Butterfly Metamorphosis

Yesterday, when J. was watering the flowers in the patio he discovered a swallowtail butterfly on the dwarf lemon tree. It had floppy wings. J. had never seen a butterfly with floppy wings, so he peered at it rather intently. He realized that it had just emerged from its chrysalis and was waiting for its wings to stiffen before it could fly. Here is a picture:


The metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a chrysalis and subsequently into a butterfly is among the most intriguing mysteries of life on Earth. What could be more amazing? However, J. had never considered the packing, folding, and unfolding involved, like a parachute opening in the air. A swallowtail is a big butterfly, perhaps the biggest in this locale. The chrysalis from which it emerged was about an inch long from point to point and perhaps 3/8’s of an inch thick. No wonder that the comparatively huge wings were floppy. They had been origami folded into a very tight space. And now they were majestic indeed!

It Flies Away

J. left the new butterfly to mature a bit and went back to writing. When he returned to look at it an hour later, it was startled and flew away, perhaps before it was quite ready. It landed in a hedge. When J. looked for it later, it was gone. The following day, J. saw a swallowtail fly happily by, perhaps the same one.

This caused J. to think about butterflies as a source of similes and metaphors. Their lives and their beauty are fleeting. Their flight appears joyful, random, and carefree. They remind us that life is short, beauty is ephemeral, and we should live well while we can.


In the case of the butterfly, something green and ugly transforms into something dramatically beautiful. This made J. think about a book he had once taught, Ovid’s Metamorphoses. J. thought that the butterfly scenario was quite the opposite of what generally happens in Ovid. In Ovid, nearly every story involves a beautiful maiden becoming a tree, a cow, a bird, or even an echo, often due to a lustful encounter with Jupiter.

But perhaps even more powerful for the metaphorical imagination is the metamorphosis from a crawling thing to a flying thing. Flying transcends the gravity that pulls us down. Flying stands for freedom. We all want to fly in some form or another. And we all imagine a future in which our present circumstances are thrown off and we can fly toward our true potential.

Flight Will Come

J. thought back to the swallowtail, waiting until its wings were stiff enough to fly. When big changes happen, we are not always ready to fly. Our wings are not stiff enough. But hopefully, flight will come.


The Battle of the Paper Wasps


One morning when J. was writing outside on his device, it was brought to his attention that a society of paper wasps was building a nest above the front door of the condo. Sure enough, the wasps had constructed a three-inch tall nest, with open hexagons ready for new larvae. It was suggested that J. should do something about this. J. agreed that a nest of wasps above the front door was not a desirable outcome. As yet, the nest was small. Best to deal with it immediately. J. grabbed a handy broom.

J. had never attacked a wasp nest before, so he did not know quite what to expect. However, there appeared to be only three workers at the moment, and the nest was small. He took a whack at it with the broom. The paper nest fell into a pot of tomatoes. But at the same time, an angry host of perhaps 10 wasps emerged, heading in J.’s direction. J. stepped back, a bit panicked, and stumbled, falling backwards onto a pot from which sprouted a jade plant. The pot shattered, as did J.’s dignity. The wasps, however, were confused and did not attack.

The Wasps Return

J. thought that the job had been done, albeit somewhat clumsily, and returned to writing. However, when when he returned to the scene of the attack, he found that the wasps had started over and were building, little by little, a new structure. This time, he turned on the water and squirted them with the garden hose, trying to wash away whatever nest material had been deposited. This went on for three days. Sometimes the wasps tried moving to a new location about a foot away, but they kept at it. Clearly paper wasps are persistent. One might even say single-minded.

If J. had thought about it, he would have taken pictures of the various stages of the fight. As it is, he can only provide the blank eaves as they existed before and after the battle. The final encounter was decisive and ended in unintentional tragedy for this group of wasps.

Wasps and Bees

J. has nothing against wasps, though they do sting. He was merely trying to discourage them from building a nest in an inconvenient place that would cause further conflict. J. also has nothing against bees. Bees used to invade a previous house once a year, swarming into the oven vent on the roof, with some managing to enter the kitchen through a gap in the filter. Those who entered the house gathered at the kitchen window trying to get out. J. removed the screen and opened the window so they could escape. He also burned incense and turned on the fan in the oven hood to discourage them from making a hive in the vent. One year, he even fed the kitchen bees sugar water because they seemed too tired to fly away. They accepted it gratefully.

J. once rode his bike through a swarm of bees. He turned a corner and there they were. There was no time to stop so J. froze and coasted through. He fully expected to get stung several times. Bees bounced off his helmet, his glasses, and his chest. However, the bees did not interpret passing through as a hostile action. They did not sting. J. thought that this might have been because he passed through the tail end of the swarm, nowhere near the queen. These bees were focused on following the queen.

Spiders, Good and Evil

So, J. is sorry about the outcome of the battle with the wasps. This is what happened. The wasps, after pausing for a day, had resumed their nest building in the original place. J. used the hose again. This time, however, the wasps fell into a spider web stretched between the wall and a pot of basil, the tangled, crazy web of a black widow.

