipers perched among them like the giant’s bonsai. (I know, that’s a clunky juxtaposition, bath and bonsai, but I did it anyway.) The bubble rocks may be lithophysae—meaning there could be geodes inside. But I’m not going to bring tools and attack them to find out. The mystery is part of their magic.

Thanks to observing the ground as I ran, I found a fine little metal toy truck of the kind I used to love a child, the kind that could whizz along the floor of the playroom with satisfying smoothness. The truck is weathered, its white paint marbled by sand-scrubbing so the black metal underneath shows. Its wheels are gone. Its windshield has turned dark. But it’s still an excellent little truck. It has a story. Somehow, it got half-buried in a road so seldom used, so totally abandoned, that a lizard I startled ducked into a large, well-established hole in smack the middle of it.  Another reason for rock watching.

“I’ve got nothing better to do. Might as well turn eighty-five.”

Last year, when Bob turned eighty-four, another friend and I took him for a float trip on the Rio Grande. With a very old friend, each birthday is a special occasion, even if he says things like the title of this post. When I stopped by Sunday to give him a book for his eighty-fifth, he was sitting on the cement porch of his apartment—a cheddar-yellow, purple, and red building in true T or C style. With him was a friend who had brought a cake, and they were having a quiet celebration in 2020 mode. The chairs on his porch are a little over six feet apart. His mask hangs on the knob of a large, heavy bureau he somehow hauled out from his living room along with his armchairs, a lamp, a clock, a table, and little potted plants. He’s pretty much established his pandemic parlor outside.

Every other day at sunset, I walk his dog. She’s old, too, but she’s a faster walker than he is, so I’m in charge of her cardio workouts, while he takes her for leisurely, companionable strolls to the river.

The bats have relocated yet again. Now they live in the Baptist church. The sky is alive with their dances as the dog and I finish our walk. I deliver her back to Bob, and we talk and watch the sunset. A ceremony of cherishing the day and our friendship.

 

Figs

I pick figs daily in the front yard of my apartment building. The treasure hunt of foraging for ripe fruit, the embrace of greenness, pawing my way through the tree, getting deep into its leafy arms—I take as much pleasure in this as in fresh figs. I give half of them away. Birds, wasps, and ants nibble their share of figs, and I often emerge from a dive into the tree with a tiny spider in my hair. Immersion in the branches reminds me of being a child climbing trees, and gives me an odd sense of being one of my distant ancestors.  A hunter-gatherer living in a forest.

Zero Percent Chance of Rain

The clouds were thick and gray, trailing shaggy beards of virga, usually a sign that it’s too hot to rain all the way to the ground. The forecast said zero-percent chance. I walked to the Rio Grande, avoiding the place I used to go to enjoy it—Rotary Park—because it was packed with vehicles, and we’ve had an influx of Texans. Instead, I walked the dirt road, listened to red-winged blackbirds, admired the cliff with cacti sprouting from its steep sides, and headed home. Too many trucks puffing dust on the road. Thunder began rumbling, and was I surprised to feel a soft mist of rain on my skin. Such a gift, when least expected.

The Cactus Patch, Feral Furniture, and Patience

On a ninety-seven degree day with nineteen miles-per-hour wind, I had to run—well, jog, really—straight into the wind up the steep hill to reach my new favorite trail. And it was worth it. The rare little hedgehog cacti were displaying their last two blooms of the year. There are only three of these plants in the whole area where I’ve been running. Not a close family, they grow a foot or two apart. Their trunks are egg-shaped with starry thorn clusters, and they explode with big hot pink flowers that each stay open one day. The first time I rounded a bend and saw blossom number one, I gasped in awe and stopped. I looked deep in the cup of the flower to see something round and yellow bobbing and wriggling among the fluffy stamens. The hind end of a bee.

The rest of the desert is full of yellow flowers, the creosote bushes waving golden petals in the wind, and below them the low-growing purple prickly pear, also called a purple pancake cactus, is flowering as well. It looks like a mean little plant until it blooms. The pads can be purple, green with purple edges or green that looks as if it’s coated with purple, and sometimes the plant will sprout a single bright green pad. The thorns are long and sharp,  capable of penetrating the human toe quite efficiently. The buds are pink, but they open yellow with pink-orange centers or streaks. There were so many, when I closed my eyes in the shower after my run I kept seeing them, a sea of pale yellow flowers on a background of prickly purple.

I’m glad I saw so much beauty that day, because climbing the hill for weeks has reawakened an old injury which is quite literally a pain in the backside, so I have to stick to for flat ground for a while.

Unpaved flatness is hard to find. I tried a neighbor’s recommendation: the cemetery. It is flat, and has a dirt road and nice views of mountains in the distance, but the gate has huge signs on either side announcing that this is a Known Rattlesnake Area, warning visitors to use great care. I chose to run laps of an open green space where there are not yet any burials. I saw no snakes there, but ran over so many goatheads the soles of my shoes felt like Velcro on the grass. So I plucked them and switched to the dirt road on the side away from the main burial area. This offered windblown dust and flying goatheads—really—scratching my legs. I even got one stuck in my thigh. Easy to pull out, but still, this is not my favorite running spot so far. A few people visiting their loved ones’ graves must have thought me a bit weird, but surely, there’s at least one runner buried there. Someone whose spirit understood.

My next flat-ground attempt was a dirt road that goes from one of the residential streets in my neighborhood to the area behind (how lovely) the sewage treatment plant. I haven’t smelled the facility so far, and getting there is pleasant. I pass a friend’s house and see her positive-energy fence signs and window signs, such as “Mask your face, not your heart.” I even encountered her once for a distant air-hug and conversation.

Scenery along the dirt road is so-so. The scrabbly dirt side of hill I’m avoiding is at the end of the road. You have to be on top of it to see the cactus patch, so this view is not floral. On one side of the road are the backs of a few houses, including one with some huge prickly pears that have poppy-like orange flowers. On the other side is an area of brush, bare dirt, and weeds that looks as if it was cleared once and is now overgrown. Facing a patch of dirt sits a single off-white folding chair, suggesting someone chose to sit and contemplate this inhospitable spot. My friend Donna Catterick, the photographer whose work is on the covers of Death Omen, Shadow Family and Small Awakenings, calls such sightings feral furniture. The cover of Small Awakenings, my book of reflective essays, features a feral chair. (The feral recliner at the bottom of this post is another one of Donna’s photos.)

I met a birdwatcher on my second run on this route—from the recommended twelve feet apart while exercising—and wondered if that was his chair.

I also met a beautiful snake from an even greater distance. It was orange with black stripes that diminished to mere spots toward its rattle-less tail. I looked it up later and concluded it might have been a ground snake, possessed of mildly toxic saliva. Does anyone else think ground snake is an odd name? All the snakes I’ve ever seen were on the ground.

My third time down that road, I was pain-free and happy for many laps, and then I tripped on a rock. I didn’t fall. No, I caught my balance with an instinctive and intense effort of the injured muscles, and learned how much strength it takes to keep your balance, how hard you work in a fraction of a second of not falling down. Needless to say, the old injury revived with a vengeance.

Perhaps I will have to heal where I can’t even trip. Inactivity is its own kind of injury, though, and I need to see nature, so I guess I’ll be walking on pavement for a while. Dancing in my apartment when I need variety. Practicing yoga as if I were my own student with an injury. I can’t rush the process or I won’t heal at all.