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Big Horns Lepidoptera

Big Horns Lepidoptera

The sole salvation of my primary grades at Irasburg Elementary School was recess. During those blocks of time outdoors, before the clanging cow bell signaled a return to sounding out two-syllable words, practicing cursive handwriting under the tutelage of a true battle ax, implacable instructor, or doing page upon page of multi-digit addition and subtraction problems, I was blissfully free to pursue what, at the age of eight, I was sure would be my life’s calling. While other boys rammed matchbox cars over homemade ramps of sand and dreamed of being Bo or Luke Duke, I prowled the grounds with a butterfly net, convinced I’d grow up to be a lepidopterist.

This was not a popular conviction for a young boy in the late 1970s to possess. My classmates couldn’t pronounce it, my teachers didn’t know what it meant, and decades before bullying was viewed as anything more than good old-fashioned toughening up, the lone kid with the oversized net was an easy target. Still, in the months of fall and again through spring, I devoted nearly all of my recess time to chasing Northern Vermont’s butterflies. And to the credit of my teachers - when I wasn’t kept inside and forced to listen to my recorded voice struggling to read – they permitted it. I was also allowed to bring my balsam wood board, a few strips of paper, and a dozen or so pins to school to spread the wings of what I caught and begin the drying process so I could place them in frames. This “mounting board” was kept on top of a file cabinet higher than I could reach, retrieved by one of my teachers if my lines of Os were round enough, my reading clear enough, and my thought process showed diligently in the margins alongside each mathematical question. It appears that nearly four decades of time hasn’t tempered my feeling that this mounting board was doled out like food to a starving prisoner, so I’ll stick with that analogy and say, in my best Vermont vernacular, that by Christ I hated school.

I think that I loved butterflies because for well over half the year Northern Vermont is a place largely devoid of all colors beyond the gray scale. In a world long dominated by the rumble of snow plows and howl of a north wind, it was magical to see something so shockingly colorful. The tiger swallowtails, orange sulfurs, banded purples, monarchs and red admirals were hope and summer and glorious freedom personified. I spent much of my childhood collecting butterflies, trying to preserve a flash of iridescence and an ephemeral season in a land more conducive to perseverance than to dreams.

In some ways, nothing has changed while in others everything has. I still live on the 45th Parallel, though more than 2,000 miles west. Winters are still long and hard, though all seasons roll along faster – if such a thing is possible – than they did when I was a kid. I still chase butterflies, though it’s been years since I’ve killed one. Instead, I follow them with my camera, trying to capture the same things I did when I was a boy, still more drawn to dreams than to reality.

It’s the dog days of summer in Montana. Drought persists in the rain shadow of the Rockies, the prairie grasses have turned brown, cactus and yucca blooms have come and gone, and elk antlers have nearly stopped growing. As I head south to the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming for my annual pilgrimage in search of butterflies, it seems only moments have passed since I hunted sunsets along the frozen Yellowstone River near where I cross it in Laurel. I follow its Clark’s Fork up to Bridger where, instead of continuing due south toward Cody and the land of winter big horn sheep, I angle slightly east toward Lovell, Wyoming. I cross the upper end of Yellowtail Reservoir, formed by the damming of the Big Horn River, then climb more than 4000 feet through a series of hairpin switch-backs up to the top of the Big Horn Mountain Range. I park at the base of a hulking, open ridge striated with damp seeps, and step out into air thirty degrees cooler than in Lovell.

Hundreds of acres of low-growing, high-elevation wildflowers stretch out before me, and already I see the air is full of butterflies. I’m using my 200mm micro Nikkor lens exclusively, hoping most for photos of ruddy coppers, the small, impossibly-metallic butterflies that appear here for a few brief weeks each summer.

The first butterfly to pose cooperatively for me is a checkerspot, content to sip aster nectar while I position the sun behind me and creep up to within a couple of feet of his purple perch. I like the contrast between him and his flower, and snap a few shots before he decides he wants to sample another blossom.


