When the weekend chores and errands are done and there are some unscheduled moments to fill before the dinner hour’s kitchen contra dance begins, Kate and I often end up on the back terrace in a state of recumbent sloth on a couple of long chairs, sipping whatever beverage we’ve been fantasizing about in our garden labors. And we look at the sky.
The broad sweep of blue framed by the proscenium of treetops and our cap brims rolls out to the southeast, where at that hour of the day high, silent airliners bound from JFK and LaGuardia to Heathrow traverse the slo-mo swirls of horsetail clouds. We speak of nothing in particular and everything in general in this mind-wandering phase of the day. And as if to etch the illegible signatures of two weary householders on a pact with a quiet evening, a yellow swallowtail butterfly jitters its way from some unseen place beyond the peak of the house to the bending blossoms of a buddleia looming near the kitchen door.
In the summer, butterflies of all stripes mob the buddleia, more commonly known as the butterfly bush. At this time of year, the panicles of its blossoms are thick with small tubular flowers, which like champagne flutes in the aftermath of a wedding reception, have a bit of fragrant nectar left in the bottom. These dregs are irresistible to foraging pollinators, especially moths and butterflies, which have apparatus extraordinarily well-suited for imbibing at this shrub– and for pollinating it. They drink through a proboscis, which is in two parts when they first emerge from the chrysalis. The two parts soon fuse to form a central canal between them – a drinking straw of sorts, perfect for the deep chalices of summer’s flora.
Darwin’s great insights about evolution detailed how plants and animals bumped along the path to survival together, pushing some life forms over the edge to extinction, and propelling others through mutual advantage to secure an enduring foothold on the planet. His understanding of the process gave Darwin the confidence to predict in 1862 the existence of a moth with a foot-long proboscis. He based this on his observations of comet orchids from Madagascar, which had nectaries 11½ inches long. He surmised that if a suitable pollinator did not exist, neither would the orchid. Entomologists of the time scoffed at the idea. No moth with such a preposterous proboscis had ever been seen or documented anywhere in the world.
Darwin died in 1882, 21 years before the rest of the world came to accept what he knew to be true. A subspecies of Morgan’s Sphinx Moth with a proboscis long enough to reach the nectar of a comet orchid was finally discovered in 1903 – on the island of Madagascar. They called it Xanthopan morganii preadicta – The Predicted Moth.
I wish sometimes that my own mind wanderings were as prescient and productive as Darwin’s. Geniuses, however, aren’t known for their recumbent sloth, which would be the thing that would bring me fame if so many people weren’t already so good at it. But there is something to be said for “being there,” attentive and aware, as the natural world goes about the business of survival. Even if you only have that dinner-hour drink in hand – rather than Darwin’s famous notebook – watching a blossom bow to its pollinating partner provides a telling glimpse of life’s tenacious hold on eternity. You may not be a genius, but you should still raise the glass in celebration.