Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Consider the Buckeye

One of the benefits of a childhood spent reading everything that was remotely within my reach is that I can now dazzle (and bore, and annoy) my grandchildren with my knowledge of the natural world. I bring them what we call “treasures” – fossils, minerals, shark jaws, stuff I find on the ground.

So I was thinking of them when on a downtown Dallas sidewalk, I spied what looked like a leaf, but which I knew was not. It was a butterfly with its wings folded up, only its dull brown underwings visible. It was not dead, but it was not at all well. I was able to pick it up by its wings, and was rewarded with the sight of the beautiful wings of a buckeye – my favorite butterfly from all those years ago, narrowly edging out the mourning cloak. 

Buckeyes are not extremely rare, but they are hard for casual strollers to notice because they’re usually on the fly, and they’re mostly brown – they’re not distinctive, and barely visible, when they’re on the move.  One of my childhood recollections is being amazed by its beauty in my triple-digit rereadings of Herbert S. Zim's Golden Nature Guide for "Insects," and one day seeing a nondescript brown butterfly whiz by.  I stuck out my net and -- I couldn't believe it -- a buckeye.  It was like accidentally bumping into a celebrity in line at the grocery store.

I didn’t have any way to transport the buckeye, but I decided if it were still there when I came back from where I was going, I would take it back to the office.  Turns out, it was, so I put it in the bag with my purchase. I wasn’t seriously impacting biodiversity here. The insect was obviously in distress – I suspect it was hit by a car and simply stunned beyond recovery. It wasn’t going to last long on that sidewalk. It would either roast, or a bird would get it. It flapped when I picked up, but showed no interest in flying away. I took it back and put it on an Aeron side chair, pretty confident that it would not fly away, and it didn’t. I sent out an email to the firm for people to come see, and it had a number of curious admirers. It expired about a day later. I kept it and brought it home for the grandboys, who were politely impressed. Here it is:

This little shot doesn’t do justice to its beauty. I have a point I want to make about the buckeye and about the world, but I need to show you a more accurate portrait of the creature.

Look at those colors. Even this better shot doesn’t do justice to the depth of the midnight blues and purples, the cocoa brown, and those amazing burnt orange sergeant’s stripes.  Look at this remarkable combination:

So I wonder whether you have the same thought about them that I do: They’re perfect. They don’t offend the eye, just the opposite – they’re delightful, they’re in harmony, they’re not fighting with one another despite their distance from one another on the spectrum.

And that got me to thinking, so let me invite you to consider along with me: Think of the most colorful, wildly piebald living thing you can imagine. I’m thinking of the wildest koi I’ve seen in my recent koi education. I think of the coral reef creatures I watch on those documentaries on the teevee. Any number of blooms. Jungle birds. Can you think of a single one that leaves you with the same impression you get when you see someone wearing mismatched colors? Some of us have better color sense than others, and I am sadly among the others (although I’m getting better under The Memsahib’s tutelage).   So I address some of the more discerning among you:  Have you ever seen a color scheme in nature that displeased your eye?

I suggest to you that this is not a result of sentimentality about nature – the feeling that if it’s “natural,” it must be beautiful – but because we connect instinctively with the world around us. That is, what our senses collect from the natural world define for us what “works” when we judge beauty that we have tried to create for ourselves.

It’s just a little buckeye, only a little more than an inch across. It met with some misfortune that put it in my path, unable to fly. Perhaps it doesn’t bear the weight of my mullings. But I thank it nonetheless; would like to assure it that its life acquired meaning as people who would never ever see a buckeye paused to admire it; and hope that it finds a place with the boys’ other treasures, at least until its colors fade and its scales slough away and it crumbles utterly, all as must come to pass in the natural world.

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  1. This has been the best fall in Nebraska. As I drive home from work each day, I am amazed by the colors in fall. Add a buckeye, and "I think to myself, what wonderful world". (Words and music by Robert Thiele and George Weiss, sung by Louis Armstrong)

  2. How beautifully eloquent. Thank you.

  3. i am amazed by your vast store of knowledge. your childhood reading has paid off!

    the october 2010 issue of the rotarian magazine features what they call a esplanade moth on its cover. it looks like your buckeye to me.

    what is your take on the cover? lh

  4. LH, I can't find a copy of the cover online (Google Books only has The Rotarian through December 2009 right now), but I'm guessing that what is portrayed is some kind of giant silk moth with "eyespots" similar to those of the buckeye. Something like an Io Moth or a Polyphemus Moth. They're much larger than our humble little buckeye. If you have a link for the cover, please send it along! Thanks.