May 31st, 2022

A Tree, a Rock, a Butterfly

By Julie Dunlap

By PiccoloNamek, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

JSE General Issue May 2022 Table of Contents

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Abstract: This word journey explores flaws in our approach to cultivating environmental ethics and caring for biodiversity, especially among youths, through the lens of Carson McCullers’ classic story about the tragic but common failure of so many to achieve love between human beings.

Keywords: love, culture, sustainability education, education, hope, biodiversity


A lowering sky threatened not just rain but the hopes of a half-dozen net-wielding adolescents, gathered at a Maryland wildlife sanctuary to tag monarch butterflies. From the chilling September breeze, I knew our quarry would be hunkering down in the weeds, not flitting from goldenrod to aster blossom. While waiting for the clouds to break, we chatted about the astonishing migration that our tiny adhesive wing markers could help decipher, if only the elements would allow us to deploy them. Each pre-teen bubbled with facts about monarchs, a few with dreams of following them to Mexico, but the conversation lagged as the afternoon darkened.

Aiming to spark fresh interest, I swiped through wildlife photos on my cell for one of my prizes—an off-centered, blurry capture of another orange and black Lepidopteran. Murmurs of polite indifference passed around the semi-circle with the phone. No one understood what I was sharing. “Look very closely,” I urged, and waited. And waited. I began to feel like the old man in a Carson McCullers short story, sharing a crumpled photo of his adored wife to an uncomprehending teenaged stranger. “A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud” is a classic Southern Gothic tale of estrangement and desperate quest after lost love. A volunteer naturalist, I knew none of those children, but I ached for them to care for that butterfly.

At last, one freckled girl said, “Well, the back wing looks kinda funny.” She’d spotted a curved black vein that is the clearest mark distinguishing my screen image from a monarch. “Yes!” I enthused. “That’s Limenitis archippus, not Danaus plexippus. A nineteenth century entomologist called the one we came to tag ‘monarch’ because ‘it is one of the largest of our butterflies and rules a vast domain,’ and gave the smaller one a less noble rank of ‘viceroy.’” Dull stares reminded me that I’d already forgotten the first lesson of the anonymous man in McCullers’ story: when speaking of love, names are immaterial.

A boy clutching his water bottle spoke up. “Monarchs are down 95%. Are viceroys endangered?” I felt like apologizing for the lesser-known butterfly’s widespread persistence. My young audience was weaned on board books about vanishing species, and reared to treasure the rare above the abundant. Attempting to find a hook, I said, “Well, viceroys live around wetlands, and we’re turning those into parking lots and mini-malls.” Silence met this fact as well.

Another girl glanced back toward her parent’s waiting car, then asked, “Do they migrate? Fall monarchs fly 3,000 miles!” I felt ready for that one. “Viceroys do something maybe more amazing. Each caterpillar in autumn ties a leaf to a twig with silk, wraps itself inside, and changes its body chemistry to avoid freezing. They survive coldest winter by staying put!” Like McCullers’ paperboy protagonist, bewildered by the passion of a wizened stranger, my audience regarded me with mild curiosity and profound doubt. In a culture that vaunts celebrity–arthropod or otherwise–and lionizes spectacle, millions of flocking insect icons will win out any day over solitary, obscure larvae swaddled in desiccated leaves.

“I’m not explaining this right,” I started to say, when fat cold raindrops splashed on our heads and blank fieldnotes. The kids dashed for the idling cars, leaving me with discarded nets, a collapsed tagging table, and a puzzle to cogitate on the drive home.


