When You Look Closely at Your Own Front Yard

Dispatch from Little Rock

WHEN WE MOVED into our house in the late spring, there was a large shrubby flower, orange and pink and purple, just off the north side of the porch. I didn’t know its name—my botany has always been rudimentary—but friends and neighbors told me it was a lantana, a cultivated species, but also a native one in these parts.

Over the summer, ours grew huge, spilling into the yard, standing over 3 feet high and 6 feet across. It was the head turner of our yard, the place where our attention was drawn as the bursting multitudes of the flowers’ petals refracted the light in varied wavelengths. Before the flowers faded with the first freezes of fall, my daughters, ages 2 and 5, made a habit of offering flowers to departing guests, pulling at the petals to pour the colorful mix over their heads or our heads, or the black hairy body of our dog. I worried at first about the girls’ generosity with the blooms, but it seemed only to have a pruning effect—the plant grew more and dominated our small yard.

More than simply an object of play and beauty, as the seasons have passed, this plant has become a miniature menagerie for us, playing host to birds and butterflies and insects of all kinds. There was a female ruby-throated hummingbird that would visit the shrub every morning through the summer, dipping into the small clusters of flowers. She seemed to be a shimmer from a parallel world, the speed of her wings a hint of some fold in space-time. When she was spotted, there was always a rush to the window, each appearance a moment of common awe.

Of all the animals that made the lantana home—toads, slugs, hatchling kingsnakes—the butterflies came in the greatest abundance and variety. Large and small, they arrived as soon as we could feel the radiant light of the sun on our skin, uncurling their proboscises to dip into the colorful sugar lures of the flowers. In the constant stream of visitors, the flower became a school for our seeing.

When I was around 10, I began learning to identify birds at a bird feeder. It was from there that my knowledge grew, and I began to explore the birds that were farther afield, my skills growing and coupling with what became an obsession. Now the lantana is serving this same purpose—a place that gathers the butterflies of my neighborhood so I can begin to learn their names before going to see the rarer breeds, those that don’t visit urban flowering shrubs. I have been joined in this classroom by my 5-year-old daughter, who can now identify nearly as many butterflies as I can, correctly pointing them out to her astonished mother—“Look, Momma, a Gulf fritillary!” Given that Lillian can identify all of the My Little Pony characters in silhouette, I suspected she’d be more than capable of learning her butterflies. Watching and identifying them have become activities we share.

Of all the species we’ve identified in our yard—fiery skippers, common buckeyes, checkered skippers, painted ladies, hackberry emperors and other common quarries—the most frequent visitor has been the bright-orange Gulf fritillary, a common sight in the Southeastern United States. Though I’ve lived in its range most of my life, the first time I noticed the butterfly was this past summer. I was birding with my friend Bill Shepherd around the flooded fields of a wildlife refuge, looking for the shorebirds that migrate through here. Bill is 80 and has been an avid naturalist all of his life. He knows birds, trees, plants and butterflies, as well as interesting bits about German etymology and the proper pronunciation of bayou (which follows the rules of old French).

While we watched black-necked stilts bobbing along on the mud, Bill spotted a few Gulf fritillaries chasing each other over the ditches of the wildlife refuge. They are an orange butterfly, easily mistaken, by anyone not paying attention, for a monarch. Slightly brighter than those of their cousins,  the tops of their wings are speckled with black dots rather than bold veining lines. On the underside of their hind wings, they have large silver white dots like rain on a windshield. With a few good looks, I began to see them everywhere flying through the neighborhood, half a dozen of them in my front yard at any given time.

Bill told me that with all of the Gulf fritillaries in my yard, there must be passion flower nearby, the larval plant for their caterpillars. As I said, I don’t know my plants well, so Bill brought some leaves and fruit over for me to see, suggesting that I plant some. As I went to place some seeds in my front garden beds, I realized that we already had it growing everywhere around the house, two species, in fact: purple passion flower and yellow passion flower. They run along the side of my house, creep through untended garden beds and trellis up the shrubs in my backyard. In the late summer and fall, the vines fruit with dangling globes that turn from green to purple. They are edible, I’m told, but the berry tastes like grass, a seedy chlorophyll—nothing I’d want to snack on. The name of the flower comes from 16th-century Spanish missionaries who used it to tell the story of Christ’s passion, like St. Patrick using a shamrock to explain the mysteries of the Trinity to the Irish.

Shortly after discovering the passion flower vines, my daughters and I found a strange caterpillar, orange with black spikes, crawling across the door of our basement. It looked more suited to a kinky dungeon than a domestic backyard, but an internet image search quickly confirmed my suspicions—it was a Gulf fritillary caterpillar, no doubt headed for the passion flower vine nearby.

One morning, I went to start the faucet to water our cool-season vegetable garden and saw, just beneath the eave of the house, a Gulf fritillary that had emerged from its chrysalis. Its body dripped with liquid, the cracked shell of its transformation hanging above it. My daughters came and squatted beside me, watching it wait to join the fray.

That same morning, as the day began to warm, I saw what looked like a strange butterfly settled on the straw. As I came near to it, I realized it was actually two Gulf fritillaries, hind wings folded together as a kind of cover to the coitus beneath. Again, my daughters joined me, close down by the ground, not sure of the mechanics but understanding that these butterflies were making more.

Wendell Berry once wrote that “the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.” I’ve been on this journey here, going down rather than out. One many-petaled plant has become a focal point that has opened up my seeing. And from that space, I have been opened to a whole ecology happening in my yard, the life cycle of a butterfly that reminds me of how much more must be going on here, how much more is happening than I could ever know in a lifetime.

By giving my attention to this plant and following its multitude of blooms, the tangled strands of its branches, I have found myself engaged in a kind of prayer. It is not the kind of prayer that comes with words, but rather it is a prayer with an icon—an image, a point of focus that opens my vision to the miraculous world beyond the mundane. By looking at the lantana and all the fluttering realities around it, I have not simply observed something had my vision transformed. I now see every passing shrub of holly, every towering oak, as an opening to the very world in which I live but have not even begun to recognize. What life lives in and on and from this tree? What eggs are laid among its branches? Whose bodies feed the roots? I do not yet have the eyes to see it all or the understanding to realize what I’m seeing, but I will sit and look, waiting for the image to give way to the reality beyond it.

Ragan Sutterfield is a writer and Episcopal priest in Little Rock. His work has appeared in a variety of magazines from the Oxford American to Men’s Journal. His most recent book is Wendell Berry and the Given Life. Ragan enjoys discovering and cultivating the beauty of the world with his wife, Emily, and daughters, Lily and Lucia.