This tiny creature is an Atala butterfly. Once thought to be extinct, due to habitat loss and other human-induced causes, these shimmering bits of wonder have returned to South Florida through a collaborative effort and years of patience. We’d heard this success story, and my son and I wanted to be part of it. Atticus was, I think, mostly fascinated by the plants at first. Cycads, the slow-growing sole food source of the Atala caterpillar, coexisted with the dinosaurs. We were both enthused by the idea of a dinosaur garden. I set out to find plants. Atticus painstakingly chose prehistoric creatures from his collection.
A kindly stranger, met online, mailed to me a geneous number of coontie pups. These were the single-frond offspring of the many coontie in his Gainesville yard, and were meant for my son’s kindergarten class garden. We planted most of them there, but he sent so many that there were a few left over. We tucked those few into our little yard’s native landscaping. With care, three of the baby plants grew. They do grow slowly, though. Very slowly. We settled in to wait. We bided our time, for a while, by staging elaborate dino dioramas. And learning about butterflies.
I’d travelled several towns over to a garden center that was rumored to have an Atala population. I THOUGHT I spotted one, but it was hard to be sure…they’re so small, and move so fast. And I’d never seen one before, so I couldn’t be sure.
About three years after planting the coontie, I saw the first Atala in the yard. The next year, there were two. The following year, none. A couple of years later, three or four. Gradually, especially after we replaced our ficus hedge with native plants, the butterflies became regular inhabitants. The plastic dinosaurs dotting the garden were eventually retired, and my son left the garden to his mother. But he enjoyed our annual watch over the metamorphosis: egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult.
This year, wow! This year saw a week when at least twenty butterflies PER DAY were emerging. We have, in my opinion, an established colony. It’s delightful to walk through the yard and see the Atala so close, so abundantly thriving. We’ve invited small children over to share the wonder, and it IS a wonder. Let me clarify the timeframe, though: it’s my son’s second year of college.
The butterflies aren’t the only ones who’ve gone through changes.
So it hits home. Creating a habitat for butterflies: how very like raising a child. How very like writing a book. Collaboration, with an intent toward a goal that’s not guaranteed, and an outcome nobody can really predict. But in the end, wonder: a book. A new adult. A great cloud of shimmering butterflies.
You watch them, then you release them into the world with a wish and all the good energy you can muster. Then…you watch, and hope the world embraces them.
SHIMMER, sequel to ALBATROSS, is at the printer. Atticus is away at school, making theater magic. And South Florida has a great throng of black and scarlet and dazzling blue butterflies. Keep your eyes open for all of them!