J. has read that spiders offload some cognition into their webs, just as humans offload thinking into written texts. If this is true, black widows must have mad minds. Their webs are strong, sticky, and randomly asymmetrical. Compare this sort of web to that produced by orb weavers, the spiders that make the circular, symmetrical, and beautifully flat webs that one sometimes sees in the morning, shining with dew.

Orb weavers were common at J.’s previous house. One morning, he came out in the back yard to read and moved a chair that happened to have an anchor line from an orb weaver’s web attached to it. The anchor line broke and the wind folded the web in half. J. was sorry. It has been a beautiful thing. He sat down to read. A few minutes later, the spider, a very large one, came down on a single strand of web and positioned itself right at J’s eye level. The spider and J. looked at each other for a long moment. Then the spider climbed back up to the ruined web. Something had been communicated.

The Outcome

So J. really has nothing against spiders either. But J. does not like black widows. Black widows give J. the creeps. J. felt really bad that he had delivered several innocent wasps to the fangs of such a spider. The pattern of the web made the nature of its owner clear, but as the wasps struggled to free themselves, the spider, red hourglass clearly visible, made an appearance, clearly much excited by the new bounty in her trap. J. felt responsible for this unwanted outcome, but could think of no good remedy. The wasps, magnificent creatures really, could not free themselves. The spider danced around one of them, looking for a way to get in a paralyzing bite. It was awful.

J. grabbed the broom and killed them all.

Human intervention in the natural world often produces cascading unintended consequences. But the wasps have finally given up the idea of building a nest above J.s front door. There is that.

Squirrel Nutterkin

Tree and Lamppost

The ebb and flow of life in J.’s condo complex is governed by the daily habits of dogs, mostly small ones. Every morning and evening, and sometimes in-between, dogs take their owners for long, ambling walks. The owners display various levels of engagement. Often they are on their phones.

J. does not have a dog. The neighbor two doors down has a young black lab, very enthusiastic about walks, other dogs, life in general. On this particular morning, Black Lab had his walk with a professional dog walker who left him tied up in the condo’s tiny patio. Black Lab was unaccustomed to being tied, or being alone, so he began to whimper and make short, high-pitched, mournful barks. His happy universe had gone wrong.

Squirrel Nutterkin

Squirrel Nutterkin lives in the tree in front of Black Lab’s condo. Relations between squirrels and dogs are always somewhat adversarial, and Nutterkin is a red fox squirrel, a notoriously feisty breed. Witnessing Black Lab’s unhappiness, Nutterkin began chittering taunts and invective at him, jerking his tail back and forth and up and down for emphasis. Fox squirrels are very proud of their tails and if linguists ever decode fox squirrel language, tail gestures will certainly be an integral part. Such a linguist will also likely be surprised at how much of fox squirrel vocabulary consists of curse words.


To tell the truth, Nutterkin’s tail is a bit thin on fur. Perhaps this explains his ill-natured outburst. J.’s readers always question his tendency to anthropomorphize animal behavior, but having lived with a rather intelligent rabbit for several years (unfortunately now deceased) as well as several cats, J. has found that animals also project their own views when interpreting human behavior. For example, when J. scratched the rabbit’s ears for a while, the rabbit thought that he was then obligated to reciprocate the grooming behavior, so he hopped up on the back of the couch to groom J.’s hair.

Nutterkin did not let up on his invective until the door opened and Black Lab was rescued. In English, the stream of invective went something like this:

You big dumb dog! Why did you let the human tie you up? Ha ha ha ha! You can’t climb a tree, you enormous nincompoop! You can’t even jump over the fence! Ha ha ha ha! Your tail goes wag-wag, wag-wag! How stupid!

This went on for about ten minutes. Some of the squirrel curses cannot be adequately rendered in English.

Neighborly Relations

J. gets along fairly well with Nutterkin. Nutterkin sometimes prances along the fence and asks J. for part of his snack. J. always says “no.” Nutterkin seems to understand and accept “no.” When J. is not looking, Nutterkin sometimes steals strawberries from the strawberry pot. Once, Nutterkin ate most of the leaves of a succulent that came in a florist’s gift arrangement, daring J. to stop him. Nutterkin does not usually curse at J., who has been cursed by other squirrels, but not by Nutterkin.

However, if another squirrel enters Nutterkin’s domain, which consists of about four tiny patios and five trees, a cursing war erupts that can go on for hours. Nutterkin’s cursing proficiency is truly impressive. J. is fortunate to have avoided being the object of it.

Tuesday at the Beach


J. went to the beach yesterday. This is an account of it.


J. brought his folding bike for extra mobility. The morning was cloudy, cool, and quiet. The boardwalk was populated with the usual denizens—regulars, vacationers in the rented beachfront houses, and random beach goers with dogs, small children, and large coolers.

