Yellow swallowtail butterflies always make me happy. I happened to witness two of them dancing in the air above the flowers in my front yard, swirling about. I like to imagine that they are as happy as they make me feel.
When I was very little, I one day found a yellow swallowtail butterfly that was either injured, or more likely, simply deformed. One wing was misshapen and the poor creature was unable to fly. I went inside and told my mother and we found an old shoebox. Into it, we placed a bunch of grass and a flower and then eased the butterfly in.
For the next several weeks, perhaps more than a month, we cared for that butterfly. We gave it flowers and water laced with sugar. It was fascinating to watch it unroll its proboscis, a long tube like a water pipe, with which it would then suck up nectar or water. Doubtless it survived longer in captivity under our care than it would have in the wild, where it would doubtless have become a quick snack for some bird.
When the butterfly inevitably died toward the end of summer, my mom and I carefully buried it in our back yard. Our back yards, in all the various places we lived as my family was transferred from place to place at the whim of the U.S. Air Force, were a fascinating places for a me. My mom always had a great love for animals and birds. I remember how we would buy loaves of bread and bird seeds and then turn a selected spot in the back yard into a bird cafeteria. In Oklahoma, we especially loved watching the antics of the blue jays. They were noisy and aggressive creatures, but funny just the same. They’d stuff their beaks so full of bread that half the time it would all fall out when they leapt into the sky. Then they’d take parts of their haul, what they didn’t lose, and they’d bury it in spots about the yard—as if bread would taste better after a few weeks in the ground—or that they even needed to worry about saving some for later given the years of regular feedings that they got from my mom and me.
Also in Oklahoma, behind my backyard, was a field and small wooded area with a stream. Besides building forts in the ravines and tree houses in the trees, I spent endless time by the stream and the small pond that it flowed into. In the quiet spots of the stream, I commonly found crayfish—what some people called crawdads. My dad remembered gathering them as a boy back in Ohio. In the pond, I found tiny black tadpoles, their heads no bigger than an unpopped grain of popcorn. I gathered several and kept them in a fishbowl. Most of them would die, but on occasion a few survived, eating the fish food I sprinkled into the bowl. Slowly, their hind legs would pop out, and then some while after, for the even smaller percentage that were still alive, I’d find them with front legs as well. Then the tail would slowly disappear and I’d be left with tiny frogs not much larger than the tadpoles I’d started with. Not long after that they’d disappear, having escaped the bowl and hopped away. I found a desiccated carcass once under our couch.
Once in awhile in the pond I’d spot tiny silver fish, not much longer than my thumb. I managed to catch a couple once and kept them in the fish tank with my tropical fish. At some point growing up my parents gave me a nice fifteen gallon aquarium. The fish survived in that far better than the numberless gold fish had ever managed in those old fish bowls you could buy at Woolworths.
My favorite fish in my fish tank were the orange swordtails, primarily because one day I was startled to discover that the female had given birth to babies: tiny versions of herself with large eyes who hid among the floating plants. Like guppies, swordtails give birth to live young. I found the swordtails survived and prospered far better than just about any other fish that I’d ever had. And none of the other fish I got ever gave birth to anything or ever laid eggs—until one day when someone gave me a pair of convict cichlids—a sort of fish related to angel fish. Not only did they lay eggs, they cared for them carefully until they hatched, and then watched over their offspring with as much care as a cat might give its kittens. Not at all like the swordtails, who always tried to consume their offspring and succeeded in most cases.
Even today, I still keep an aquarium filled with fish; and outside, I still enjoy watching the birds and the butterflies dance.