Ethics, says ecologist Aldo Leopold, are founded on one premise: “the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.” For ethical consideration to extend beyond self, family, and friends to more distantly connected humans, and in Leopold’s land ethic to animals, species, and ecosystems, people must expand their definition of community, widen their circles of moral concern. Monarchs have been embraced within most our circles, at least since Thomas Scudder penned The Life of a Butterfly in 1893, the first book to center them in the national spotlight. Since the first parent placed a copy of that book in a child’s hand, care for monarchs has been cultivated for this singular six-legged invertebrate. The result: monarchs are celebrated in jewelry, paintings, business logos, and place names, on t-shirts, posters, magnets, sneakers, Halloween costumes, and tattoos. Teachers raise monarchs in classrooms, towns celebrate them in festivals, and foundations support Danaus plexippus research. There are so many monarch conservation efforts by governments, nonprofits, businesses, and academics that a meta-organization was created, Monarch Joint Venture, to coordinate work on their behalf.

Few other insects garner tolerance, much less adulation. Silent Spring’s warnings notwithstanding, the global insecticide market is expected to top 19 billion by 2022. Insects are the most biodiverse group of animals on Earth, and contribute essential ecosystem services in every biome, yet little effort has been expended toward understanding and fostering human-insect relationships. Stephen Kellert’s classic attitude study, from 1993, “Values and Perceptions of Invertebrates,” found positive perceptions mostly limited to honeybees and other Insecta that offer economic benefits, while species seen as threats to health, food production, home landscapes, or hygiene are viewed with distaste, anxiety, hostility, and fear. Perhaps, Kellert and colleagues speculate, most insects are perceived as too different from humans in intelligence, emotions, size, and anatomy, to be held as objects of love or ethical concern.

Kellert’s and others’ studies do suggest that butterflies have an edge over other bugs. Appreciated for their ecosystem service of pollination, monarchs, swallowtails, birdwings, and many of the world’s 18,000 or so kinds of butterflies are treasured for their lustrous wings and graceful flight. Aesthetic valuation accounts at least partly for why the conservation prospects of the Karner blue butterfly, with its with violet-blue wings fringed in snowy-white, far exceed those of other inch-wide rarities sporting antennae. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita’s author who lusted equally after butterflies, identified the Karner blue subspecies, exploring its beauty in exquisite sketches and in “the wondrous crystalline world of the microscope.” He explained, “I cannot separate the aesthetic pleasure of seeing a butterfly and the scientific pleasure of knowing what it is.” Similarly, only the most wizened utilitarian could fail to be enchanted by monarch flocks, “great clouds” Steinbeck extolled as “twinkling aery fields of flowers.” Says Kellert of natural beauty, “Few characteristics of life so consistently arouse such strong emotions in people under so many circumstances.”

But how do we cultivate a beholder into loving beauty? To McCullers’ old man, the woman in the dim photo is a vision, while the paperboy remarks to himself, “the main thing you noticed” was her oversized belly. Most people, like my tagging team, discern little or no visible differences between adult monarchs and viceroys, yet value one and not the other. The orange and black coloration of both is common among milkweed butterflies, a worldwide subfamily of about 300 species that includes monarchs, queens, and soldiers in North America. Viceroy’s Liminitis relatives, are often darker, with splashes of orange along with white and blue on black-outlined wings. Pearl crescents, Gulf fritillaries, Baltimore checkerspots, small tortoiseshells, and painted ladies are just a few among scores of species sporting black-and-orange themes. The “fiery golden-orange” of a birdwing butterfly, captured in the Malaysian rainforest in 1859, sent naturalist-adventurer Alfred Russel Wallace into ecstasies. “The beauty and brilliance of this insect are indescribable,” he recounted, and “On taking it into my net and opening the glorious wings my heart began to beat violently,” and blood rushed to his head. Monarchs and viceroys are both lovely; why is one more likely to inflict a stress headache?

Passion for wing color—from palest silver to obsidian–fanned an 18th and 19th Century fever for collecting. Linnaeus and the earliest taxonomists had amassed great collections to identify and decipher God’s profuse handiwork, devoting their lives to minute inspection of antennae and reproductive organs to order the butterfly rankings among the most perfect in the Great Chain of Being, or scala naturae. Painter Titian Peale mounted hundreds of specimens in hand-crafted glass boxes, to study and celebrate a Creation more marvelous than his brush could imitate. Thomas Scudder, the lepidopterist who named monarchs and viceroys, saw “an eternal divine force” behind ornate detail of wing scales revealed by the microscope. While the insect could not benefit from such unseen marvels, thought Scudder, their “uplifting power” must be set in place by God to open human minds and hearts to a wondrous world.

