Tributaries: “What a Butterfly Means”

By Joanna Brichetto

At book group someone asked why write about nature, and someone answered we write to make meaning.

But what if meaning is already there?

Let’s say I see a butterfly in the rain, and it’s a Gulf fritillary that has only been a butterfly for a moment. It hangs from its empty casing to let gravity stretch what had been sausage-packed. I see bronze and white and a smidge of gold, but no orange. Orange stays secret till wings fly.

Let’s say the butterfly is trellised from rain above, beside and below by tutored stems of its own host plant: Tennessee’s native passionvine, Passiflora incarnata. Weeks ago, when the just-now-butterfly hatched as a 2mm caterpillar (and devoured its own eggshell), it pigged out on this plant. It survived every predator while it ate leaf after larger leaf; as it sloughed itself from four too-tight skins (and ate those, too); as its turds grew from invisible to the size of kosher salt; as it chose a likely spot to spin just enough silk to anchor its butt to the top of the trellis, and to dangle as a letter “J” to whiten and twinkle and boil and heave and then unzip one last caterpillar outfit up, up, and off till it fell—a bristly mask—to the dirt below.

As chrysalis, it fooled chipmunk, wasp, skink, bird.

Let’s say this all happened because if it hadn’t, the butterfly wouldn’t be here.

I’m here.

I’m here in the Nature Center’s organic garden with my husband and our boy, who are hollering at me to “Come try a pepper” and who answer my what kind with “The sign says ‘Ornamental.’”

Let’s say I leave the butterfly some privacy while it figures out its new body parts and new purpose, that I wish it well, and that I pull the wet, wooden gate to find out if Ornamental peppers are more than just, you know, ornamental.

Joanna Brichetto is a naturalist and educator in Nashville, where she writes the urban nature blog Look Around: Nearby Nature. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in storySouth, The Ilanot Review, Killing the Buddha, Dead Housekeeping, November Bees, Vine Leaves Literary Journal and The Fourth River.