Living in the Mid-Atlantic states gives me an advantage when I look for seasonal bloom or fruit. I can turn back calendar pages or flip them forward simply by driving a couple hours north or south. Each year I try to spot bluets in the spring and migrating monarch butterflies at summer’s last breath.
Bluets are also known as Quaker Ladies (Houstonia caerulea) because they’re not showy; they’re low-growing, small flowers, pale blue to white with a yellow center. Sometimes from a distance, it’s as though a shard of pale sky or a shred of cloud has settled on the grass.
My friend Naomi showed me a few scattered bluets one July in Worthington, Massachusetts. Their delicacy charmed me. The next spring I was delighted when I discovered them growing in the grass at a wildflower preserve not far from my home. If I arrive at the right time I can find a splurge of bluebells growing by a nearby creek. It seems like cheating: the difference between seeing a bear in the zoo rather than in the wild.
I prefer to find my bluets roadside as I drive. Or, to be more accurate, as I am driven, all puns intended. My expeditions are constrained by safe limits. Quick stops are helpful, but I haven’t found a good enough argument (yet) for slamming on the brakes. Even, “Bluets! Can you stop the car? Please?” results in our being way down the road by the time we even slow down. Will we find a safe place to turn? Unlikely. I’m happy to trot back a few hundred feet.
If the bluets are growing on a curve with no shoulder, I get only a glimpse as we pass by. Even parking at a distance and walking back won’t do. In my mind’s eye, years after having spotted the bluets on just such a curve, I see them still, pale blue, separated from the road by a drainage ditch.
I don’t understand the compulsion that drives me to find bluets. Why not some other seasonal bloom? Spring beauty, for example, is equally delicate, though with a larger flower (by a good half-inch), and its pink stripes remind me of a much-loved childhood dress. Or I might seek out the bright yellow birdsfoot trefoil, which in my part of the country doesn’t seem to be as invasive, as, say, purple loosestrife. (Even knowing its consequences, I find hard to hate a swath of purple loosestrife.) No, for me it’s bluets.
Once I’ve spotted my seasonal bluet, I’m fine. I can move on to enjoy whatever I find in bloom. Even in urban lots and under shrubs along sidewalks, or pushing through cracks in cement, a seasoned eye can find an abundance of wildflowers. Armed with Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, I learned to see the world as one great garden. I’ve seen all of these in Philadelphia: nightshade, purslane, clover (red and white), dandelion, shepherd’s purse, henbit, chickweed, chicory, Queen Anne’s Lace (a/k/a bird’s nest), lady’s thumb, creeping speedwell, bindweed, and, rarely, inkweed.
I still find it astounding that monarch butterflies migrate from North America to Mexico. I haven’t tried lying on my back on a lawn and watching for them with binoculars, but I have seen hundreds of them near their food source. My finding monarchs was a bit like the theme in the Acres-of-Diamonds speech, in which someone goes off to hunt for diamonds. He perishes, after which someone else discovers diamonds in the very field he’d sold to go on his fruitless hunt: I first looked for over-wintering monarchs in Pacific Grove, California, but it was to no avail even though I was there in late November.
Now I realize that I might have been looking right at the monarchs without seeing them. If they’re on an evergreen, they’re somewhat easier to see than when they’re on a tree with broader leaves. With their wings closed, at a glance they can be mistaken for leaves themselves. Someone who doesn’t know what to look for will be fooled; I didn’t know. To be generous to myself, this first fruitless search preceded the availability of detailed maps and descriptions on the Internet.
Then, by chance, a few years later I learned that on their way south, the migrating monarchs gather in Cape May, New Jersey and in other locations on the edge of the Delaware Bay to fatten up on plentiful goldenrod. (I’m sure they feasted on marsh milkweed when it bloomed). I was astonished. monarchs, not across the continent, but only an hour’s drive from my home! Had my parents known about this, we would have been there every year.
Since learning that the monarchs gather at East Point Lighthouse, I’ve joined other eco-tourists to look for them. Driving on the road to where I expect to find the monarchs, I’ll see dozens of butterflies fluttering over the marshes. Several will cling to one full-blooming goldenrod. That’s in a good year.
Years ago when I found only one or two, I didn’t know whether I’d come too early or too late, whether the few monarchs I saw were also arriving early, or if they were poor stragglers. Now a few clicks at the computer yields the migration schedule, maps, and sightings.
On the trees, the monarch’s wings are closed. Although we think of the monarch’s orange, their closed wings — tan and lined with a white-speckled black border — look like leaves. When the sun strikes them, they flutter their wings, sometimes rising from the tree before settling down again. When new butterflies arrive, they flutter, hovering, as though looking for the best branch. I arrive in the late afternoon, by which time they’ve begun to gather on the trees.
One year when I couldn’t find the butterflies, I went to a group of houses about half a mile down the road. An older woman stood outside her house on the Delaware Bay. I thought I might be too late; the previous night we’d had a cold snap, but asked anyway.
“I’m looking for the butterflies,” I said after a moment’s greeting.
“You missed them,” she said, “They left yesterday.”
I imagined thousands of orange wings in the sunlight flying out over the gray blue bay.
Maybe some day I’ll watch the monarchs leave. Until then, I’ll be content with my annual pilgrimage to watch them gather by the thousands at the lighthouse. And, God willing, I’ll look again for bluets in the spring.
Why? I don’t want to miss anything, not one blessed thing. In that way I’m like the kid who won’t nap, won’t go to bed, and then — heavy-lidded, trying to stay awake — falls asleep anyway, safe in her parent’s arms. • 23 September 2010