There are exponentially more flowers than butterflies, but competition for the best ones is fierce and for each butterfly I see landed a dozen or more chase each other in the sky. All around me are whirling wings of color, spinning with passionate intensity, some fighting, some no doubt wishing to mate, all in a frenzy to accomplish a complete life cycle in just a few days. There is tangible energy here in this place where summer is so short, and I’m reminded of the late-evening whiffle ball games my friends and I played long ago, going hard until the ball blended with dim sky, always wishing for a little more day, a little more time.

I work my way up a damp cut where runoff from a stubborn snow drift has exposed the limestone bedrock and allowed a raceway of dandelions to grow among the stones. Lying on my stomach, inching my camera ahead of me, I catch a common ringlet on a particularly full flower. He holds for one picture, but as my shutter trips he hurls himself away, climbing skyward, turning with the breeze that has picked up out of the west where I notice a thin line of led-gray clouds on the horizon. Thunderstorms by evening, I think, as I rise and dust off my pants.


My lungs recognize less oxygen in the air, 9,000 feet above sea level, as I climb toward the snow drift. In a hundred yards, the earth has turned from damp to muddy and another few steps brings me to trickling water where buttercups have replaced the dandelions. Spring azures, northern blues, and silvery blues vie for position along the water like miniature morphoes, sunlight glinting on wings a hundred shades of blue. These butterflies prefer the ground to flowers, but as I wait one lands on a buttercup – probably to rest more than to drink – spreads his wings for balance, and I’ve got the shot, as happy as I’d have been to bring home the actual insect when I was young.


I’ve got a few good pictures but still haven’t seen the rare, ruddy coppers I’ve set my sights on for this trip. Picking my way through the snow drift and over the back side of this ridge, I know that I could be a week or two too early – that a very few days in this country of stunted summer can make a huge difference in what I find.

The western clouds are advancing as I sit and eat a packet of salty peanuts, staring off at distant hillsides, one dotted with elk. Though I’ve come here for butterflies and the elk are a long way off, I take a couple shots then watch a pair of calves frolicking in a waterhole. They’re probably engaged in some instinctual activity that will prepare them somehow for life here, but to me it looks as if they’re playing, simply being young and carefree. I watch them for fifteen minutes, then close my eyes and remember the feel of sand between my toes, the lap of a cold-water lake on a granite shore, the smell of coconut sunblock, and the rush to eat an ice cream cone before it melted in Vermont sun where I swam when I was comparatively as old as these calves. I wonder if they feel the same gnawing sense that these days are brief that haunted me? A sense I didn’t fully understand then beyond some notion that more would change than summer into fall. I feel it again as I watch the gray clouds advancing, still some hours out but undeniably closer.


I leave my view of the elk but instead of retracing my steps through the drift and down toward my truck, I walk the spine of the ridge more than half a mile and drop into a pronounced gulley, the start of some creek, though it won’t earn its name for a couple of miles yet. In a patch of limestone still some eons away from eroding enough to hold much soil, I come across my first ruddy coppers. Two of them are fanning their wings just outside the shadow of a large stone. They’re more colorful and also more flighty than any of the other butterflies here, and I move as slowly as I can, holding my breath while I manually focus on the closer of the two. I wait for his wings to part then release the shutter. I have time to see the white dots on his antennae in sharp focus in my viewfinder before he and his companion fly away, and I’m happy with the picture.


I’ve got what I came for, I think, as I continue downhill. The pressure’s off a bit, and for an hour I walk without taking a picture, absorbing through my eyes more than I could ever capture with my lens. I watch day-flying moths circle dandelions, a clouded sulfur land on four different buttercups in under fifteen seconds, and see hundreds more checkerspots. The sun seems to be holding its own against the clouds through the middle of the day, though the breeze has picked up, cool air flowing across the valley between the Big Horns and the Absaroka Beartooth Range 70 miles west. Whether real or imagined, I sense change at work – a subtle shift toward something that gives me pause, and as the sun tips past its zenith I want this day to last longer than it ever will.

