Wild Life Wednesday: All Calm Before the Storm

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It was gently raining when we awakened this morning, but the sun was breaking through along the horizon by the time we made it outside into the new day.

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An early morning bumbly enjoys the sweetness of Rudbeckia laciniata.

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We are all very conscious of the weather here in coastal Virginia this week as we watch the updates on the progress of Hurricane Florence.  We are on high ground and so flooding isn’t a concern.  But we live in a forest, and any amount of wind can change the landscape here; especially when the ground is saturated.

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The Solidago, goldenrod, has just begun to bloom.

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It looks as though the storm will make landfall far to our south, and the track no longer suggests it might travel northwards into Central Virginia.  Yet Florence remains a dangerous storm, and is absolutely huge.  We may start feeling its outer bands of rain and wind sometime tomorrow or Friday.

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Rose of Sharon

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Which made today all the sweeter.  Do you know the Japanese term, Wabi-Sabi?  The Japanese find beauty in the transience and ultimate imperfection of all phenomena.  The impermanence and changeability of the world around us heightens our appreciation of its beauty.  We can appreciate things while feeling a deep tenderness for their inherent imperfection.

I was pondering these things this morning as I wandered through our upper garden, wondering how it might appear in a day or so after wind and heavy rain have their way with it.  Already, our tall goldenrod and black-eyed Susans lean over into the paths, making them almost disappear in the abundance of growth.

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It is my first time wandering through the garden like this since I got a nasty insect bite last Friday afternoon.  It is still a mystery what bit me, as I was fully armored to work outdoors.  It was a small bite at first, but quickly blistered and swelled up to a massive angry red blotch that stretched several inches away from the original bite on my knee.  It has been a slow process of tending it, and I stayed indoors until yesterday, hoping to avoid another until this one was resolved.

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Ginger lily with orbs

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But today I was out in the early morning wetness, capturing the beauty of it, and trying to ignore the mosquitoes greeting me along the way.  I wanted to see everything and admire everything on the chance that the coming storm will shatter its early September magnificence.  It was the beautiful calm before the storm, and we have taken today to celebrate it.

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The rain was past and the day gilded with golden September sunshine when we set out along the Colonial Parkway to see the sky and watch the rising waters along the James and York Rivers.  If you’ve never seen the sky filled with enormous, rain shadowed clouds in the day or two before a hurricane approaches, you’ve missed one of the most beautiful spectacles of atmospheric art.

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Yorktown Beach, looking northwards towards Gloucester Point and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science

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The clouds are arrayed in regular, rhythmic patterns, punctuated here and there with towering, monstrous storm clouds.  The sky is blue and clear beyond them.  They float rapidly across the sky, these outer bands of the approaching storm.  These days of waiting are moody, morphing quickly from dull to golden and clear blue to stormy grey.

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One keeps an eye on the sky while pacing through the rituals of preparing.   There is an edge to the mood as highways fill with strangers moving northwards, inland, away from home and into an uncertain future.  We encountered one today at the next gas pump who needed to tell us he was traveling, just passing through, on his journey to somewhere safer than here.

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We found a nearby parking lot filled this morning with state police, huge generators, Klieg lights, and emergency response trailers.  The lot was filled at eight, but emptying out just a few hours later.  We’re still wondering where the equipment will ultimately end up.  We hope not here…

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Jones Mill Pond, near Yorktown on the Colonial Parkway

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I wondered whether the butterflies would move out ahead of the storm.  But we counted more than a dozen as we drove along the Parkway from Jamestown to Yorktown.   We saw mostly small ones, Sulphurs, but we were glad for their happy fluttering along the roadside.  We noticed the tide is already high along the way.  Jamestown Island is closed as preparations there continue.

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The rivers lap high up into the reeds, mostly covering the narrow, sandy river beaches.  The York River is already climbing the rip rap hardened banks constructed a few summers ago to protect the shoreline.  Small Coast Guard craft patrolled the river near Yorktown, but that didn’t deter a few families here and there, determined to enjoy this bright and sultry day at the beach.

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The York River, looking eastwards towards the Bay.

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The lizards were scampering around the drive and back steps when we returned home.  They’d been basking in the mid-day sun; our return disturbed their peace.

The squirrels had been at the grapes again, and we saw a pair of hummingbirds light in a Rose of Sharon tree nearby, watching us arrive.

It was too silent, though.  We didn’t hear the usual chatter of songbirds in the trees.  It was still, too.  Though the wind was blowing off the rivers, here the air hung heavy and still.

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Our Muscadine grapes are ripening over a long season.

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I believe in luck and omens, and perhaps that is why I planted a few little pots of Baptisia seeds this morning.  I’d knicked the seed pods from a plant I’ve watched growing all summer at the Botanical garden, and carried them in my pocket for weeks.

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With the seeds tucked into little pots out on the deck, I’m already thinking of the sprouts that will soon emerge.  Life goes on.  I believe that is the wisdom of wabi-sabi.

No matter the current circumstance, change is constant.  We can’t outrun it, or stop it.  Wisdom invites us to embrace it, observe its power, and find the ever-present beauty, come what may.

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This beautiful cluster of lichens was waiting for me beneath a shrub this morning.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
*  *  *
“To Taoism that which is absolutely still or absolutely perfect
is absolutely dead,
for without the possibility of growth and change there can be no Tao.
In reality there is nothing in the universe
which is completely perfect or completely still;
it is only in the minds of men that such concepts exist.”
.
Alan Watts

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“But when does something’s destiny finally come to fruition?
Is the plant complete when it flowers?
When it goes to seed? When the seeds sprout?
When everything turns into compost?”
.
Leonard Koren

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Begonia

 

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Wild Life Wednesday: A Feast for Butterflies

A Silver Spotted Skipper enjoys Verbena bonariensis in our garden.

