Like so many of you, the pandemic has shrunk the size of our world. We haven’t gone out much at all since March, only to witness once-in-a-lifetime sign removals, keep the car engine humming on our socially distanced local road trips, and attend to unavoidable errands.
We’re blessed to have a small but vibrant garden, which has been Richard’s special project for the past decade. He tends cacti and bromeliads, ferns, plumeria, bamboo and bananas. A funky network of interconnected ponds provides water for the possums, raccoons, songbirds, squirrels and neighborhood cats, and the inhabitants of a bee hive that recently took up residence in an upended bucket. The scrub jays get mouthy if he sleeps too late, demanding their breakfast peanuts.
If we’ve got to stay put, it’s a pretty great place for it.
Earlier this summer, inspired by people I saw on social media raising monarch butterflies, I checked the underside of our milkweed leaves, and was excited to find a number of tiny fluted eggs. After watching videos to get up to speed (thanks, MrLundScience!), I’ve raised a few generations of monarchs in a Lucite display case on my desk, and sent the creatures out into world after documenting their strange transformations.
But there’s a lot that can go wrong with butterflies, in nature and on my desk, as I learned a week ago.
Very early in the morning, a monarch broke out of her chrysalis, lost her grip, and fell a few inches to the floor of the case. I found her there when I woke up. She wasn’t hurt, but her new wings, which need to hang free to harden in the air, were crimped underneath her. I lifted her up, and helped her grab on to a cord, hoping her wings would straighten out. They did, a little, but once they hardened, they were undeniably folded right to left.
She was alert and had a good appetite for honey nectar sipped through a sponge. But how would she ever be able to fly with her crumpled napkin wings?
Feeling guilty about creating a situation where a newborn butterfly could fall from its perch, I got on the internet and fell down a rabbit hole of monarch lovers who had performed home surgery to correct wing damage. Wings, I was assured, had no nerves and you could cut them into like trimming human hair. Some people transplanted whole wings on top of broken ones, others had used lightweight cardstock as splints.
I didn’t have a spare pair of monarch wings on hand, but I had some cardstock and a bottle of contact cement. And so, once the sun set and my lively butterfly was slowing down for the day, I plopped her down on a towel, immobilized her body between the tines of a measuring cup handle, screwed up my courage and glued her crimped wings straight.
Once I’d done all that to my good patient, I thought I’d better name her. I called her Jess, after the collage artist Jess Collins, since she was now a bit of a collage herself, butterfly wing topped with strips of a flat rate envelope.
Here’s a short film about Jess’ surgery and what came after. And now that you know that there are people daffy enough to perform home surgery on injured butterflies, I hope you’ll look a little closer when monarchs come close. You might just see a living collage off on an adventure in the California breeze.