Sunday, June 14, 2009

Where were the butterflies?


The Evergreen Chinese Ligustrum was in full, fragrant bloom recently. In a post written last year, I complained about that awful, sickeningly sweet fragrance I despise and could become sick over, but the bees and butterflies swarm these evergreens like flies on cow plop. Around the first of June on a sweet smelling afternoon, I experienced a butterfly and bee bonanza that happens only once a year.


There I was, photographing butterflies with a camera I would have never imagined owning forty years ago and wondered why I never saw butterflies like these when I was a child. I was a kid that felt trapped inside the house and thrived on being outdoors.


Near the stinking white flowers, butterflies and bees, I spent hours that weekend contemplating and sorting through a few things. There were events I remember like they happened last week but I don’t remember butterflies. Why?


I was a very observant kid and remember the flighty off-white butterflies in the city that we would capture and hold for a minute or two and release. Yay! Honestly, my big blues never saw dramatic swallowtails. If I saw them, I would remember as well as the times I saw daddy longlegs at my cousin’s country home in Finksburg, Maryland. They scared me then and they still make me shiver.


I would remember Giant Tigers, Pipevines, Buckeyes, American and Painted Ladies, and Silver Spotted Skippers.


Who could ever forget a Zebra Swallowtail?

In the city, we didn’t have space for ornamental ponds, lots of foliage and trees or landscaped gardens. My Mom grew Marigolds, a few tomatoes, Zinnias, and Mexican Roses on an eighteen inch patch between the chain link fence and sidewalk out back which led to a concrete alley speckled with black gravel. Oh, I loved the games we played in that alley.


We also had an overgrown and heavenly Lilac bush my Mom called the Breath of Fresh Air in Fume Town. There were transit bus fumes up the avenue I remember well on humid, hot days. The watermelon, canalope, and seafood vendors sang to us on horse-drawn carts in the alleys early in the morning before the sizzling sun was high. The milkman arrived early, too. Our tiny front yards each had a tree, usually a sappy maple. There was never a need for gas or electric powered lawn cutting machines as most of our lawns consisted of clover. Hey, it was green and we spent many summer days looking for ones with four leaves.

Not many butterfly memories but I remember plenty of bees that stung bare feet and lightning bugs in July!


My parents, children during the Great Depression, were survivors more than naturalists. My Mom shared her late-thirties and forties farming stories that I loved to hear but my Dad grew up on a city block. Their lifestyles were never more or less than “no frills”.

In elementary school, I don’t remember being taught much about science but I do remember history, perhaps because I hated that subject most of all. The tomboy in me diverted my attention to the classroom windows and to daydreams about my next game of dodge ball on the side street off the avenue instead of listening to a boring science or history lesson given by a teacher who really didn't care. Boring, boring, boring.


Children are fortunate now. There is an enthusiastic awareness and focus on the environment and nature. The fifties and sixties weren’t times of nature awareness, I guess. Post war, revolution, and more war – a very different era.

I didn’t learn about butterflies but I learned to be compassionate towards ethnic groups. I learned to be generous with brown-eyed, olive skinned, curly haired, skinny Jackie, my elementary school Italian playmate straight from Sicily. She had one freckle on her face and I had thirty-one. Jackie and her large family lived about fifteen doors down the avenue and even though her parents were non-English speaking shoemakers, Jackie didn’t always wear leak-free shoes. They grated fresh romano cheese and ate spaghetti every day as a side dish for supper, didn’t have carpet and walked on cracked tile floors. Poor Jackie never owned a bike so she rode my two-wheeler. I taught her to ride that bike and my parents bought her snowballs or nickle-sicles from the trucks that rode the back alley several times a day. Jingle bells from heaven! Her enormous older sisters, Rosina and Maria, beat her. It was not a game. I’d wince and swing back at them many times and used switches if I had enough time to plan my attack. What a wild bunch of bitches we were!


I learned that although my neighbor across the street with Down’s syndrome scared me with his size, demeanor, and appearance for many years, Frankie wouldn’t hurt a fly… I never saw Frankie leave his home until he died, at 29. I was only 9. From inside my living room window I'd sit and watch friendless Frankie, afraid to be near him - I don’t think he ever had a friend or playmate.

And I learned that Jews made the best bread and pastries and owned most of the jewelry stores and dress shops in town. Polish were the hardest workers and the most generous souls, Greeks and Germans were the best cooks in the best restaurants, and Italians had the cleanest neighborhoods in Baltimore City. Yes, you could lick the marble steps leading to their front doors.


I learned that calling an ambulance for the alcoholic lady down the street who fell in the gutter in front of my home was the right thing to do. She bled, hallucinated, and almost died. 1966. I was eleven years old then. And shocked.

When I was a teenager, I learned to tuck my ones low in my sock before I boarded the bus and shopped downtown with my girlfriend, very tall Mary Lee. I always looked up to her for that reason. Years later, when I was a young adult chick working downtown, I learned to always carry a large umbrella to be used as a defense weapon. A few truant kids felt it on their backs and limbs more than once! Those thieving brats deserved my wrath.

