Sunday, August 5, 2012

the cost of butterflies

This year has been a breeze in the tomato garden. Not a single horned tomato-killer/piller in sight! I did see one dried out carcass which had been taken out by braconid wasp eggs. . . . It appears that I have broken the cycle here, at least for one year. If I have no hummingbugs, at least I also have no tomato hornworms. It's a price I'm willing to pay. We have tons of hummingbirds - I'll live with no hummingbugs.

Butterflies, on the other hand, I'd be sorry to part with. We have a plethora. Yellow ones, orange ones, black ones, blue ones, white ones. OK - the white ones are moths, technically. I've written about them before. They're the ones who decimate the cabbage. And the kale. Not the butterflies, of course, the caterpillars. But without the caterpillars, there are no butterflies. . . .

This year, I was a lot more tolerant of the damage being done to the cabbage and kale by the munching caterpillars. I had planted the cabbage among the basil and parsley, and if I used chemical warfare (the only thing that really works) that meant I couldn't eat the basil or parsley for several weeks. I decided to give up on the thought of controlling the caterpillars on the cabbage so I could eat the basil and parsley, and hoped for the best. Several of the cabbages succumbed, but several others made it to table and the kale yielded regular fronds for soups, salads, and veggie portions. And I've always enjoyed the white cabbage moths flitting about the garden. They're so cheerful looking! Maybe there's something to this 'live and let live' attitude after all.

I've been looking forward to the arrival of the big butterflies and in the last few weeks, they've come on in droves. The other day I was horrified, however, to see one of my sunflowers being systematically stripped of all its leaves by an assortment of caterpillars. All fuzzy, in a wide range of colours. My first thought was - yes - chemical warfare. Death to the destructos! My second thought was "well, if I want butterflies, I have to endure the caterpillars." I consigned the sunflower to its fate. The cost of butterflies.
As it was, the caterpillars didn't kill the sunflower. They hadn't really started eating its leaves until the sunflower had bloomed, fed the bumblebees and started to fade, its petals drying to raffia and the middle of the flower turning to seeds destined to feed the songbirds here at the greenwood. A few of those seeds, of course, will be saved to plant in the spring. Cycle repeat.

No, it's not nice to have the ragged plant in my garden, ravaged by caterpillars, leaves turning yellow and brown where there are leaves at all. It's a small price to pay, though, to sustain the cycle. When the caterpillars had finished their work, they disappeared and I cut the sunflower down. I feel a bit like a murderer. They're taller than I am, with heads as large.

'Unless a seed falls to the ground and 'dies'. . . .'

There's no stopping the cycle at any one stage. The flower will wither and if I deny its leaves to the caterpillars, all I do is deny myself the joy of butterflies. And if I cut the flowers before they have been pollinated by the bees and matured, I deny myself food for the songbirds I love to see and hear, and seeds to plant next year. And if I will not harvest the sunflowers when they have dried and started to fall over, then the wind and the rain and the birds will scatter the seeds. They will either be eaten now, or rot, or if they hang on to next year, I'll be dealing with volunteer sunflowers in the paths and in between the boxwoods. They may or may not spring up where they are welcome and have sufficient soil to grow. Meanwhile, there are birds who will be looking for seed in the feeder in January and February.

Part of growing a garden, then, is tolerating ugliness. That is not at all what our culture says. Ugliness is to be rooted out. Sprayed. Eradicated. We can have it all, we are told. Beautiful fruit and leaves and seed - all at the same time - and never mind the cost. In fact, what cost? Life is beautiful. Just don't look behind the curtain. Don't question how the roses in stores are grown so big, so beautiful, with leaves with nary a spot or blemish on them. Or the sunflowers at the supermarket: each perfect, none contaminated by the touch of any bug, let alone the munchings of a caterpillar. I begin to see their perfection as a deathcamp. Neither fertile nor food. Poisoned. Their "beauty" pales when I consider what chemicals enabled it.

I have written before that growing one's own food has made me much more tolerant of imperfections. Now, I learn to tolerate even ugliness. Everything, in its season. We don't want the seasons, though, do we? We want the cool when it's hot, and the hot when it's cold. We want to be young forever, and to be wise without the years. We want to keep our options open and to be able to be where we are not. We 'conquer' time and space with facebook, skype and instant messages and wonder why we never really talk any more. Talk, sitting down, face to face, munching on the produce of the garden with the messiness of dishes afterwards and a greasy grill.

The cost of butterflies, indeed.

The title notwithstanding, I reject the utilitarian cost/benefit framework. No, I see this squarely within an Aristotelian conception of the good life, helping me to make sense of what I would not easily call "good" absent a wider perspective. It's the wider perspective which, in the end, leads to the transcendent, and the transcendent, to God. Because like the grass and the flowers, we, too, fade. . . .