It was a kidless weekend, and I spent it burrowing into the sweet comfort of nature and art. A few miles from here is a city park that houses a portion of a greenway, community gardens, soccer fields, and patches of restored prairie and wetland. It seems like an improbable place to find much in the way of nature, but it is definitely there. It’s not unusual to see deer bounding across the soccer fields or across the paths, and blue and green herons frequent the wetlands. Goldfinches haunt the thistle plants. The prairies are different every year — growing, fortunately — and they host an abundance of butterflies, moths, and dragonflies.
Pre-colonial Indiana was covered in black soil prairie, with long wilderness stretches of big bluestem grasses tall enough to conceal a horse. Prairie restoration has been occurring all over the Midwest and the Great Plains states with varying success. There are very few stands of native prairie left in Indiana, and many of them are on railroad corridors. I volunteered on a Nature Conservancy prairie restoration project fifteen or so years ago, collecting seeds from native plants along railroad tracks for use on the project. This is Indiana’s native ecology, and I’m eager to see it restored where possible.
As I walked through the patches of prairie, I could feel my heartbeat begin to slow and my muscles relax as I slipped back into myself. I paused at a stand of milkweed; it was busier than the Dan Ryan Expressway at rush hour. That’s the thing about a prairie. If you look at it from a distance, it looks peaceful and still. But get in the middle of it and you see that you’ve wandered into a bustling ecology. The entire landscape is moving.
Butterflies appeared almost immediately, reminding me how many obscenities pass my lips when I’m trying to photograph them. I saw a single monarch, less than I would wish in a huge stand of milkweed, but I was grateful to see even one.
Finally, a swallowtail became cooperative and we passed the time companionably together, him flitting from between flowers like they were covered dishes on a buffet, and me photographing his meals.
I was struck by the swallowtail’s battle scars. Early in the season on an overnight on Lake Monroe in southern Indiana, I photographed a different swallowtail, its body perfect and so far unscathed. Now, later in the season, my friend at the milkweed had the marks of a long and vibrant life: one of its swallowtails was gone entirely, and chunks of its wings were missing. The same thing happens to a human being. We carry our own scars, both external and internal, and we bear the marks of the pursuit of our own lives, for good or for ill. As I looked at the butterfly, I thought of the long scar on my calf where a piece of coral sliced it open on a reef dive, and the scar on my knee I got when I was eight and I lost control of my bike on gravel. I thought of the many healed-over wounds on the inside, and the wrinkles around my eyes. I wouldn’t trade those things. They’re the currency of life, like Scout patches. You live a piece of life, you get a mark to show for it.