It’s not the wings themselves

Monarch butterflies land on branches at Monarch Grove Sanctuary in Pacific Grove, Calif., Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. On Thursday, July 21, 2022, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature said migrating monarch butterflies have moved closer to extinction in the past decade – prompting scientists to officially designate them as “endangered.” (AP Photo/Nic Coury, File)

In the fall of 1972 or 1973, when I was 9 or 10, the monarch butterflies were making their way to Mexico. I was fortunate enough to see the daytime sky as densely dotted with them, it seems, as with the stars at night out at our beach house on Fire Island, New York.

I remember it was cold. Cold and rainy. This made each monarch’s air travel much like flying a 3-inch wet Kleenex. For, you see, the monarch butterfly itself is the small creature carried along on those wings, not the wings themselves. We see the latter, but it is the former that must make the long journey.

One morning I awoke and went to the beach. Wearing corduroy pants and a cable knit sweater Mom had made, with a matching one for my younger brother, Jim. I probably wore a white turtleneck. The shirt was probably clean, since Mom kept it that way despite young boys’ proclivities to soil them making forts or fighting off enemies with imaginary guns or tree branches for broad swords. Jim might have even been with me.

As the previous day’s sky had been speckled with these marvelous creatures, so now the beach on this drizzly morning was littered with those orange and brown wings. Some still attached, some detached or tattered.

I walked along and grew sad. I picked up four butterflies that were intact and seemed like maybe they were just knocked unconscious. I carefully transported them — I don’t recall how — and then placed them on the ledge of our second-floor balcony, facing the sun in the south and shielded from the stiff north wind. I monitored them. Waiting for their wings to dry so they could journey on.

The next day, I checked the ledge and three of the four were missing. “They must have dried and flown away,” I told myself.

Mom helped me identify and then write to the Fire Island National Seashore office and report to whichever man was in charge that I had successfully rescued three monarch butterflies from the recent storm, even though I’d lost one. I don’t recall if he wrote back. I do recall that I was still sad about that one.

I wrote up that story as an article for the first edition of a newsletter I’d launch the next spring. The publication had articles (news and also features), poetry and cartoons I had lifted from Highlights Magazine. I offered it to subscribers, and my grandmother became its sole patron. Not enough, I’m sorry to report, to keep it in the black, so I had to shutter it a month later.

The homeowners’ association where we live here in the Texas Hill Country has created a small monarch butterfly “layover station,” for lack of a better phrase. It’s a split-rail enclosed area of probably 75 feet by 35 feet not far from the main road leading into the development. Karen and I often remark that we wished it was a dog run.

Perhaps what little allure it holds for me is about potential, not actual.

Learning to read

You’d think that the one ingredient you wouldn’t forget to put in a homemade pumpkin pie is the pumpkin filling itself. Right? It’s a bit like saying you’re a lawyer who didn’t go to law school, rendering you a yer. Or a merry-go-round without any merriment, which becomes a nauseating spin cycle. Or cotton candy without the cotton or the candy, which looks like a confused kid holding a thin white cone upside down.

My first pumpkin pie left me a confused Yer lacking anything close to merriment. My second attempt redeemed me, since I’d learned by then how to read.

You’ll notice that on each one, the crusts came out roughly the same. The recipe I used was given to me by a coworker in ~2004–a coworker who’d raised four kids and had made roughly 532 pies, most of them pumpkin. That’s an exaggeration to make my point: she knew how to make a good crust. And I had only ever asked her about apple pies, since that type was common in New England in the fall, during apple picking season. In fact, I made three pies at once that year using her crust recipe, because we had recently picked so many apples from Honey Pot Hill Orchards. It was that year that Bennett, still a toddler and with my help, would pick an apple and then, when I wasn’t paying attention, take a single bite and drop it on the ground. I’m sure half a peck met this fate.

Anyhow, Anne (my coworker) trained me to use shortening for the crust instead of butter, and to roll out the dough only once. If any dough tore, you were to simply and gently pat it back in place and use a little more flour. I actually have made all my pies using this crust recipe. (I did once bake with a store-bought crust and felt guilty.) My mother-in-law last night confirmed also that for most of her pies, like a lemon merengue, she’d brown the crust first before putting in the filling, but for a pumpkin pie she’d put the filling into the raw crust and bake it. She’s also made closer to 1,000 pies, since she’s raised not four kids as Anne had, but five.

Back to the pie filling.

The directions on the Libby’s pie filling can are fairly clear. (I say “fairly” because that adverb makes a distinction between the manufacturer’s professional recipe writers and my ability to listen to them. P.S.: Though it modifies “clear,” “fairly” here is an adverb of degree, not an adjective. I looked it up so that while my reading skills might be failing, my defensive Google skills are still rapier-like.) The directions say, “Stir in pumpkin…” and, yet, I completely overlooked this, because I was reading the can while it laid on its side, assuming a posture of not wanting to be opened. My hands were otherwise occupied opening the evaporated milk and mixing in the dry ingredients. Later, when I criticized Libby’s instead of worrying about my own side of the street, I would even claim they forgot to tell me to add the evaporated milk. (Of course I added the milk, because–pshaw!–who wouldn’t, right?!) I read over the recipe three times and confirmed each time that they forgot the milk step. I was ready to call the Customer Service line to graciously inform them of the omission, but when taking these photos before writing this, I noticed that the milk instructions were right after the pumpkin instructions. I had added the dry ingredients because I saw them mentioned, and I added the milk because that was listed up top (yes, yes, as the pumpkin was, too), and the cans were sitting in front of me. The Libby’s can was sleeping face down. Of course I’d miss that! Anyone would.

In the end (of both tries) the cross section of pie looked quite different:

The first one went into the trash, and it slid nicely off the pie plate, since I’d made the crust so well.