black wings & imagination

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I pay some attention, as is necessary, to calendar pages turning. I pay more attention when unique and valuable phenomena happen before my eyes. So I give you the Black Swallowtail—or possibly, the Spicebush Swallowtail. I'm no lepidopterist so I can't quite be sure which exact kind it was that buzzed me repeatedly before circling to land on a parsley flower. I didn't care what it was called. I felt something turn.

This is physical, not metaphysical. I was aware of time moving, of summer advancing, because of this experience. Phenomena are what we perceive with our senses. They are distinct from imagined things, though I can't stress enough how phenomena catalyze imagination, if you teach yourself a certain attention to them. 

I've been in the garden almost every day for five weeks. Sometimes I spend 20 minutes; more often I spend hours, even half a day. June on the Front Range has been rough—early hailstorms pulverized young gardens, then a scorching heat wave set the waiting drought aflame. Literally. Five days of temps over 100F, cresting twice at 105F, marked Denver's worst heat wave on record. Then scattered storms flicked a few lightning bolts into dry forests and the state caught fire—huge, hungry, capricious fires that tens thousands of people have fled and fought—and are still fighting as I write.

Unlike some Coloradans, I've escaped the worst of this disaster. My challenge has been to tolerate the smoky air and relentless heat that stress both garden and gardener. Judicious drip irrigation and supplemental watering by hand have given the garden a fighting chance to recover from hailstorms and thrive in the heat. Mulched beds conserve soil moisture and along with regular weeding, eliminate the need for herbicides. Beneficial bugs clean out the pests. So it is this well established organic garden is a mini-ecosystem supporting overall biodiversity, and at high summer, it virtually shimmers with activity at every level—soil, stalk, and blossom. That's the best response I can muster to the harsh climate and conditions.

Organic gardening necessarily suggests delicious produce. And it should. But there are other layers to the experience, and some of them fly. 

I was tying up tomatoes vines this morning when a new butterfly wandered in. The calendar has turned to July, so I reminded myself, and here was a new arrival. I had my camera in my pocket so I quickly took a few shots and stepped back—and at that very moment felt a second large butterfly, a Swallowtail, whiffle by my ear and then dart past my face. 

Transient

Exhilarating. That's the only word for the sensation as the counter-movements of the two large butterflies focused my attention. The Swallowtail alighted for only brief moments, then was off again, vigorously circling the garden round several times, finishing with a long, great glide over the beds to land on a tall stalk of parsley at the very center of it all. There was attitude in this amazing aerial display, brilliant in light, color, and motion.

These phenomena—the heat on my skin and in my lungs, the sensation of the Swallowtail flying so close, the vision of its flight against the green and flowering plants—are utterly and entirely available in the realm of physical. I had to create the environment in which they occur. That includes my attention, which I must bring to focus, something I'd call a discipline of many years' practice. So part of this is receptivity, cultivated and present for the phenomenon.

The payoff for me is creativity and imagination. So, first, create the garden.

Imagine its very physical elements into being by planning, working, cultivating. Engage imagination with the real, and then enjoy the results. For the gardener and foodie, the literal fruits of labor are certainly tangible, but I am easily as pleased by those moments of utter surprise, when clarity opens and I experience phenomena intensely, in amazement.

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Imagine its very physical elements into being by planning, working, cultivating. Engage imagination with the real, and then enjoy the results. For the gardener and foodie, the literal fruits of labor are certainly tangible, but I am easily as pleased by those moments of utter surprise, when clarity opens and I experience phenomena intensely, in amazement.

For example, look very closely here and you can see the eyes peering down toward the lower right corner of the image. Then, see the whole body like a leaf, scalloped sunlight on its high edge.

It takes vast stretches of time for a creature like this to evolve and perfect its camouflage. For a sense of scale, the bug's leafy body is about the circumference of a grape. I've never seen one in my garden before, and wouldn't have seen this one had it not caught my eye is it flew into the shady middle of a bushy Feverfew plant.

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It takes vast stretches of time for a creature like this to evolve and perfect its camouflage. For a sense of scale, the bug's leafy body is about the circumference of a grape. I've never seen one in my garden before, and wouldn't have seen this one had it not caught my eye is it flew into the shady middle of a bushy Feverfew plant.

Chaucer famously wrote, "The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne," but this insect comes readily adapted to its craft. So we come again to words; our bodies don't resemble leaves but in a trade-off I'm willing to accept, they are adapted to using language for expression—the brain makes sense of what the larynx utters. Teach a child to speak, as many of us do, and you come to new understandings of all this. Consider how thousands of years of speech gave rise to pictographs and finally text.

If you're reading this, and you're a writer, know yourself. Cultivate your body's receptivity to phenomena because you are fully wired for words in response.

Language allows us something more than observation, even as it requires it. The green of a sweat bee, metallic and beautiful in bright sun, dazzles us and in that instant we come to our senses—we come to our senses—and we go further to write about it.  The scientist creates by observation and testing. The dancer translates and recreates through movement. The poet and writer has words, their sounds, shapes, and meanings, as a most marvelous response to phenomena.

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