September 15th, 2003

abstract butterfly

The Glance at the Flitting, Distant Zebra Swallowtail

During the Summer between my ninth and tenth grade high school years, we were required to do a bug collection and a butterfly collection for our tenth grade biology class. Our teacher, Mrs. Slayton, had us sign "contracts" with her. For an "A", one contracted for x assortment of bugs, while a "B" contract only required y assortment of bugs.

I managed to enhance my collection on the insect side immeasurably when I was the first to discover the elusive book lice in an old Frank Merriweather book, which commodity traded me into all sorts of six-leggers that had eluded my net.

My butterfly box still resides on the wall of my room at my parents' home. It's a nice collection--several yellow sulphurs, a black swallowtail, a spicebrush swallowtail, some cabbages, ,and a giant tiger swallowtail in the middle. But the great rare collectible of the project is not among the captured.

The zebra swallowtail may be common in some regions of the south, but is quite uncommon in Arkansas. Its wings are white, with black zebra stripes running vertically along them.

Almost nobody found a zebra swallowtail for their collection. They were the most difficult find--the thing that might impress a teacher or illumine a butterfly box.

One Summer day, my parents took me to church camp at Camp Tanako near Hot Springs, Arkansas. I'll mention only by way of quick note that I have always thought that Summer camp, for relatively odd kids like me, serve as wonderfully maturing reminders of man's inhumanity to man.

I remember when I stood at that camp, among cabins in which teens would soon be living, I saw a huge, gorgeous zebra swallowtail. It flitted, it floated, it flew. I did not have my net with me. I had no chance to capture it. But I saw it, the elusive prey, floating free of any collection. It floated away, no doubt to dine on paw paw trees.

I got my "A". I cyanided other butterflies, and submitted an impressive set of gel capsules full of expired insect lives. I also showed up at night to fumble with styrofoam cutters to make my butterfly box, which remains a thing of beauty (albeit a somewhat grisly beauty) even today.

We're a few counties west of zebra swallowtail habitat here. We have wonderful tigers and spicebrush instead. But I look into the woods for a zebra swallowtail anyway, and count my life as somehow lesser because I see so few.