The Naturalist in the City

by LEONARD DUBKIN

1

I WAS walking along Wacker Drive in Chicago one afternoon, when I saw a commotion of wings over the river, a diving, swooping, gliding mass of silent birds. It was a flock of terns, and they had discovered a school of minnows just beneath the surface of the water and were diving for them. I watched them for a few minutes from the street, and then decided to go down to the lower level of Wacker Drive, where I would be just above the water and closer to the birds.

Sitting on the cement pier beside the river I was so close to the terns as they flew by that I could see I heir little black eyes moving as they scanned the water; I could follow every movement of their wings and tails as they tipped their bodies with the beaks downward like the points of arrows and dived into the water; and I could see them pop up to the surface like corks, often with a little flapping glint of silver held tight in their beaks. They did not seem to mind my being there; they went about their fishing totally oblivious of my presence, as though I were some post that had suddenly sprouted on the pier.

There was a continuous circle of terns going around and around about four feet above the surface of the water, and from this circle there descended a rain of diving birds. As each diver popped up to the surface again he rose and joined the circling throng, to go around and around until he sighted another minnow. It was a riot of beating wings and falling bodies and swift, graceful action, but it all look place without a sound. After a time I turned around and was about to get up when I saw, in the dim light under the street, three huge rats dragging something along the ground. They were the largest rats I had ever seen, almost a foot long, and when I stared at the thing they were dragging, I saw that it was the carcass of a dead cat. They pulled it along the ground in a very workmanlike manner, with no frisking about or quarreling. When they came to a flight of stone steps leading up to the street level they stopped to rest, and soon two other rats came from behind the steps, and they all pulled the carcass under, the tail disappearing last like a snake going into a cave.

I sat watching the steps behind which they had disappeared, and soon they came out again, all five of them, holding their heads up and sniffing the air before moving forward. What furtive, slinking creatures of darkness rats are, I thought, and what feelings of disgust and loathing they induce in the mind of anyone watching them. It is no wonder that we hate them, that we have made their name synonymous with all that is low and dark and repulsive. Just to watch these rats moving about in the semi-darkness here under the street was enough to disgust one. There was nothing free or open or joyous about them; they ran forward a few steps with their bodies almost touching the ground, their long, thin tails dragging in the dirt, their heads low, then stopped to look about furtively and sniff the air. They lived in dark holes in the ground, ate carrion, refuse, garbage, anything they could get their paws on, and carried the germs of some of the most loathsome diseases known to man.

They were all standing together now, grouped around something on the ground. Suddenly one huge rat began running around in a circle, and the others fell in behind and followed him. Around and around they went, faster and faster, until I could no longer pick out the individual rats — they were just a blur of swiftly moving bodies. Then as suddenly as they had started they stopped, and they all stood with their heads together sniffing something on the ground. Now two of the rats sat up on their haunches and began boxing with their front paws, like a pair of miniature kangaroos in a circus. For a few seconds they jabbed at each other; then one of the pair fell over on his back, and when he had righted himself he ran toward the stops. The others followed, and soon they had all disappeared behind the steps.

I continued to sit there waiting for the rats to come out again. There had flashed through my mind, as I watched the blur of bodies going around and the two rats sitting on their haunches sparring, a quick, fleeting impression of something sweet and appealing, as though I were observing some shy woodland creatures at play. Could it be, I wondered, that man hold the rats in such contempt only because he did not understand them, because he had never observed them closely?

As I sat waiting for the rats to come out I saw a dark, shadowy figure moving slowly along the wall toward the steps. It was a little old woman, carrying a heavy black shopping bag in one hand. When she was beside the steps she put the shopping bag down on the ground, pursed her lips, and made an odd little squeaking noise. Immediately the five rats came running out from behind the steps. They climbed up on the shopping bag and tipped it over while the old woman looked down at them. I could see them dragging things out of the shopping bag and pulling them under the steps, though I could not make out what it was they were taking out. Finally the old woman bent down, and as she picked up her shopping bag I heard her say in a high, cracked voice, “That’s enough for you little rascals. Run along now.”

The old woman started to walk away with her shopping bag, and I got up and walked after her. When she heard my footsteps she looked back over her shoulder, and suddenly she started running in a queer, hobbling gait.

“Wait a minute,” I called after her. “Don’t run away. I only want to ask you something.”

She stopped running and stood beside the wall waiting for me, her head bowed down as though she expected me to beat her.

When I stood beside her I said, “I saw you feeding those rats, and I wondered what it was you were giving them.”

“ ‘Tain’t none of your business,” she said in the same high, cracked voice she had used in addressing the rats.