I’m grateful for the distraction of a tortoiseshell cutting in front of me, and decide it’s time to start shooting again. Fresh from its chrysalis, its colors at peak, it dances in the air, apparently too thrilled with its new-found mode of transportation to land. I follow it fifty yards before it decides to stop on an aster, and no sooner do I take one picture than it’s up again, rocketing away in zig-zag flight, a blur of orange and black that shrinks to a dot in my vision in less than ten seconds.


As the breeze comes harder, the day now flirting with windy, I freeze a checkerspot on a sturdy, yellow limestone hawksbeard while the background blurs and waves. It’s a shot reminiscent of the day – a snippet of time held not still but fixed in my memory while the world roars along all around.


By mid-afternoon, I’ve wandered several aimless miles from my truck and the day has seen long shadows pass across the Earth from fast-moving clouds. I still don’t want it to end, but I don’t want my Nikon exposed to the deluge I believe will hit before nightfall. As is usually the way with me, I turn back toward where I started with reluctance.

I may go back, but I steadfastly refuse to do it by the same route. The gulley I’ve walked – which has become a flowing stream with nearly enough water for fingerling trout – will not see my returning footprints. I cut away at a ninety-degree angle, adding more miles to my day, but in a sense extending it. As though by doing more I can add more hours. Not possible, I know, but I can add more photos, and the ruddy copper on a buttercup is too good to pass up. Perhaps sensing rain and feeling an urgency to feed now, he sits longer than usual, allowing me to move within eight or ten inches of him for the shot. My macro lens, even stopped down to f10, won’t resolve all of him in perfect focus at this range, so I pick his wings as points I want sharp, the frill of soft, creamy white along their edges almost glowing.

From the buttercup, he flies to a tuft of dark cotton grass and allows me one more photo.

He remains there, fanning his wings in the wind even after I move away, and three times I look back at him. He’s still there each time, a fleck of brilliant bronze tinfoil, when the first raindrop hits me, falling out of the sun, a brief shower, a wet kiss ahead of heavy rains.

There is still three hours of daylight left, but the darkening clouds give the illusion of twilight. The day feels as though it’s ending, perhaps because it’s been so good and such days never last. The air isn’t cold, but I shiver, thinking about butterflies I saw in my youth – the black swallowtail so rare that until I caught one when I was ten I’d never seen one. The great, green luna moth I found hugging the brick side of our village library. The early hairstreak with its delicate tails I found after a day of trout fishing with my father – a day as good as this one. The Compton’s tortoiseshell I found trapped between bubbly window panes in a carriage house more than a hundred and twenty years old. I should have freed him, I think, a notion entirely foreign to me when I was a boy, and as I spot another ruddy copper, this one so battered it can no longer fly, I’m sad. I watch him crawl from one flower to another as I snap a few, half-hearted pictures, and as more raindrops land around us he pulls himself under a leaf. I doubt he’ll ever come out, and I’ve seen enough.


I tuck my camera under my shirt and begin walking hard. For the first time today, there are no butterflies in the sky and the impending storm and nagging sense of changing seasons makes me wonder if there ever will be again. It’s foolish, I know, but my world is still more cold and snow and gray than color, and I look forward to this trip so much and for so long that I hate to see it end.

Day to night, weeks to months, months to years. It’s a one-way street, and maybe the best we can do is take the long way back on a walk. That’s what I’m thinking, cruising up a cut that should dump me out somewhere near my truck, stepping over flat slabs of sandstone, when I stop dead in my tracks. Snowmelt tumbles many things down these ravines. I’ve seen broken deer skulls, amethyst-colored canning jar shards, tattered bits of backpack, and pieces of juniper washed down from somewhere there are trees. This spring’s melt was not unusually heavy, but it pried loose a perfect ammonite fossil, laying it neatly beside an aster. It’s proof that this range was once below an ocean. Proof that some things endure for a few hundred million years. Proof that time covers great expanses. But when I think of the nautilus shells – today’s ammonites – living in our oceans, I still can’t decide whether everything changes or nothing does. I take a picture, then a step, then put the fossil in my pocket.        








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