William Henry Edwards, coal magnate and early evolutionist, was one of the Victorian Era’s first lepidopterists to set down his pinned specimens and study lifecycles in the field. Edwards argued that species should be identified by the caterpillar stage rather than the imago, or adult form (which Linnaeus saw as each butterfly’s perfect representation). The distant family relationships between monarchs and viceroys became obvious to Edwards through comparing the former’s jauntily striped caterpillars to the latter’s cryptic brown-and-cream young. (Edwards said that for classification, “One caterpillar is worth fifty genitalia.”) Edwards also have witnessed contrasting relationships in monarch and viceroy behavior, notably the former’s dependence on milkweed for larvae food, and the latter’s reliance on willow and poplar leaves. A proto-ecologist, Edwards knew that a butterfly could not be understood apart from its associates—host and nectar plants, predators, parasitoids, and other butterflies—and shared his understanding in a 3-volume masterpiece with 152 hand-colored plates bursting with species, sexes, forms, and life stages: The Butterflies of North America. Thanks to illustrator Mary Peart, each species is portrayed with equal as well as unique beauty.

Edwards and his contemporaries were confronting their own puzzle: what drives the emergence of biological diversity? Darwin theorized in On the Origin of Species that natural selection favored survival of well-adapted organisms, but it took other explorer-naturalists to bring home most of the evidence. On expeditions in the Amazon and the Malay Archipelago, Alfred Russell Wallace noticed many species using camouflage and other protective coloring to avoid predators, but a few that were “gaudy & conspicuous.” Wallace’s friend, Henry Walter Bates, accompanied him to South America and saw that birds ignored Heliconid butterflies—presumably because they tasted foul—and also unrelated species with very similar coloration. Some unpalatable species, it appeared, evolve warning coloration to escape predation, and other tasty species undergo natural selection to mimic those colors, improving their own survival. Wallace, Bates, and Darwin himself celebrated these discoveries as demonstrating color’s utility to the organisms, an engine of abundance and an impetus for new species to emerge. Some people still resisted the notion of butterfly anatomy functions as independent of their human appeal, but Bates wrote to Darwin that their biological discoveries “are a source of constant wonder and delight.”

Bright-orange monarchs soon became archetypes in classroom discussions of warning, or aposematic, coloration. Following Bates’ theory of mimicry, monarchs were anointed as a “model,” a noxious species imitated by more delectable “mimics” to save their own scales. Darwinians admired such relationships as elegant examples of heritable adaption, another early impetus for monarchs’ popular ascendence over viceroys. By the late 1800s entomologists focused increasingly on economic impacts of insects, and less on the resplendent diversity of arthropods, and interest in butterflies waned overall in the 1900s. But nature writers like Anna Botsford Comstock continued to extoll monarchs (“the most daring and indomitable butterfly”), sometimes at the expense of other species’ reputations. Viceroys were relegated to monarch “copycats,” “counterfeits,” or “freeloaders,” if they were considered at all.

Not until the 1960s did chemical ecologists determine the origins of monarchs’ bitter taste: cardiac glycosides in milkweed leaves. Caterpillars’ exclusive diet of Asclepias plants accumulates the plant poisons, which are sequestered to protect larvae from the heart-stopping steroids, then redistributed to the adults’ wings and abdomens during metamorphosis. Yet original assumptions about monarch mimicry were upended in 1995, when a study of Red-Winged Blackbird prey preferences found that one third of viceroys were rejected after one peck. Nabokov could have revealed the secret sooner; on one collecting trip he sampled a monarch and a viceroy. “They both tasted vile.”