“Well, would you mind telling me why you feed the rats?”

“ ‘Cause there ain’t nobody else to feed them, that’s why. Everybody’s too busy feedin’ the pigeons and the squirrels and the sparrows to think about them poor little creatures. They got a right to live, ain’t they?”

“But don’t you know they carry diseases? All sorts of epidemics have started — ”

“ Yeah, that’s what everybody says. Now you go on about your business, young man, and let me go about mine.”

She turned and shuffled off along the wall with her shopping bag, and I stood watching her. She was definitely a psychopathic case, I decided. Imagine coming down here beneath the city to make friends of the enormous rats that lived here, and to feed them. There must be something wrong with anyone who would do that.

And yet she might not be crazy, at least no crazier than I myself was. As I sat watching those rats at play, I had caught that quick glimpse of some appealing quality in their natures. Could it be that this little old woman knew them so much better than I that she could see clearly what I only suspected? Perhaps she understood these rats, and found them more worthy of her affection than others found birds and squirrels and cats and dogs.

2

WHAT does the ordinary inhabitant of a big city, say a businessman or a storekeeper, think when he sees a butterfly hovering over some flower that grows beside the pavement? Does he wonder what kind of butterfly it is, or what its purpose is in lighting on the flower? Does he visualize the long months when this butterfly was a caterpillar and crawled about eating leaves, the weeks during which it hung quiescent under some twig as a chrysalis, and finally the ecstasy of breaking out of the hard covering and emerging in a new form, with a pair of thin, powdered wings to carry it aloft?

I do not believe such thoughts would occur to most city-dwellers when they see a butterfly, for if they did, if city people were curious about butterflies, or had any thoughts concerning them, they would follow a butterfly with their eyes, they would stop what they were doing for a quarter of a minute and watch it. But men and women in the city do not stop to watch a butterfly, or even to look after it for a few seconds as though they were aware of its existence. Little children, yes. A child will stare at a butterfly on a flower, then walk up and try to touch it. But I suppose as the child grows older he loses some of his natural curiosity about non-human things, and there comes a time when a butterfly might as well be a bit of paper blown up by the wind, for all the interest it arouses.

Of course, if a butterfly should interfere with something a man is doing, he will give it the honor of noticing it — perhaps he will even swear at it. A friend of mine who is a concert pianist had such an experience, and he told me about it afterward. He was engaged as soloist for one of the open-air symphony concerts held every summer in Grant Park. In the midst of a difficult passage in a Rachmaninoff concerto, a butterfly alighted on the keys at the bass end of the piano. My friend watched it out of the corner of his eye, hoping it would fly away before he had occasion to hit the key it was on. But it stood there, opening and closing its wings, apparently enjoying the music. Should he miss a few notes while he waved his hand to chase it away, or would it be better to leave it there until he came to the bass part? Suppose it did not fly away when his left hand came down to hit the key it stood on, and his finger became smeared with its juices? He became more and more nervous, and naturally he gave a wretched performance. Finally, of its own accord, the insect flew away, but by then the concerto had been irreparably ruined.

After the concert the conductor called my friend aside. “ What was the matter with you? ” he asked. “You were as nervous as a colt.” But my friend was too steeped in misery to try to explain.

“What kind of butterfly was it?” I asked.

“You know,” he said seriously, “that was the strange part of it. It was some rare kind, a butterfly I had never seen before.”

I asked him to describe it, and he did. Its wings were a dark purplish-brown, with yellow borders around the edges. I knew immediately it was a mourning cloak, a common butterfly abundant in the city all summer long. He had probably passed within a few feet of mourning cloaks resting on flowers dozens of times, they had often flown past him or over his head, and his gaze had frequently passed right over them as they rested on tree trunks, their wings outspread. But the only time he had ever actually seen one was when it stopped on the keys of his piano and ruined his concerto.

I suppose, though most people would doubt it, that there are as many different kinds of butterflies in the city as anywhere in the country. Unlike birds, which require a very specialized environment, butterflies can thrive wherever there are bushes or trees on which the caterpillars can feed, and a few flowers from which the adults can get an occasional sip of nectar. For this purpose the bushes in an empty lot or park, and the flowers planted in the spring to beautify a lawn or yard, are as good as anything in the country.

3

WHEN I was a boy I saved up three dollars and sent it to an Eastern firm for a price list of the butterflies they would buy. I was disappointed when the list came, for it was a mimeographed affair, with crude black-and-white drawings from which it was almost impossible to identify the different butterflies. Whenever I caught a butterfly that I thought might be rare (which, incidentally, was quite often) I would have to take it to the public library and identify it from the colored plates in one of the large nature books there, then come home and see if the Eastern firm wanted that particular species.