I understood and comprehended early.


I learned not to make fun of little Jimmy and his family (Dad called them hillbillies). Jimmy was my childhood next-door neighbor for twenty years. He was a crybaby all his life and into his teens but his Mom died of cancer and his Dad committed suicide soon after… He was left with his mean uncle, so Jimmy had good reasons to cry all the time. His sad life all happened right next door with only twelve inches of cinderblock and drywall between us.

I learned to steer clear of the feel-good stuff that flowed freely in the girls’ Catholic high school I attended in the late sixties and early seventies. Those gals had the funds and I didn’t. Funny – I didn’t miss it or need it or want it.

That’s when, in my high school years, I realized I was financially challenged. It doesn’t take long for things like this to come to light when you are in math class with daughters of medical doctors. I didn’t realize my status until 1969, so it was alright because in many ways I was very rich, indeed! It was all good. I didn’t have butterflies but I had a boom box.

So, I did not learn to correctly identify bugs and butterflies and wish I had...

It isn’t too late. I am ordering a field guide for bugs and butterflies this week ;-) Any suggestions?


TR Ryan said...

This is one of your best posts ever. You weave a story like no other. Your reflections are priceless. I was lost in this post as if I was watching a movie - every vignette laced with a different butterfly. You are a treasure.

Lisa at Greenbow said...

Ken Kaufman's Birders Bug Book is a good one. See if there is a Butterflies of your state to narrow down what you might find. Also good is Ken Kaufman's Butterflies of North America.

Beth said...

I'm with Tim. This was a wonderful post that drew me right into the past with you. You have a magical way with memories and words and pictures and senses. Thank you for sharing.


Lynne at Hasty Brook said...


My one wish right now is to be sitting across the table from you while you tell these stories from your past. I miss you May.
I'll be reading this one again.

Beth in NYC said...

Beautiful stories and photos (one of the reasons I want to move to NC :-)! I love reminiscing about my childhood and you seem to, also. Did you live in one of those row houses in Balto?

gretchen said...

WOW, Mary... I agree with T.R., Beth and Lynne- this is right up there with BEST POST EVER. You are as beautiful as these butterflies and your words and photos have carried me as if I too had wings.
THANK YOU for all you share with us,

Ruth said...

I love your descriptions of your neighbours and growing up years. I love nature, but am drawn to people even more. Gorgeous pictures!!

Mary said...

Thank you. I almost did not post this one...

And yes, Beth in NYC, I lived just inside the Baltimore city line in a red brick row home. Our neighborhood probably had three or four hundred just like it. Three bedrooms - one bath. No basement. Very cozy!

Susan Gets Native said...

I just read this aloud to my writer husband, and he loved it.
I love how you do it, Mary....

*Kenn Kaufmann....MUST HAVE BUG BOOK.*

Robin's Nesting Place said...

Mary, being a lover of nature photography I'm normally drawn to your pictures, but this time I was enthralled by your story giving only a glance at the pictures so I could keep reading. Wonderful story and the pictures as usual are fantastic.

I keep watching for the butterflies and they aren't here yet. My butterfly weed is blooming now so hopefully that will attract them.

Cicero Sings said...

Loved your butterfly pictures and loved, loved, loved your story.

Murr Brewster said...

Wonderful reading. I grew up in suburban D.C. and wondered where in Maryland you were. I wonder if we tromped after salamanders in some of the same sloughs. Baltimore, though...

We seemed to have way less money than my friends, but no matter who you asked "what does your daddy do" (ALL the mommies did, well, us), the answer was "he works for the government." We never knew or cared exactly what kind of work.

Don't hesitate with posts like this.

Mary said...

Murr - Daddy was a city paid fireman and moonlighted - driving eighteen wheelers on days off (affording our private school education and orthodontics). Mom was home - darning socks but did get a paying job when my brother and I entered high school. Pretty simple, ey?

beckie said...

Hauntingly beautiful.

Your writings are as wonderful as your photos, Mary. You ought to put more of your memories down on paper for your family. I know your dayghter will treasure them.

mon@rch said...

I love his bug book and I think his butterfly book is the best butterfly book ever! Stunning photos my friend!

Dawn Fine said...

Just beautiful Mary...every single word..
and you almost didnt post it??? so glad you did!

Anonymous said...

This was beautiful! A Tree Grows in Baltimore. You really took us there. Such memories!

Very tall Mary Lee, huh? lol!

Did the milk every taste like wild onions in the spring and summer? That's one of the things I remember about milk when I was a kid.

I don't like that smell either--or Chinese privet.

This one is a treasure. Wish I could frame it.

Kerri Farley said...

A wonderful post Mary!

Unknown said...

I was caught between admiring the beautiful images of the butterflies and your story.

I couldn't decide which is better...butterflies or story, I will settle for the story since I m sure you will post more images of butterflies sometime later too, the story is awesome and nostalgic.

Elaine said...

I love that one on the purple flower! I just mentioned to my sister that I wanted to photograph a butterfly garden and then I looked at your blog. You've inspired me.

dguzman said...


Minerva said...

