Finding Butterflies in a Clearcut Forest


After all the big monsters I’ve laid down, it’s just a little scotch broom plant, tossed aside on my way to a much-needed water break, that scares up the find of the day: a butterfly that flashes orange and white as it escapes the flying broom.

This is something special. I stumble after it. Luckily, it lands not far away with wings spread wide in full sun. I drink in black-and-white wingtips on either side of a jaguar-pelt pattern, a body gray-green with hues like moss, the whole package a little faded and worn. It is a painted lady. A butterfly I see far too seldom.

Also called the cosmopolitan butterfly, it is the most widespread butterfly in the world, occurring on every continent but Antarctica. It dazzles me for just a moment before it is off again. I try, but it is hopeless to follow this chip of color across the clearcut where it appeared.

And that is usually the end of a butterfly encounter story. For me and for most: seeing a butterfly is a quaff of beauty that punctuates the workday like an unexpected card left on your doorstep, sender unknown. A fleeting thing, almost supernatural.

But not for me today. The lady’s wings were ragged at the edges, as ragged as me. Painted ladies cannot go into diapause, the insect version of hibernation, so every fall they die off where winter gets frosty and every spring they migrate back from the subtropical regions where they fly all year. These are epic migrations spanning generations, on par with those of monarchs.

Normally their numbers are thin at best in the Puget Sound region and many summers they are absent, but in certain years the population of painted ladies explodes. They have closed freeways with their sheer numbers. It happens every decade or so. The last big year was 2019. Will this be another?

By tracking pollen grains attached to butterflies, researchers in Europe have shown that big painted lady years occur when heavy winter rains turn North African deserts green. It’s likely the same here on the West Coast, and this winter’s strong El Niño and its resultant desert superbloom may have been the cradle for millions of painted ladies that will flood north.

Call me crazy or heat-hazy, but as I think along these lines, the butterfly I spooked, with its ties to ocean currents and ancient mountain ranges and thousands of miles of coast, feels more momentous than a mere random act of beauty.

I think we are trained too well to enjoy gifts purely in the moment. It’s warranted. How can we enjoy things that are mass-produced in a factory and destined for a landfill and nonetheless heaped with glitter and good cheer if we do not become adept at disassociation?

Life gets interesting when you take the time to get to know your wild neighbors. It’s pure association, life to death. Ken Bevis, wildlife biologist for the Department of Natural Resources, calls wildlife an “emergent property of habitat.” I’d go one further than Ken when it comes to butterflies (and don’t get me started on moths). These creatures, as plant tissue set free to fly, speak to land histories that go back human generations.

So here I am, battling scotch broom I watched grow from baby sprouts. I’ve been lucky to get to know this 8-acre clearcut. Alongside the scotch broom has grown native oceanspray, manzanita, blackcap raspberry, huckleberry, and peas, and with them an incredible host of hoverflies, bee flies, solitary wasps, butterflies, snakeflies, dragonflies, and more. I’m fascinated by the life forms that grow into this razed landscape. I battle the invasive species motivated by Wendell Berry’s contention regarding agriculture that the cultivation of place is the cultivation of self. I want, in my heat-addled state, to believe that forging a relationship with biodiverse life is my best hope for getting situated in my own.

This place has primed me to wonder what this painted lady might mean. Which makes the next butterfly discovery that much sweeter.

It is on a hillside thick with hairy manzanita, an elusive native species that can thrive after heavy disturbance like fire or logging but is usually shaded out by scotch broom or Douglas fir. The last few days, a dapper butterfly called a brown elfin has been tethered to this patch of manzanita, motivating me to clear out the surrounding scotch broom and even yank a few firs and declare this a tiny manzanita preserve.

In Western Washington, a native plant community that has become far more rare even than old-growth forest is the early seral community — the plants that spring up after a catastrophic fire or clearcut. It is shrubby and full of berries and abundant wildlife. Today, it is quickly choked out by invasive species. I sprawl on the ground for a break.

And up the dirt road, here comes a tiny butterfly. Could it be green? It skitters from plant to plant. Finally, it lands. I score a few pictures. It flies again. I leap up to follow it, but it bounds over the scotch broom and away.

It is a bramble green hairstreak. Later I will learn it is the first that has ever been found in Pierce County. The bramble green has a patchy range down the West Coast. We are at the extreme northern limit. Its host plant is a native pea called big deervetch that grows in early seral plant communities. There is enough deervetch in this clearcut that there must be a population of these butterflies.

But how did they get here within a few years of this land being logged?

My guess is they have been on the Key Peninsula all along, that they jump from patch cut to patch cut, following the deervetch and surviving well enough before each patch is overwhelmed by scotch broom and trees. For me, such an existence profoundly deepens the bramble green’s striking beauty. It shows nature’s ability to shift and find its associations in the midst of great changes. It’s also motivation to haul myself back to my feet and keep hacking at the scotch broom.