On mornings after CSA share distribution I sleep until I have had my fill of sleep. The previous two days have been hectic: I have rushed the leafy greens from the field to the cooler, soaked the broccoli heads in an attempt to rid them of unseen cabbage worms, sorted the carrots, bagged and weighed the beans, ferried the potatoes from their underground burrows to the dark cave of my basement, figured share portions, searched for recipes, written the newsletter. By Monday evening, the produce is in the hands of its eaters, my house is a wreck, and I’m tired. Tuesday mornings, though, begin with a blissful non-urgency. My to-do list is long, but nothing needs to be done right now.
By the time I awoke this particular Tuesday morning, the sun was already climbing. I stretched, bumped the cat, then pulled the covers over my head. I could feel the summer breeze through the sheet, cool and delicious. I could go for a walk, I thought. A walk to the ravine, to see what’s blooming and flying. Yes.
First, though, I needed tea and then I had to straighten the porch, leave signs for CSA members picking up their produce late, add a new super of empty frames to each of the beehives, pick herbs to get the day’s sun tea brewing, and deliver bolting lettuce to the ducks. By the time I headed toward the wildflowers and grasses of the back fields, sweat dampened my skin. Resisting the urge to pull weeds as I passed the hoophouse garden, I paused instead to watch a monarch butterfly flutter around the milkweed swelling its pods near the hoophouse door.
The sun’s heat pushed through the crown of my hat. Behind me I could hear Lake Michigan gently stroking its shore, but my eyes focused on the wet monarch clinging to my finger. On my first camping trip in several years, I’d been wading the lake’s shallows, picking up trash I found floating there—chip bags, deflated balloons, bottle labels. I bent to scoop a granola bar wrapper out of the water and glimpsed an orange and black triangle floating nearby. Too bad, I thought. Then I saw the butterfly’s black legs churning the water. I stuck my index finger into the lake near them. The waves pulled the insect away from my hand, then thrust it back towards me. I felt its feet grasp my skin. The butterfly gripped tight as I lifted my hand, its dripping wings hanging down from my finger. I carried it to the beach.
When I turned it upright, the monarch staggered across my hand, heavy and awkward. I cupped my other hand underneath it, afraid it might fall onto the sand and ruin its wings on the rough grains. Finally it seemed to gain balance on one of my fingers. I moved to find a piece of driftwood or dune grass where I could leave it. Then I hesitated. Why not wait awhile, watch it, see what it does?
The bright white spots that covered its thorax surprised me. I had forgotten that the monarch’s body was anything but solid black. I watched it unfurl its delicate, curled proboscis and probe its body as if checking for wounds. Its antennae were stuck together by a bead of water; water drops dotted its wings.
Imperceptibly, the sun slipped from its zenith toward the lake; imperceptibly the butterfly began to dry. It continued to touch itself with its incredibly long proboscis. Was it sucking the moisture from the hairs that covered its body? It moved its head from side to side. Was it looking at me? What did it see? At one point, its head strained and shook and the stuck antennae popped apart. Good job! I gave a small cheer. The water drops shimmered as it gently opened and closed its wings. I had no idea how long I’d been standing there. The butterfly turned around on my hand and angled its wings directly beneath the sunbeams now slanting across the lake.
I got anxious. I got bored. I counted the white spots on its wing-fringe, forgot the number, counted again. That’s enough playing with the butterfly, said someone inside my head. I’m on vacation, I can play with butterflies if I want to, said someone else. A family passed me on the beach and I smiled sheepishly, a bit embarrassed to be caught spending so much time and attention on an insect.
“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. / I do know how to pay attention” Mary Oliver writes in her poem The Summer Day, after she describes watching a grasshopper eating sugar out of her hand. Not even a butterfly—a grasshopper!
On the best days, farming gives me an excuse to pay attention. To the insects. To the weather. To the soil. To the plants that sustain my life with their lives. On the worst days, I am too busy, too concerned with efficiency, too worried about all of my undone tasks to notice the wild life around me.
We’ve been hand-pollinating squash this summer so that we can save seeds for next year’s crop. Because of spring flooding, we ended up planting our winter squash varieties in two long rows rather than spread around in different fields as we’d initially planned. This means that we have to keep bees and other insects from cross-pollinating our seed-fruits or next year’s crop may turn into a weird amalgam of acorn-spaghetti squashes and delicata-pumpkins.
John has been hand-pollinating for many years, but this is my first attempt. We go out in the evenings with blue masking tape and clothespins and scout for blossom buds ready to open the next morning. When we find them—the female buds attached to tiny squash-shaped ovaries that will eventually become the fruit, the male buds on long stalks that rise above the vines toward the canopy of leaves—we choose a few and carefully tape or pinch the ends of the petals together, sealing the sexual organs inside. In the morning when we go back to the field, the blossoms we haven’t sealed will be open and full of small, stripy bees clambering over the pistils and stamens, carrying pollen from flower to flower on the tiny hairs of their bodies.
As we carefully pluck the male flowers and remove their petals to expose the anthers laden with bright pollen, as we gently ease open the petals on the female flowers to reveal their swollen orange or golden stigmas, I realize that in all my years of growing squash I’ve never truly looked inside a squash flower. I’ve celebrated their swelling; plucked and roasted them with olive oil and salt; noted with satisfaction the insects arriving and departing from their waystations. But I’ve never noticed the ridges on the anther where the pollen forms, never exclaimed at the beauty of the stigmas clustered inside the cup of the female flower. We shoo away passing bees; dip the petal-less stamen into the cup and twirl it against the stigmas. We do this with another male flower and then another, until the stigmas are coated with yellow pollen. Then we carefully tape the petals on the female flower closed, sealing the pollen we’ve spread inside, sealing the bees out. We tie a red ribbon near each ovary we’ve pollinated so that we can identify it as a seed-fruit when it matures in a few months.
During her college freshman intake interview, botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer told her adviser that she wanted to study botany because she “wanted to learn about why asters and goldenrod looked so beautiful together.” It’s chicory and wild carrot that astound me each summer with their combined loveliness, the delicate blue-lavender of the chicory a perfect off-set to the lacey white umbrellas of the carrot. They line the edges of my path through the fields, mirroring the dusky blue sky and white clouds. If I were starving, I might take nourishment from the stringy roots of either of these weeds, but since I’ve got half a bed of crisp domesticated carrots in the garden I drink in their colors instead.
As a girl, I had an Easter dress the color of chicory. As a girl, I held newly hatched monarchs on my fingers until their wrinkled wings straightened and dried.
“Tell me, what are you going to do / with your one wild and precious life?” asks Oliver at the end of her poem. Wild and precious indeed, the monarch butterfly could become extinct before I do. Like ancient varieties of squash, beans, corn, and other vegetables that have been lost to our tongues in the name of progress and efficiency. So I am going to pay attention. I am going to save seeds. I am going to let the milkweeds grow.
Footnote: Yes, this is a black swallowtail, not a monarch. But when I went out this morning to try to find a monarch to photograph to go with this essay, I found this guy in the hoophouse and it agreeably rested on my hand while I fumbled with the camera. Guess I’ll pay attention to the swallowtails too. And let them snack on my dill and carrot tops.