In all the years I went about the city stalking insects with my butterfly net, which was made from an old undershirt, a coat hanger, and a broomstick, I never succeeded in catching one that was included in the mimeographed price list. Even if I had caught one that had a price on its head, I doubt if the Eastern firm would have bought my specimen. In the front of their price list they gave very explicit instructions for killing, mounting, and shipping specimens to them; and I killed my insects by squeezing their thoraxes, mounted them on a plain board with pins, and probably would have shipped them in some unorthodox fashion, so that when they arrived they would have been minus an antenna or part of a wing.

The mimeographed price list was divided into three parts: first the instructions, then the crude drawings of butterflies with a brief description of each, and in the back a list of all the names, with the price that would be paid for each. These prices ranged from a few cents for some species up to two hundred dollars for a butterfly found, the description said, only in the jungles of South America. While I had little hope of ever capturing a twohundred-dollar butterfly (there was always the possibility, of course, that one might some day wander north), there were some species native to the United States which brought as much as fifty dollars, and it was the thought of these fifty-dollar butterflies that sent me out on each week-end hunt with high hopes of returning with a fortune in my little cigar box.

Only once did I even see a butterfly that was shown in the price list. I had taken my butterfly net and cigar box for specimens up to the north side of Chicago, near Lawrence Avenue. The outer drive along the lake had not yet been built, and the mile or so between Sheridan Road and the lake was one huge empty field. That is, it was empty of houses or other human structures — for me it was more full of life and interest and even opportunities for great financial rewards (see the fifty-dollar butterflies in the price list) than the mile of land downtown where the skyscrapers stood. There were a few trees, some bushes, but mostly it was an open field where plants became entangled, wound themselves about each other, and pushed and shoved their way upward toward the sun; where wildflowers vied with each other for the attention of insects that might fertilize their seeds, opening out brilliantly colored petals and perfuming the air with their scent; where myriads of insects flew and hopped and crawled about above and on and under the ground — empty field, indeed !

After an hour of hunting, my cigar box began to be full of specimens, but it was all run-of-themill stuff — a monarch, two red admirals, a few sulphurs, two little skippers, and some cabbage butterflies — nothing to get excited about. Then as I trudged through the field, my butterfly net held ready in my hand, the cigar box under my other arm, there flew by over my head a vision of such rare loveliness that my heart began to pound with excitement. It was a butterfly I had never seen before, larger than a monarch, all yellow and black, with tails on its hind wings. I raced after it halfway across the field before it stopped on a clump of phlox; then I crept cautiously up behind it. Now I could plainly make out the large yellow wings striped with black, the two long yellow tails depending from its hind wings. It was a tiger swallowtail, and — wonder of wonders — it was listed in the price list! I could not remember how much the Eastern firm would pay for each tiger swallowtail — that was in the back of the book — but I remembered seeing the description of it, and as I looked at it now, at the large brilliant wings, the long tails, and the black body, I was sure it must be worth a substantial sum.

It is a little embarrassing to picture myself at so young an age thinking only of what this butterfly was worth in the market, of how much money it would bring me. But I had not yet learned that the true worth of a thing, its intrinsic value to oneself, cannot be judged by its rarity, nor by the amount of money other people will pay for it. It was not until years later that I came to realize that many of the most valuable things in life are also the most common, that the experiences and the memories one treasures most highly are precisely those that anyone might have. It seemed important to mo then that I should be a real naturalist, recognized as such by my contemporaries; and if I could capture this butterfly, send it to the Eastern firm, and receive in return a check for, say, fifty dollars, I should be well launched on my career.

But I did not catch the tiger swallowtail. In my anxiety I swung the net too hard, and the hoop holding the net flew out of the holes in the broomstick and landed twenty feet away. Tho tiger swallowtail flew off, and with tears of mortification in my eyes I went to retrieve my net. When I got home that evening I looked up the tiger swallowtail in the price list, and found that it was worth only five cents. But that did not make me feel any better — it was the principle of the thing.

Since then I have seen many tiger swallowtail butterflies; they seem to have become more abundant in the city in the past few years. But I never see one fly past me without thinking: There goes five cents. I don’t know whether the Eastern firm still gets out its price list for boys with an inclination toward natural history, but if they do I am certain they have deleted the tiger swallowtail from their list. In its present abundance, even at only five cents apiece, a boy could almost make enough money in one summer to cover the cost of the price list.

