The other day I lay in the grass and searched for butterfly eggs among the Pussy Toes plants. It was a glorious day, sunny, with gentle breeze and warm earth which felt just right beneath me. I happily spied on the American Lady butterflies as they lit and clambered over the wildflower to find the right places to lay eggs. When I could tell they’d done the deed I’d inch over and, placing my hand lens to my eye I scanned each tiny leaf to see if it sheltered an egg. I am sure if I hadn’t seen them ovipositing I could never have found the eggs, since they are not even a millimeter around. Sitting on a leaf they look like translucent, green-tinged tuffets such as might be pulled up to a fairy’s armchair. Minuscule “seams” radiate from a central point at the top and gather on the bottom. They put me in mind of a pincushion my mother once had, but hers was red.
When you see something like that it makes you realize how much there is around you that you can’t or don’t notice. The American Lady butterfly itself is a lovely creature, and we are fortunate to have them come through this area during their annual migration. The size of the migrations vary widely, so some years just a few flutter through and other years like this one they pour through New England in overwhelming numbers. I don’t mind a bit being inundated with butterflies. Who would? A cousin of the American Lady Butterfly, the Painted Lady, comes this way too. Sunny days with a little breeze for lift have made the Hill-Stead meadows seem like a colorful insect freeway. We have quite a bit of Pussy Toes, a preferred host plant, as well as Pearly Everlasting-related to Pussy Toes and just as relished by the American and Painted Lady butterflies. So they are out there in colorful multitudes. They are hard to tell apart-it’s only a matter of a couple of extra dots and they might easily have been classified under one name, with the “extra dot” ones considered a variation.
With names like “American” and “Painted Lady” it sounds as though one bug were upstanding and the other morally derelict. Since Linnaeus’ time, we’ve had various reasons for the naming of things and before that the Greeks and Romans had their methods. Darwin’s discoveries threw a wrench into Linnaeus’ system, and Cladistics is a newer game still. So there is a continuum of naming the more we learn about our world. Some might say it doesn’t matter, a “rose by another name would smell as sweetly.” But I’ve noticed that as children grow they like to try on different nicknames like different clothing,experimenting with how a certain identity makes them feel. So names matter. My husband spent some time as “Jack Blackthorn”, which as a child he thought had a brave and rakish air. But my daughter, who started life with a Chinese name meaning “good luck” and “jade” has not yet made an effort to discard the name we gave her. We chose her first name because we just loved it. Many parents of Chinese daughters leave the Chinese name in place as a “middle” name, but we didn’t. Her second name is for my mother, who died shortly before she was born and who would have been besotted with her. We wanted not to disrespect her origins, but to embrace her entirely as a member of our family as certain as she had come to us “the old-fashioned way”. We use her Chinese name as a nickname, as it is as surely her name as much as the others. I love that name too-I used it when we were first together and I snuggled her against me so she would know the love was for her and no one else-days of sharing the caregiver with a dozen others were over. Perhaps at some point she’ll want us to call her something else, or she’ll decide to use her Chinese name. You never know what kids will do. I hope I have the sense and good grace just to swallow and use the tag she wants instead of making it all about me. Giving names is one thing, and accepting them is another. Unlike plants and bugs, we have some choice in the matter.
Theodate named her house Hill-Stead. As a name it perfectly conveys the two most important elements in the Hill-Stead backstory, specifically that she was deeply concerned with and connected to the land the house sits on. The home was sited at the top of a hill with the help of the landscape architect, exploiting the natural features so that each window framed a perfect landscape. They could have sited it in many places on over 250 acres of land, but they faced it toward the Barn Door Hills. Of equal importance is “Stead” meaning steady, rooted home. Theodate was determined to create a secure and anchored place for her family to live, underscoring her need for hearth and home to be rooted in the land and nature.
See you on the trails,