J. biked to a location some distance from the parking lots and turned onto one of the concrete paths that extend onto the beach for about 100 yards and stop. These have warnings about exiting bikes at their beginnings, so they are there for bikes. They go about 1/4 of the way to the water. It would be folly to extend them all the way to the ocean, but why have them at all? J. dismounted from the bike and rolled it toward the water. He came to a sand berm and had to go around. Indeed, a wheeled bulldozer machine was creating more of them, expending fuel and time forming the sand into new shapes that would certainly revert to their natural tendency in a short time. It was unclear what purpose was served.

The Sand Fort

J. stopped in front of a sand fort that had been constructed the previous day. Twenty yards to the left was a small construction of sticks with a square of red cloth attached. J. did not investigate this ritual construct. It seemed best to leave it alone.

When arriving at the shore, one of the main considerations is whether the tide is coming in, or going out. There are almanacs and charts and tables that will inform this question, but J. did not consult these. He watched as the edge of the surf kept licking at the outer boundary of the fort, which defended some interior structures from dissolution. The contest between the fort and the sea was an unequal one, but as the fort had survived the night, it would seem to be placed at the upper limit of current tides. J. stood his bike up with the kickstand resting on a discarded plastic lid found within the sand fort, laid out his towel, and assembled his hiking chair. It was time for contemplation.

At this moment a wave managed to breach the top of the sand fort. Perhaps the decision to locate was premature. But as it turned out, that was the furthest extent of the tide for that morning.

Sea Birds

The main actors in this scene were sea birds. To the right a large gathering of gulls consulted with one another. Other gulls flew back and forth along the shore, making a “churreck-churreck-churreck” call. The sea was largely calm, with breakers crashing right at the shoreline, conditions impossible for surfing of any kind, but farther out, gulls and pelicans swam together in mixed groups, fishing and fighting over any fish that were caught. If fish were caught, other birds flew over to join the group and try their luck.

J. also saw dolphins arching out of the water. This made him wonder, “Do dolphins eat birds?” The floating birds did not seem worried.

While all of this activity was ongoing, a single gull perched on the ramparts of the sand fort to stare at J. Humans always have food, it seemed to be thinking. Perhaps staring at a single human, like playing the same slot machine for a long time, will eventually result in a jackpot.

The Fort in More Detail

Behind the forward wall of the fort the mystery builders had made two round mounds, concave in the center, like wells, or perhaps that might serve as bases for planned towers. These were the structures the wall protected. The leftmost one contained a broken styrofoam cup. The plastic coffee cup lid that now helped the kickstand hold up the bicycle had also been collected from this receptacle. The one on the right, but nearer the center, contained a yellow vegetable, perhaps an artichoke heart. J. did not investigate the vegetable.

Earlier, a crow had picked up the cup, but rejected it as uninteresting. Crows at the beach are out of their domain. They enjoy themselves, but lack their normal swagger. They can’t fish or swim, so they walk about poking at things and enjoying the occasional tidbit of exotic seafood. They are clearly on a family outing.

Mr. Gull Takes the Cup

Mr. Gull by this time had tired of staring at J. and decided more action was in order. He hopped down from the rampart, picked up the cup and began walking around with it. He repeatedly tried to swallow it, but it was too big. He put it down and pecked at it. At one point he had it stuck on his beak. J. was amused, but when Mr. Gull got the cup off his beak, he began punching it into smaller pieces which he ate. At this point, J. intervened. He rose from his chair, advanced on Mr. Gull, and confiscated the cup. Mr. Gull was unsurprised that J. wanted this very valuable cup.

Gulls often think that plastic is food. Crows will eat almost anything but are smart enough to know that plastic is not good for them.

The Inevitable Contemplation of Sand

J. was tired of sitting in the chair so he folded it back up and put it in the backpack. He sat down cross-legged on the towel and began studying the ring-a-ding causality of the sand in front of him. Great slow forces had combined to smash rocks into particles and bring them to this spot. Bits and pieces of creatures were mixed in, a potpourri of quartz, salt, and organic matter. Was this sand entirely different from sand on Mars? Someday, perhaps we will know.

The Ladies

While J. was looking at sand, two ladies came walking down the beach, the only people on this otherwise deserted stretch of shoreline except for some lifeguards who came buzzing by in a pickup truck. The ladies stopped right in front of J. and began having a long conversation. Why, J. thought, did they stop here? They can have the whole beach to themselves. Eventually, they moved on, only to return 30 minutes later and stop in the same spot.

In the interval, a long snake-like line of pelicans, about thirty birds, swept by, a conga line of pelicans, skimming just above the water, sometimes flapping, sometimes gliding. An unexpected and beautiful sight. And then a foot-long fish jumped out of the water, just in front of the sand fort.

An Apple, A Nap, and a Philosophical Question

J. got an apple out of the backpack, a big green and red Fuji. Apples taste better at the beach than at home.

After a short nap, it was time to head home. Mr. Gull will live another day, but tomorrow, he will probably find more plastic to eat. Is it right to intervene in small ways? J. doesn’t know.