Viceroy caterpillars too can sequester bitter plant compounds—salicylic acid from willow and poplar leaves—that offer predator protection apart from any resemblance to monarchs. Lepidopterists reclassified the monarch-viceroy pair as co-mimics, an example of two species benefitting mutually from coloration that advertises aversive taste. The redefined relationship confirms the species’ mutual dependence, their co-evolution to maximize the survival of each. The partnership of two distantly related butterflies embodies Darwin’s metaphor of the tangled bank, where organisms of every form, from earthworms to birds, “so different from each other, and dependent upon each other,” thrive because of each other. The intertwined living system acknowledges no highest and lowest beings, no rankings of progress toward perfection, because all evolve and adapt together.

My gathering of young monarch enthusiasts, however, embodied a truism. Habit and culture, more than scientific findings, determine how humans value other species. Despite 160 years of Darwinian thinking, most persist in assigning hierarchies of worth to the wild lives around us. Even youths like my middle schoolers, born after the scientific recognition of an equal monarch-viceroy evolutionary partnership, have absorbed the old ideas of viceroys as “less” than monarchs. Logically, by association, they view milkweed as “more” than poplar and willow trees. Such fixed ladders of worth are symptoms of celebrity culture infiltrating nature’s ethical consideration, and help account for minimal interest in biodiversity at every level. They are barriers to expanding the circles of care that environmental ethics depend upon. Through education and practice, our hearts and minds have been constricted, like that of McCullers’ monomaniacal old man, who chased year upon year after one obsession, as his own life dwindled away. “I was a sick mortal. It was like smallpox,” he confesses to a perplexed audience of one. He needed a solution, as do we.


Lying in bed on a dark rainy night, the despairing main character of “A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud” has a revelation. Unthinking men, he says, “start at the wrong end of love.” A scientific approach, he argues, would begin with a simpler object of affection than another human being. He does not literally start with a tree or a rock, but with a pet fish. “I bought a goldfish and I concentrated on the goldfish and I loved it.” Each day, he practiced his science of love with more and more challenging objects. A faceless crowd. A nameless paperboy. “And now I am a master. Son. I can love anything. . . . I watch a bird in the sky. Or I meet a traveler in the road. Everything, Son. And anybody.”

What science would awaken my students and the rest of us to a broader ethic that encompasses both monarchs and viceroys, each other, and the Earth? My revelation came on a sunny day alone at the wildlife sanctuary. With no one to convince about the importance of anything, I felt free to enjoy the clouded sulphur butterflies, nectaring contentedly on ragweed, and a house wren cheer-cheer-cheering from a tangle of multi-flora rose. That wren reminded me that birders often say January 1st is their favorite day of the year, when the last year’s annual list has closed, and a new bird tally begins. Every bird, from plentiful house wrens to European Starlings to parasitic cowbirds, counts equally to launch a brand-new record. Diversity is celebrated, no extra points for rarity or perfection. All butterflies—and rose hedges, and earthworms too—can also be adored, without ranking and rating, in their profusion. A recent study of more than 26,000 adults found that daily encounters with a variety of bird species affected happiness as much as 10% more money in the bank. Study subjects’ pleasure at feathered neighbors was heightened, not diminished, by flocks of feral pigeons, noisy house sparrows, or sidewalk-fouling geese. Biological richness was valued per se, without demerits to species for native status, commonness, or unpopular behaviors. Even Linnaeus, who codified the scala naturae in the 18th Century, treasured biodiversity for its own sake. “The starting point,” wrote Linnaeus, “must be to marvel at all things, even the most commonplace.”