Wow. You just took me back to Bawlmer, hon. I grew up in the 'burbs of Bawlmer, but we spent a lot of time in the city. I just saw some of those marble steps and painted screens on Saturday!

Beautiful, moving story.

The Quacks of Life said...

as ever a nice post. when I was a lad i wasn't turned on to nature. what a waste.

the photos are ever are delightful.

we've just had an invasion of painted ladies. been all over the place!! lovely to see.

Colleen said...

I really enjoyed your post today. I was born in 1969 when you were in high school and although different generations, the good stuff stays the same. Thank you for sharing those times with us and I hope we will hear more.

Q said...

Dear Mary,
Bugs are good...very, very good. Always love your stories of growing up.
I also grew up without butterfly I have the time and the desire to get to know them.
Enjoy meeting the bugs....I have lots of bug books and butterfly books and Dragonfly getting to know the birds. It is fun! I use my Kaufman the most.

Wendy said...

Your photos are beautiful, as ever. The butterflies look positively radient!
I enjoyed reading of your childhood. We learn so much as children, growing up. It's nice to look back once in a while.

Jennifer Chronicles ( said...

TR is right! It was like a movie.

I imagine this is how God, with his great big eye sees his creation - every color, every petal, precious.

jason said...

The photos are beautiful, Mary, but it's the words that really shine through. What a heartfelt post, so reminiscent and delightful and introspective. Just marvelous!

jalynn01 said...

The story drew me in so far that I didn't even look at some of the photographs. A first for me as I love your photos always! What a beautiful post Mary! Keep writing!

Vickie said...

Mary, what an open and beautiful tribute to what we have and don't have and what we make of it. Butterflies are magical in and of themselves, but your memories of not having them around touched me deeply. Nature's healing is something I count on. You can embrace butterflies now with child-like arms.

RuthieJ said...

Hi Mare,
I loved this post -- it reminded me of when we used to go and visit my grandparents in Chicago each summer. Coming from a tiny village in Minnesota, it was great fun to have so many kids to play with right on the same block and the same ethnic variety you mentioned: hillbillies, Italians, Irish, etc. Reading along brought back the sounds, sights and smells of those hot, sunny days for me too.

Along with Susan and Mon@rch, I'll give two thumbs up to the Kaufman Field Guides to Insects and Butterflies.

Susan said...

What a great story & BEAUTIFUL photos!

nina at Nature Remains. said...

You must jot these down --in another place, for another purpose. What a treasure, woven, remembrances. Really.
Too often forgotten, or buried so far beneath what we have become, that we forget ourselves there.
And, unvisited, miss seeing the whole picture.

My favorite bug book--the coolest ever, especially for "new" bug lovers:
National Wildlife Federation's Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America.
And I've seen a lot of bug books! :-)

Julie Zickefoose said...

Dear Mary,

This is what is so cool about blogging. You can write things that a print editor would probably shy away from, because you are your own editor and publisher. You can write your own truths and beliefs. Reading this, I was reminded of the way my father would talk of the people he'd seen in his many years. Living in Baltimore, you were in a stewpot of ethnicities--a pressure cooker! Thank you for sharing your experience. This is a wonderful post.

I am a huge fan of the Kaufman Focus Guides to Butterflies and Insects, and am now highly intrigued by Nina's suggestion of the NWF Field Guide. I say get 'em all! You can't have too many field guides. We have 'em double ranked on our shelves.

On other fronts, the Science Chimp has been puzzling. The American Painted Ladies and Red-spotted Purples are easy. The closest I can get to the little brown skipper is Dion Skipper, Euphyes dion, probably a female. Its brood plant is sedges, and it's local and uncommon. If anyone has a better guess, go for it--but Google that one and see if it works for you.

Late to the party as usual, but so glad I caught this wonderful post, and the dragonflies and snakes and lizards before it. You're a pro, Mare. You could be selling these shots, y'know? Not to mention the reminiscences.

Mary C said...

Mary, you sure brought back many Baltimore memories and growing up days. Yes, I lived in row homes, too, of course. My dad and mom were always moving, especially when I was younger, before I started school. But the two houses I remember most were in two different parts of Baltimore. My elementary and junior high years (1950s) I lived in west Balto (going to Beechfield Elementary and then going to St Joseph Monastery for 7th and 8th grades. My mom didn't want me to attend the junior high in our neighborhood. She said it wasn't safe. I then lived in northeast Balto in the 1960s (until I got married), and attended Institute of Notre Dame, located on Aisquith St. where several of the "projects" were located. I lived on Belair Rd about a mile from the Overlea line. My mom and dad had a business in the basement while we lived on Belair Rd. Thanks for the memories -- and I loved your butterfly "collection."

Heidi said...

Wonderful post Mary :) Like the others, I was torn between staring at the butterflies and continuing the story. The story won out and then I went back and browsed the photos.

I adore my Kaufman's Butterfly guide... haven't found a good bug one yet, but the store didn't have a Kaufman's Bug guide. I'll add it to my Amazon list I guess.

Richard said...

Dear Mary, your posts are truly amazing should thank you for these beautiful pictures....adding color to your life....

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