Of Monarchs and Pawpaws
One summer at The Lake (meaning, Marble Lake in Quincy, Michigan, where we summered in rented cottages since I was eight. We’ll come back to that in a future post—lots of great stories there), I don’t recall how old I was, but definitely young adult-ish and filled with the college experience, I spent the night on our boat dock watching an orb weaver spin it’s web from start to finish. I had that kind of time then. I saw her connect each singular strand and silken filament into a sticky wheel-shaped work of gossamer art, and then settle all eight legs and a round body into the web’s center, suspended over the water between two dock posts. And wait.
I’m sure I napped more than slept that night (a thin sleeping bag and a throw pillow from the couch were not even in the neighborhood of plush), taking out my pocket flashlight ever so often to see if she’d caught anything, hearing the occasional and sudden splash of a fish, and crickets that had no sense of the word “intermission” during their ratchety symphony. When I dragged myself up the hill around 4:00am to use the facilities, it was with a sense of real outdoors woman pride that my bladder and I had made it that far into the night undisturbed. But I kept my head in a humble place as I realized I’d never work as hard for a single meal in my life as that spider had, and sent up a silent promise to refrain from complaining about “all the prep” involved in making a simple salad. I’d just been schooled by a creature most of us fear will crawl up the leg of our pants and kill us with a single tiny bite. Sometimes we just don’t get it.
Fast forward to this afternoon and our friends’ invitation to join them gathering pawpaws at their friends’ place about a half hour away. Could we be ready by 12:30? We were game for sure, having never eaten, much less gathered, pawpaws (it’s worth noting that two-plus hours away, our state’s annual pawpaw festival had ended and its planners were most likely still taking down the tent canopies over the makeshift food court next to the campgrounds). When we arrived at their friends’ home, a lovely eight-acre retreat just off a two-lane connector between a couple of larger townships, the lady of the land was beaming with excitement about a monarch butterfly chrysalis that hung from the railing of their deck. It was about to break free, it’s black and orange wings visible through the tight papery covering that held it fast. We clustered around the railing from a respectful distance as nothing happened (as far as we could tell. No doubt all sorts of soon-to-be butterfly momentum was building in its tiny captive heart), and then retreated carefully toward the creek where the pawpaws lived. Our friends, new and old, showed us how to give the thin saplings a quick shake as the fruits rained down upon our heads to the shaded ground beneath our feet. We snatched them up, sniffing the ripe ones to take in their almost-fermented aroma. I held onto one that was particularly soft, wishing I’d brought my pocket knife for peeling.
Our friends’ friends’ land was beautiful—a meandering and magical woods with a dry creek bed snaking through it, tall black walnuts sharing space with random pawpaw stands, mature cherry trees and the odd dead ash leaning against a tolerant pine. We’d gathered more fruits than any of us world be able to eat by week’s end, and made our way back to the house for shared plates of mild cheddar and homemade artisan seeded bread. We checked the chrysalis on the porch—nothing had changed. The ripe pawpaw I’d been carrying had a small nick at one end; my friend started peeling it so I could take a bite. It was creamy and sweet, like a buttery mango-y banana, and I ate it down to where the peel started again, still without my pocket knife. No matter—I had just enough thumbnail to keep undressing it, plucking out the flat brown seeds and sucking them clean. I tried to join in the conversation happening on either side of me, but kept getting lost in the delicious task at hand. I hoped I didn’t come off as rude or aloof, just absorbed.
Until…I glanced up, no apparent reason, and saw black and orange wings slide out in one gentle movement from the chrysalis hanging from the deck railing and pointed with one sticky hand. “Look! It’s free!” Bread and cheese and pawpaws forgotten, we got up from our lawn chairs as one and tiptoed to the porch to see this fresh transformation unfold its wet and delicate wings to the gentlest of breezes.
Another first in less than an hour.
In the time between my midnight web spinning vigil at The Lake and today’s monarch miracle, I’ve sat front and center to myriad other wonders, laying my head to rest those nights with a gratitude that sank into my dreams. I know what it is to be awed, to lift my gaze upward as my jaw drops, the architecture of the human head naturally assuming the “amazed” position whenever we look at the Milky Way or the clouds, or the colorful bursts of fireworks. I may not recall the full details, but I am anchored in the feelings they summoned forth, and it’s that affect that watched a monarch butterfly come into existence this afternoon as I licked my pawpaw-sticky fingers clean.
Sometimes, dear friends, life’s wonder is a simple matter of showing up and paying attention once you get there.