All things were not the object of my monarch-taggers’ love. If the day had gone as planned, every viceroy, common buckeye, or tiger swallowtail they netted would have felt like failure. Tasked with finding the world’s most famous butterfly, the other 150 Maryland options, however lustrous or gossamer-winged, should be rejected. Our focus on monarchs has been well-meant by educators and naturalists; why wouldn’t a familiar, attractive butterfly be the perfect ambassador for outdoor study and play? Monarchs have been seen as a “gateway insect,” beautiful and dramatic enough to overcome entomophobia and nature disconnection. In a way, our hyper-focus on a few charismatic organisms—whether monarchs, polar bears, redwood trees, or African elephants—was treated as practice in caring for disliked or less flashy parts of the non-human world. It even seemed safe; surely we can protect and keep monarchs and a select few species we love most if we choose carefully and take good care. Ideally, those treasured few would become umbrellas, surreptitiously protecting lesser beings. But inadvertently, this celebrity species approach has helped enisle children’s biophilia, limiting their love and their community of ethical concern.

One trouble, in an era of biodiversity collapse: there are no safe choices. Steinbeck’s clouds of Western monarchs have dwindled from millions in the 1980s to a dismal 1,914 in 2021. What will happen to their monomaniacal taggers, young and old? Will they hang up their nets, their knowledge and devotion, empty? Shouldn’t we instead have taught them to love all butterflies, not one fragile favorite?

At my local wildlife sanctuary, the public is invited to participate in monarch tagging, but only experts conduct mid-summer butterfly surveys that monitor all local populations. Why not invite everyone to experience and celebrate every central Maryland lepidopteran? Then smiling teens, moms with backpack babies, and grey-haired men would bound across the fields, nets aloft, sweeping up every scale-winged resident or visitor within reach. Each captive would earn field notes and a moment of general adulation before flitting off, skyward. At the records table, we could practice loving them, one after another, and in their multiplicity. Youths then might discover that the charcoal edge of a cabbage white is just as captivating as the renowned colors and symmetries of a monarch?

Perhaps the only exercise more edifying about diversity would be a bioblitz—an intense 24-hour inventory of the wild animals, plants, and fungi living in a single place. The first organized in 1996, bioblitzs welcome public and press along with experts to share knowledge and excitement about the wealth of local species and how to protect them. Events can involve scores of leading scientists at iconic national parks, or a few volunteer naturalists like one mini-bioblitz at my Maryland wildlife sanctuary. Standing at the ID tables, surrounded by guidebooks for birds, beetles, wildflowers, trees, and more, felt truly overwhelming, but overwhelming with joy and happy confusion. Could my partners and I key out everything unknown leaf as fast as it was placed before us? No, but the sheer volume of finds help drive home the point that we live surrounded by wonders. Critics once warned Alexander von Humboldt, the inspiration for Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, to rein in his nature studies, lest his exuberant observing and analysis might spoil her mysteries. But Humboldt insisted that multitudes of discoveries drove his enthusiasm; it brought “a feeling for infinite things.”

But starting our new science a bit more modestly with field lessons in Lepidoptera makes still more sense. The order of butterflies, skippers, and moths includes perhaps 10% of the planet’s described species—significant, but perhaps not overpowering quantities. More important, lepidopterans’ tight, even exclusive, relationships with host plants can be understood and expanded upon, to foster understanding of deep interconnectedness throughout ecological communities that include human beings. In his memoir Speak Memory, Valdimir Nabovok wrote, “The highest enjoyment of timelessness. . . . is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. The myriad kinds of butterflies, if cherished in field surveys, classroom lessons, and in all the ways we adulate monarchs, would charm more broadly than any one species, however famous, and more deeply than dozens upon dozens of creatures delivered to a bioblitz naturalist station for swift identification and release.

“A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud,” we should remember, ends in tragedy. The old man is too tired, too broken, to love another woman, and too bitter to convey the skill of loving widely to the paperboy’s generation. In a world as vast as ours, slow progress toward loving many separate things cannot work anyway; we, like McCullers’ aged anti-hero, inevitably run out of time to pull everything together. Our task is to move faster, to invite more and more to join us—and fall in love with our still-infinite world.

“Do you realize what a science like mine can mean?” an old man asks the future seated across from him. We yet have a chance to find out. Let’s start with a butterfly. Then another. And another.

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