This matter of the sudden abundance of a particular species of butterfly or moth has always puzzled me, perhaps because I am never certain whether there are actually more of them in the city, or whether I have merely happened to come upon more of them by chance. I never saw a Luna moth until one summer recently, and then I saw dozens of them in different parts of the city, flying straight ahead like birds on their light-green wings. When I was a boy I succeeded in capturing only a single question-mark butterfly, and it was a treasured specimen in my collection, with its oddly shaped brown and orange colored wings. But now I see them everywhere, flitting nervously from one tree trunk to another, moving their wings jerkily up and down like nervous women fanning themselves, never standing still for more than a few seconds. There are no doubt other species of butterflies which have become less abundant, but of course I would have no way of verifying this impression, for there has never been an accurate census of the butterfly population of Chicago.

4

WRITING of the apparent nervousness of the question-mark butterfly brings to my mind the characteristic differences in the flight and the behavior of the different species. These characteristics, it seems to me, are much more important to one who would like to watch butterflies than the detailed descriptions of their coloring and the markings on their wings that arc usually given in books. Such descriptions are fine when you have a butterfly in your hand and can examine its colors and count the number of black spots on the under side of its hind wings. But they are of no value whatever when you see a butterfly flit by over your head, or even when you are able to watch one resting on a leaf for a few seconds.

Almost anyone can identify a monarch from its habit of hanging from a flower by its long black legs, its wings closed or only partly open. The mourning cloak usually perches on tree trunks or other dark surfaces, with its wings wide open. The fritillaries fly straight to their destination and then seem to disappear, but on closer observation can be seen standing on some flower with tightly closed wings. The purples, which are large, dark-blue butterflies, flap about in the air over a bush or clump of weeds as though trying to make up their minds where to land; while the little brown skippers actually seem to skip through the air from one plant to another. But the prettiest flight of all is that of the blues, those tiny, light-blue butterflies that, never seem to rise more than three feet above the ground. The only word I can think of to describe their flight is lilting; they lilt up and down among the tall grass and weeds like little puppet butterflies performing a dance. Try to catch one and you will see it bounce out from under your hand and lose itself among the vegetation, still lilting gracefully just above the ground.

To many people who have had little actual experience with insects, there probably seems to be a great difference between butterflies and moths. After all, butterflies are dainty little things that flit about on flowers, whereas moths are among the more destructive of our insects. Everyone has had some experience with the moths whose larvae eat clothing, and the larvae of other moths destroy crops and shade trees. And then most people think of moths as they do of bats — as shadowy creatures that slink about in the darkness on their nefarious business. But actually there is little difference between butterflies and moths, and I have always thought it unfortunate that there is not one common word to designate the two, as one can refer to both rats and mice by speaking of rodents. Scientifically one can use the word Lepidoptera, but in common speech there is no word for it.

As a rule moths have feathery antennae, while those of butterflies are thin and end in a knob; but there are so many exceptions to this rule that it is not of much service. Most moths are nocturnal, but one can find enough of them in the daytime to make this distinction, too, ineffective. Then moths spin cocoons of silk from their own bodies, while butterflies go through their metamorphosis in a chrysalis made of their own hardened skin; but if one saw a winged insect on a flower, one could hardly be expected to follow it about until it went into its metamorphosis, before deciding whether it was a butterfly or a moth. The best policy, it seems to me, is to disregard distinctions altogether and, unless one is certain of one’s facts, call any doubtful species butterflies. Most people do anyway.

On warm evenings in late summer I like to go into some empty lot and sit quietly on the ground, screened from passers-by on the street by tall grass, weeds, or bushes. With the sound of crickets all about, and the higher, more strident shrilling of katydids, I wait until darkness comes. There is a period of perhaps half an hour, while it is still possible to distinguish moving objects above the grass, when everything seems to partake of some universal air of mystery. Then it is that I sometimes see one of those large, narrow-winged moths, the sphinx, the death’s-head, and the hawk moth, hovering over a flower with wings vibrating swiftly but silently, then shooting like a bullet to some other plant.

These moths are probably out all night, sipping the nectar of flowers with their long probosces, searching for mates, and doing the other things normal to moths. But I have never seen them except just before darkness, and so in my mind they are an integral part of the mystic hush of twilight, like ghostly beings from another world who haunt the earth for a few minutes just before night sets in. When I was a boy I once caught one of these moths in my hand, and for half a minute I could feel its powerful wings beating against my palm. Then it got away; and looking down at my hand I felt as though I had held some unearthly sprite or elf imprisoned there, a tiny being that had left a smudge of powder as a remembrance of its presence.