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This time of year I spend a lot of time hanging out with butterflies.  Once I spot one, I want to get as close as I dare, camera in hand, and just watch what it does and where it goes.  It’s funny how they are clearly aware of me, too.  Some are camera shy and fly up and off as soon as I begin to focus my lens on them.

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A Zebra Swallowtail takes flight as the female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail enjoys her Agastache nectar at the Heath’s Bulb Shop garden in Gloucester today.

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I have more than a few empty frames where a butterfly has flown away right as I click the photo.  Other butterflies appear to enjoy their modeling session, or at least tolerate my presence with the clicking, chiming camera.

I get almost giddy in a garden where a cloud of butterflies is busily feeding.  These lovely creatures seem quite content to share their nectar wealth, and light near one another companionably.

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My partner and I were visiting the display gardens at the Heath family’s Bulb Shop in Gloucester this morning.  We went outside and had just begun to look around when my partner called me over to the butterflies.  Perhaps six individuals were all feeding around the clear blue flowering spires of one large Agastache ‘Blue Fortune.’  We were spellbound.

We counted three different types of swallowtails, a Monarch and a sweet little hummingbird moth.

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A hummingbird moth shares the nectar with the Zebra Swallowtail butterflies.

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Now, in a place as nectar rich as a multi-acre display garden filled with perennials and flowering bulbs, wouldn’t you expect that the butterflies would be all spread out across the garden?  Would you really expect to see six individuals on a single plant, with lots of other flowering plants neglected?

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An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail enjoys Agastache ‘Rosey Posey’ at the Heath family gardens at their Bulb Shop.

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Eventually, we wandered a bit further into the garden to see what we could see on this sunshiny August morning.  The next butterfly activity was around the water feature which just happened to be ringed on one side with pots brimming with more Agastache.  This time I believe it was A. ‘Rosey Posey.’ 

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A water feature at Brent and Becky’s Bulb Shop in Gloucester, VA.

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And yes, I spotted another little hummingbird moth and an assortment of swallowtails. The many beds and pots and meadows and borders nearby didn’t have nearly the winged traffic as these pots of anise hyssop.  If you’ve grown it yourself, you know this is a tough perennial mint relative with fragrant leaves and non-stop flowers.  The nice thing about this perennial herb is its polite manners.  Even though it clumps and grows larger each year, it doesn’t run like most mints will do.

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We had a lovely clump, started from a plug, that perished sometime between November and April.  I was so disappointed that it didn’t return this summer and we have missed it.  I likely cut it back too early in the spring and it got zapped by a cold spell.  I waited too long this spring, giving it a chance to return, and didn’t admit until May that it was a goner.  And we have missed it!

If you are a butterfly enthusiast, you likely spend a good bit of time watching to see which plants the butterflies prefer.  Given a garden filled with flowers, where do they prefer to feed?

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This female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail feeds on Buddleia in our garden.

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What will attract the most butterflies?  If you are hoping to attract a good variety of butterflies, as we do, you likely want to plant lots of butterfly magnet plants to feed them over the longest season possible.

Another clear butterfly favorite is Lantana.  A friend and I were plant shopping together last month and headed for the gallon pots of Lantana.  We needed a number of them for a special event, and were astounded to see the entire display covered in beautiful butterflies.  We actually had to chase the bumblebees and butterflies off of the plants, once they were loaded into her car, so that we could close the back hatch.

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The female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly is dimorphic.  It can be either yellow or black. Watch when the sun shines through the wings of the black form. She can be identified because the tiger stripes are still visible with the wing illuminated from behind.  Females always have blue on their hindwings, and the males are solidly yellow with black markings.  This female feeds on Lantana in our garden.

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Buddleia, known as butterfly bush, earns its name, too.  Its panicles of richly colored sweet flowers are irresistible.  A bit rangy in its growth, it more than makes up for its habit with its spectacular flowers that keep blooming until frost.

The surprise butterfly magnet is perennial Verbena.  You likely have lots of butterflies on your annual Verbena in pots and baskets.  But the V. bonariensis in our garden attracts them even more than the Buddleia! 

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A female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail feeds on V. bonariensis in our garden.  Do you see the darker stripes on her upper wings?

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It is great fun to watch huge swallowtails land on these fragile looking little flowers seemingly floating in space, bobbing in the wind as they feed.  I expect the V. hastata that I planted last month will attract many butterflies, too, as it establishes and produces more blooms.

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It is a given that butterflies love herbs.  Beyond the Agastache, they seem to enjoy other mints, Monardas, basils, fennel, dill,  Salvias, and even chives!  I am delighted to see how happy the butterflies are to feed on the chives, blooming now, because they make for beautiful photos.  There are many, many plants where butterflies will feed:  Hibiscus and Echinacea, Aralia and crape myrtles, petunias and zinnias, cosmos and Rudbeckia.

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Chives

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We never tire of watching them.  We make a point to have pots and baskets of their favorites around the house where we can observe them from inside, and often pause near the windows to enjoy them for a few moments.  Butterflies speak to wild beauty and the inevitable cycles of nature.

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It is one of those koans of nature to realize both their fragility and their enormous strength.  They travel on incredibly long annual migrations and  survive in the face of perilous odds.

I appreciate them as a manifestation of living wabi-sabi– a fragile, fleeting beauty that we must appreciate in the eternal now, knowing full well that in an instant, they will fly away.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

*  *

“To Taoism that which is absolutely still or absolutely perfect is absolutely dead,
for without the possibility of growth and change
there can be no Tao.
In reality there is nothing in the universe
which is completely perfect or completely still;
it is only in the minds of men
that such concepts exist.”
.
Alan W. Watts

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