I first fell in love with the Southern Appalachian Mountains when I went to camp in Linville, NC for two consecutive summers as a pre-teen, 1956-58. It was a boarding camp, lasting eight weeks. At the end of each session, I didn’t want to go home. One of the things I liked best about Camp Yonanoka was collecting butterflies. There were butterflies everywhere. I was lucky enough to catch a Diana (Speyeria diana), and though it had one little knob missing on a back wing, my counselor told me that the state museum of natural history in Raleigh might purchase it from me, for it was rare. “How much?” I asked Buddy. “Oh, maybe five dollars.” After killing it and drying it on pins, I stored it on the top of my locker, along with several other specimens. The week before camp ended, as I was beginning to sort things for packing, I looked at the butterflies. The Diana had been half-eaten by a rodent! I was crestfallen – and the rat (so I imagined) probably poisoned by the residual ethyl acetate from the killing jar.
I was fortunate to move to the Southern Mountains in 1974, raising my family in the valley of the South Toe River, fairly near Linville. The camp is torn down now, but it was passed to the Audobon Society, who have preserved the site. During the early years in South Toe, it seemed the butterflies were just as numerous as they had been back at camp in the fifties. Our small sons delighted in reaching for them, bright fluttering colors in the sun. I marveled at the numbers of tiger swallowtails and pipevines that would gather in August near the river. They were probably swarming for mating season. But there were many individuals as well, and I was pleased to be able to identify all of them because of the butterfly id’s Buddy had taught me.
Now there are fewer and fewer butterflies. I have seen only a couple of tigers this year. They used to be numerous. The same goes for the various fritillaries. Even the common skippers are fewer. We used to see many monarchs in late summer during their trip south to Mexico. Though we have a milkweed patch near the community garden that we carefully preserve when mowing, I haven’t seen one for years. The only abundant species this year is the pipevine swallowtail. A few weeks ago, we took the grandkids to the local pond and dozens of them were gathered. The puppy jumped at them, and the boys were delighted at the display. So was I. Moments like these are rare – and very special – these days.
In the seventies, I remember our window screens thickly covered with moths in the evenings. We frequently beheld huge lunas and zecropias, and other moths of every hue and size. No more. They are so few that it’s hard to get motivated enough to put away our woolens for the summer (July 27, and we still haven’t). I was camping in Maryland in a large meadow last summer and saw a torn, smallish luna in the morning among the tall grass. It made me long for the days when perfect specimens regularly alighted on our screens.
On the other hand, during the hike along the B and O canal last summer that led me to that campground, I frequently saw zebra swallowtails, a species I only saw once as a boy in Linville. Every time I saw another, it cheered me. I shared my delight with Leigh, youngest person on the Walk for our Grandchildren. Eleven years old, she was the same age I was the first year I went to camp.
This Christmas the family went to Nicaragua. During a rainforest hike, Geeta and I saw many butterflies, including the incomparable blue morphos and another species fire-engine red with blalk highlights. I was absolutely delighted. Nicaragua is still relatively undeveloped, and only moderately populated. But the Chinese are teaming up with government officials to build a canal to rival the one in Panama. That, and highway and bridgebuilding threaten many habitats – including the beautiful, lowly butterflies.
Last summer, cleaning out the shelves, I found the box in which my old collection was mounted. The Diana was gone. I have never again seen a male, which turns out to be the sex of my specimen, though he’s still out there. All the others mounted in the box are still familiar, but only the pipevine is still plentiful. Standing in the upper meadow at camp, net in hand, eagerly watching for something special, I lived in another, more bountiful world.
Note: Since writing this July 30, I have identified a beautiful black-and -blue butterfly that looked familiar as a female Diana! I have seen probably 8-10 of them. From the link in last paragraph, the male hides in the woods, which must be why I’ve never seen one in these parts.