At the dead end of South Town Line Road where the trail head for the Sedge Meadow is, I was greeted by a Mourning Cloak butterfly, who zoomed by me to rest in the sun-warmed sand, and who, by the time I had unzipped and un-velcroed my camera case, was gone, flying up and away into the woods.
As was my slog through the Sedge Meadow. Which I later learned is a rare example of a naturally occurring wetland. It’s going to be swampy for some time, maybe until the end of summer. With my somewhat more waterproof Sorrel boots, I made it to the trees on the other side of the meadow. But the trail was still a river and my boots were full of water, so after an hour of staggering in boot-sucking mud, I turned back.
I have peered into some of that standing water and have not been able to discern mosquito larvae wriggling about in it, but I bet they’re there, and were I to return there later this summer, I’m sure they’ll be happy to sink their nasty little proboscises into me.
I stopped for a while at the MacDonald Flowage to watch the swans, geese, and ducks there, but then I moved to the more remote 80 Acre Flowage where, about a mile along the trail toward it, I saw another Mourning Cloak butterfly. I did manage to get a quick picture from a distance just so I could confirm his or her identity. He was very quickly on his way, flying up high among the trees and then coming back down to the trail. He did this over and over again.
I was getting hungry. Having walked three hours without seeing a flower anywhere, I wondered what in the world Mourning Cloaks eat. Maybe he cracked out of his chrysalis too early and was destined to die.
I should know by now not to question God’s providential ordering of Creation. Mourning Cloaks do not often visit flowers for sustenance. They sip sap instead, preferring oak sap, thank you very much, and sweet, rotting, fallen fruit, two things readily available during the times of year when they are most active: spring and fall. Mourning Cloaks are among the first butterflies to appear in the spring, because they often “overwinter.” Yes, even in Wisconsin. So the rising sap seeping from any tree winter had torn a limb is all Mourning Cloak males need to keep flying up and down to try to attract the attention of as many females as they can. The females can then lay as many eggs as they can near the buds of elms, poplars, and willows, the favorite food of their larvae. To twist an adage a bit: the early worm gets the bud.
When summer comes, Mourning Cloaks aestivate or become dormant until the fall, when they come back to battle bees for fallen fruit to bulk up for winter or for migration to somewhat warmer climes. German Mourning Cloaks apparently head for Greece. Some Wisconsin Mourning Cloaks do overwinter; they hibernate, so they can mate immediately in spring. Yes, Mourning Cloaks hatched in spring, live until the next spring, sometimes a whole year, one of the longest life spans among all butterflies.
All this I never knew, though I did know the Mourning Cloak as soon as I saw him: there’s a visual imprint in my mind of the Mourning Cloak in the Golden Nature Guides that were my Bible growing up. Mourning Cloaks populate the entire Northern Hemisphere. Their name in Northern European languages all witness to the fact that they’ve always been known by the attire one would have worn long ago to a funeral. Mourning Cloaks are mostly black.
Except for a fringe of yellow, lacey trim around all but the top of their wings – yellow trim bordered by bright blue spots. The British entomologist L. Hugh Newman decided that though the Mourning Cloak is dressed appropriately for a time of grieving, there is that yellow and bright blue trim. To him the trim looked like a gaily-colored dress appearing from beneath her dreary cloak, which to him meant she was quite impatient for the time of mourning to be up.
We’re also impatient for this time of mourning to be over. We’re tired of hearing about viruses ambushing people and drowning them in waterlogged lungs. We’re tired of social distancing and isolation. But these butterflies mate with their Mourning Cloaks on, reminding us that as disheartening as it is that life is as fragile as the wing of a butterfly, life is, at the same time, as beautiful as the wing of a Mourning Cloak. They strive to preserve life on days when the ground the next day could very well be covered by a pall of spring snow. We pray gratefully for all those life preservers out there who, for all we know, might be at our side one day, monitoring our progress in a fight against a dread disease.