The other day (May 24, 2019), I saw a Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) near the town of Dinsmore, California. That’s in the northeast corner of Humboldt County, near the Trinity County line, just off the 36, on the edge of Six Rivers National Forest. The terrain is hilly, fairly steep and treed with Firs and Oaks of various species. Though this spot was only a little over 50 miles from the 101 to the west, it takes close to an hour and a half to drive there, due to tight curves and steep climbs. It’s out in the boonies for sure.
The butterfly had seen better days. One of their lower wings was over half gone and the others a bit raggedy-edged. Earlier this year, in southern California — specifically in Anza-Borrego State Park — I had seen thousands of them every day for weeks. There had been a bigger-than-usual migration (see here, here and here). For awhile there, I couldn’t drive anywhere without my windshield getting streaked with yellow and my grill filling up with dead bodies. Try as I might, it just wasn’t possible to avoid hitting them, there were so many. I felt a little less bad about it one day when I came out of a store and saw a couple of small birds on my bumper, gorging on the corpses.
Other times, sitting in the desert, a cloud of them would pass through, literally hundreds a minute, alighting on the many, many flowers and passing on. (A “superbloom” was in effect too.) For as many as there were, it was tricky to get good photos. They were shy of close human presence and never landed in one place for long. What I had to do was a pick a good spot and sit still with my camera turned on and pointed, waiting for one to flutter within focusing distance.
Now, months later, I wondered idly if I had actually seen this particular butterfly before, hundreds of miles away in, so I stopped in my tracks and asked.
“Hello friend,” I said. “Have we met?”
I didn’t detect an answer to the question, though that doesn’t mean one wasn’t offered. Then, as I ruminated on the idea that this butterfly might have followed the weather the southern desert to the northern forests, I suddenly saw a picture. It came and went like a flash, but conveyed a tremendous amount.
One could term such a moment an “epiphany.” Like others I’ve been blessed with, this one was about comprehension, not facts. It was an, “Oh, I see” moment, and it was a personal moment. As such, I cannot share it with you in its entirety, only those aspects of it that translate easily into English words. If you have ever had an epiphany yourself, you know what I mean. If you haven’t — well, I don’t know if I believe that anyone hasn’t, but some people seem more likely than others to catch them when they’re thrown, so to speak, while others can get hit upside the head — again, in a manner of speaking — but not know what happened, and not be enriched by it.
Anyway, that part of the message that I’m able to share with you here goes something like this:
“Home” for some creatures is not a place but a set of conditions on the move; what could be called a “season.” The season is like a wave rippling across a landscape. The scale can range in size from a single mountain slope to an entire continent. Though certain characteristics of a season can be measured — such as temperature and humidity — as a home it is a form of consciousness. One is carried by it and also carries it within. Far more than a mere worldview, it is in fact a world. The world for the many, many creatures who live there full-time.
Like a sound, a season has an attack and a decay. Some are soft, others sudden.
As a wave rolls through an area, multi-faceted relationships are sparked, smothered or unaffected. An insect hatches from a chrysalis or a flower blossoms. With other waves, a caterpillar spins a cocoon or a plant dies back to its root.
A season has no hard-edged beginning or end. Nonetheless, it is clear and unmistakable.
In any given solar year, the exact timing of a season relative to the calendar will vary, but the season is the one with real significance. Just as the map is not the territory, the calendar is not the time. A gardener or farmer who plants by dates and not by signs isn’t paying real attention.
The particular (and peculiar) location-centered view of most contemporary humans is totally at odds with seasonal living; in fact, the two are mutually exclusive. We spend so much effort acquiring a domicile for ourselves and such a substantial percentage of our time working to keep it and we are culturally required to do so because nearly everything is owned rather than common. We must buy our right to have someplace to breathe, eat and sleep. We are paying rent to live. It’s obscene. And the system that upholds it is ecocidal.
The day after I saw the butterfly, I drove south into Mendocino County. I passed through several zones, starting from a spot that is definitely on the chilly side for the greater area — elevation and longitude hold it cooler and wetter — and ended in one that is noticeably warmer and drier.
Most of my journey followed the 101, which alternates between two-lane roads with curves posted at 30mph or less and four-lane freeways where the traffic roars through at 70+. It’s all valleys, some narrow and overhung with trees, others wide and tilled for crops. Redwood remnants pop up occasionally, including the well-known (and once again — unbelievably! — threatened) Richardson Grove.
When I descended into the valley where Laytonville sits, surrounded by agricultural land, the California Poppies were popping. Though a few have been blossoming for the last month and a half here and there, this was now a full-on event — an obvious season. The density of flowers had undeniably increased from 10 days previously, the last time I drove through the area, south to north.
My thoughts traveled to SoCal back in March and April, when the Poppies were peaking there, in the basins, on the slopes, and in the meadows. Now it was happening here. Their season had arrived. In this place, which was farmland rather than desert, the flowers were limited to the roadsides. The fields were either filled with other things or had been mowed short, which is too much disruption even for this genus of plants, who definitely has an affinity for disturbed sites. (A roadside is a textbook example of a disturbed site, continually so.)
California Poppies are in the genus Eschscholzia, which contains at least a score of species and subspecies. According to botanist Michael L. Charters, this mouthful of a word is derived from the name of “Dr. Johann Friedrich Gustav von Eschscholtz (1793–1831), a Latvian or Estonian surgeon, entomologist and botanist who came with the Russian expeditions to the Pacific coast in 1816 and 1824.” I mention this because the Western habit of naming plants, animals or locations after people is a) a form of colonization, b) an expression of the out-of-balance ego of European culture and c) not at all helpful in telling us anything about the thing named. How none of this is “scientific” is a topic for another essay, but suffice it to say now that such methodology is another way of severing us from living reality.
Unlike the Painted Ladies, who moved with the wave, the Poppies are stationary, reacting as the wave washes over them. How different is it, though? It struck me that all/every Eschscholzia might inhabit a collective consciousness that undulates as the season passes through it, like when you feel a tingle pass through your body from head to toe. Perhaps this consciousness operates as a “we,” but a we with no “I”s. That is, California Poppy is awake and aware of itself as a single vast selfless selfness whether blooming in a weed-filled ditch outside the town of Willits in Mendo in May or in a sandy wash at Mountain Palms Springs campground in Anza-Borrego in March. That makes the experienced “home” of Cal-Poppy-in-flower a migratory event of sorts; a “season” that is independent of place, though individual plants are literally rooted in particular chunk of soil.
In the town of Willits, the explosion of blossoms was even more showy. There, they are weeded and watered, though they excel at taking their own space when its their moment. Along the sidewalks and driveways, their bright orange and yellow faces were reminders of the world outside civilization, of the timing separate from clocks.
So caught up are most of us in our efforts just to survive here — to establish our place — that we forget that other ways of living exist. Yet once upon a time, before the Agricultural revolution, and for many, many millennia, we too lived and thrived more in season. We were more like the Painted Lady, moving with changing conditions. If the examples of gatherer-hunter humans are any indication, we did not make as sharp of a distinction between ourselves and other living creatures in those days, nor between internal and external. We were far more collective than individual. We named things for their own characteristics.
The project of civilization has taken us very far from all of that, to the edge of a cliff where we are now surveying the possibility of our own extinction. Not merely our actions need to change, and not only our worldview, but our very state of consciousness. That’s way beyond the realm of politics and even philosophy. We must stop what we’re doing, look deeply, and find that within us which can still ride the wind and open to the sky in tune with life.