Inspiration

Milkweed and the fertile days of Autumn

I’m aware of milkweed.It began about a dozen years ago. It was a glorious Summer. But Spring had brought less than happy news: The monarch population was dipping precipitously, in part due to loss of migration habitat, in part due to pesticides. The prior year, 2004, had seen an all-time low.

So as the milkweed on the lakeshore cropped up, I found myself mowing the grass less rigorously, scooting around plants where I could. My daughter Mairead, then 5, was fascinated by the beautiful yellow and green caterpillars.

Soon, interest turned into a full-blown farming and husbandry operation. Do you know that nine out of 10 caterpillars don’t make it to butterflies? There are all kinds of risks, it appears, in being the lowly caterpillar — not least among them birds.

We cleaned out old monster Costco animal cracker jugs and started bringing caterpillars through their chrysalis stage to the mighty monarch. All of them were named catty, by the way. And the first fruit of this labor? “Butty,” of course.

The milkweed is not nature’s most attractive flower, despite its fabulous fragrance, so this welcoming of migrants is truly laudable. Even in friend Pastor Mike’s thoughtfully planned, garden tour worthy backyard, they are welcome guests, even as their stalky selves spike out of otherwise attractive plantings.

I was walking the other day around Purgatory Creek. The leaves were just hinting the current change of color, but the wildflowers and lakeside plants were already blazing. Or crisping, as it were.

Many of them were dried, brown and devoid of leaves and petals, presenting for view up-until-that-moment hidden seed pods. And wow, were they beautiful. As artfully shaped as kaleidoscope images, geometric in startling ways, some spiked, some flat. Even in their desiccated state, they were spectacular.

So, too, the milkweed. It’s dried out now. Seed pods are poised to burst. They are no longer standing out amid the more desirable flora, their showy leaves and wacky pink blooms grabbing the eyes attention but blending in amid the frost fried landscape.

It strikes me as interesting that it is now, as days are cooling and evening enters earlier, that the milkweed is about to burst in fruitfulness. The silken seeds will peek out, then leap in escape from the pods that confine them. This birth is not for the young, but for the weathered and experienced. It comes at the end of the life cycle, not in the beginning.

My friend Wendy was observing that her neighborhood in Minneapolis has become milkweed central. No one is pulling the plants as they might have done in the past, instead letting them take root in alleys and gardens and lawns almost without impunity.

The milkweed is not nature’s most attractive flower, despite its fabulous fragrance, so this welcoming of migrants is truly laudable. Even in friend Pastor Mike’s thoughtfully planned, garden tour worthy backyard, they are welcome guests, even as their stalky selves spike out of otherwise attractive plantings.

I was walking the other day around Purgatory Creek. The leaves were just hinting the current change of color, but the wildflowers and lakeside plants were already blazing. Or crisping, as it were.

Many of them were dried, brown and devoid of leaves and petals, presenting for view up-until-that-moment hidden seed pods. And wow, were they beautiful. As artfully shaped as kaleidoscope images, geometric in startling ways, some spiked, some flat. Even in their desiccated state, they were spectacular.

So, too, the milkweed. It’s dried out now. Seed pods are poised to burst. They are no longer standing out amid the more desirable flora, their showy leaves and wacky pink blooms grabbing the eyes attention but blending in amid the frost fried landscape.

It strikes me as interesting that it is now, as days are cooling and evening enters earlier, that the milkweed is about to burst in fruitfulness. The silken seeds will peek out, then leap in escape from the pods that confine them. This birth is not for the young, but for the weathered and experienced. It comes at the end of the life cycle, not in the beginning.

Once the “butty” raising child went off to the U, I became an empty-nester. It would seem that a certain chapter of my life came to a close, one that I thought of as the time of new beginnings. The era of fertility.

But now I look at the milkweed and all the dried companions and think about the creativity of this time of my life. I’m like that milkweed, if not quite dry, heading there. Heading toward what Mary Oliver calls a “crisp glamour.”

Speaking of them she writes, “I wish you would walk with me out into the world. I wish you could see what has to happen, how each one crackles like a blessing over its thin children as they rush away.” I may yet be about to burst.

Trish Sullivan Vanni, Ph.D., is pastoral director of the Charis Ecumenical Catholic Community and animator of the Power Center, an interfaith center for spirituality. She shares this space with Bernard E. Johnson, Beryl Schewe, Rod Anderson, Timothy A. Johnson and Nanette Missaghi. “Spiritually Speaking” appears weekly.

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