In the downtown park two fritillaries flitted by the daisies growing at the edge of the playground. They were among the first butterflies I learned to identify, by genus if not species. What I saw Thursday, according to the field guide, were hydaspe fritillaries (Speyeria hydaspe). One of the collateral benefits of the sun’s rare appearances in the Pacific Northwest is the simultaneous arrival of numerous butterflies. In a parking lot earlier in the day I watched an anise swallowtail flitting futilely over pavement.
David Slavitt’s “Fritillaries” (William Henry Harrison and Other Poems, 2006) is at once playful and laced with gentle regret, memoir masquerading as “nature poetry”:
“The fluttering of the fritillary is…what?
Tutelary? Instructive: the liliaceous
Plant with which it shares its name and to which
I like to think it might be attracted was called that
by Noel Capperon, an Orléans druggist,
because of its checkered leaves he thought resembled
a painted dice box—fritillus in Latin.
And the common fritillary—the plant, I mean,
the Guinea-hen flower, Turkey-hen flower, or sometimes
Pheasant or Leopard’s Lily, or Checkered Lily,
or even the Checkered Daffodil—has indeed
a drooping dull red flower with pink and purple
squares and blotches. (Bees like it; butterflies,
not so much.) The Chinese use the bulbs
to make a tea for loosening phlegm, but avoid
the heart of the bulb which is poison (wouldn’t you know?).
But, no, I wouldn’t. This is all swotted from books,
while real learning comes from walking the woods,
spotting the plants, seeing the butterflies,
and recognizing that what I’m watching fly by
is not a Monarch, say, but a Variegated
Fritillary looking for nectar it likes
from the butterfly weed, common-milkweed, dogbane,
peppermint, red clover, swamp milkweed,
and perhaps the tickseed sunflower—of which
I might know how to pick out maybe the milkweed.
There is also the Great Spangled Fritillary
that is partial to violets, and the Regal Fritillary,
endangered now…I’ve never seen one, or never
known if I did, which is worse. There are several others,
even in Massachusetts, whose names I write down,
Silver-bordered, Atlantis, and Aphrodite,
each of them pleasant enough to indict the flighty
inattention of misspent days and years
that seem to have been my life. Trees, birds, the flowers
underfoot, and the stars overhead I know
only as children do, but with less wonder.
Their names are words I ought to have been alert to…
The Niobe, the Queen of Spain Fritillary…
How could I not have responded to such sweet
Blandishments, such fritiniency (the next
word in the lexicon, the chirping of locusts
or cicadas)? And butterflies, I’m pleased to say,
are prettier and blissfully, blessedly silent.”
We understand Slavitt’s self-deprecation. There’s so much we should have learned long ago, instead of squandering time as though it had no end. Ignorance abounds: “I know / only as children do, but with less wonder.” But there’s still time, and the will is renewed. “Fritiniecy,” I learn, was coined by Sir Thomas Browne in Pseudodoxia Epidemica, that compendium of "vulgar errors."