The Literal Landscape
The Butterfly Diana
The glass, it turns out, is for a large landscaped greenhouse that now hosts over 1,200 butterflies and 100 different species of tropical plants.
As my wife and I passed the Butterfly Pavilion in our daily commutes to and from work, we thought often about spending a lazy Saturday morning at the new attraction. Our neighbors visited once and returned with stories of giant butterflies the colors of the rainbow, dwarfed-it seemed-only by the children's wide smiles. But it wasn't until recently, now with our own daughter, that we finally made that visit.
The only things brighter than the exotic butterflies were Ann-Elise's eyes as she marveled at the flying colors, flitting like a carnival of confetti only rarely touching the ground. There were blue and brown butterflies wider than my hands side-by-side, black butterflies with dazzling yellow stripes, magnificent azure and green-winged floaters gliding on the humid air. We moved cautiously along the rambling hothouse path, peeking over umber birds of paradise and split palm fronds and under deep flowering trees nearly impossible to imagine in the arid climate just outside the glass.
Ann-Elise poked her head over small coy ponds, danced lightly in the anticipation of a delicate wing landing upon her soft and waiting hand, and every now and then squealed just a bit out of fear as one of the larger beauties darted and dropped toward her. She ran her naked hands over the leathery leaves and water-pocked boulders, the pollen-dusted flowers and gray-barked limbs. And as we exited, we noticed something all too familiar: a series of hives around our daughter's mouth. An allergic reaction.
Though the red inflammations looked worse than they actually felt, we quickly washed her hands and face. After more than a year of living with a long list of Ann-Elise's allergies and sensitivities-cats, dogs, wheat, eggs, dairy, oats, nickel, fish, peanuts, orange juice, and too much more-we act fast to stem any reaction that could lead to labored breathing, oxygen shortage, the emergency room. Something, and we usually don't know what in a situation like this, caused Ann-Elise to have an allergic reaction.
Allergies are, we're learning, quite common among children these days. A good friend thinks the source of the problem is the volatile organic compounds and other unpronounceable stuff that make up the brunt of our everyday goods, primarily plastics. We know that it's a good thing our daughter nursed well into her second year, because food allergies are considerably worse for children who are not breastfed.
Imagine, though, the body being allergic to itself. Sound impossible? Sadly, it's not. In fact, it's a disease called lupus.
Lupus erythematosus is a chronic autoimmune disease in which the immune system, for seemingly unknown reasons, becomes hyperactive and attacks normal tissue; i.e., it attacks itself. In the harshest form of the disease, which so far is irreversible, multiple systems in the body are attacked by the body's immune system because it can no longer distinguish between bacteria and viruses that should be attacked by antibodies, and the supporting tissue of the body that should not. Lupus can create inflammations within skin, joints, lungs, blood, blood vessels, the heart, kidneys, the liver, the brain, and the nervous system.
Eighty to 90 percent of people affected by lupus can expect to have normal life spans. Lupus may range from mild to extreme, the latter of which may result in what doctors call "overwhelming" infection and kidney failure-the two leading causes of death directly linked to the disease. Common symptoms include fever, achy joints, swollen joints, swollen glands, fatigue, loss of appetite, rashes and lesions, hair loss, increased sensitivity to sunlight, and ulcers in the mouth or nose.
Lupus comes and goes in what are called flares. Some flares can last weeks, months, even years, rendering those affected unable to do many everyday activities. Mothers who have lupus may not be able to pick up their young children. They may not even be able to pull themselves out of bed in the morning.
This systemic lupus can take years to develop fully, which partly explains why the disease-which affects more people than leukemia, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, and muscular dystrophy combined-has no cure. The disease is extremely difficult to diagnose, in part because there is a shortage of doctors capable of either diagnosing or treating it. Ninety percent of its victims are women, 90 percent of whom are in their childbearing years. Organized research of diseases affecting women, historically, takes the back seat to research of diseases affecting men or both men and women equally.
My sister believes that this last fact is a large reason that the medical profession has been slow in finding a real cure for the disease. My sister explains that medical students are told, "Know lupus and you know medicine," because it can affect every part of the body, and yet doctors who actually know lupus are few and far between. My sister, Diana, has systemic lupus.
As Ann-Elise raced along the curving path or crouched to spy a violet-winged elfin, I turned my eyes toward the glass ceiling, the thin veil of netting just below, and the tops of the tallest tropical plants. It is here, in a shadowy corner of the greenhouse, that I saw a pair of butterflies dancing on the invisible steps of the air. Both butterflies were large, the wings easily as wide as my hand. Underneath, both were dull orange with spots. But the tops of the wings were like fireworks! One was predominantly black, with white and light pink spots on the edges of the front wings and cove-blue markings on the back wings. The other was also mostly black, with a wide band of brilliant orange on the outer half of all four wings.
It could have been a mating ritual, or perhaps only a first date. Or maybe they were only playing, showing off for this wide-eyed human fifteen feet below. The way they weaved in and out, creating some new alphabet on the moist tablet of air, was somehow familiar. But as I turned to find my wife and daughter and show them my discovery, the pair skittered away. When I pointed to the corner, the butterflies were gone.
When I was ten and my sister twelve, we spent the summer in the lush Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, at Camp Chimney Rock. Coming from the big-sky desert of Tucson, Ariz., we weren't quite prepared for the greenery, for the thick blanket of leaves and moss and birds and flowers and insects and air, all not quite as loud or stifling as the scores of other kids and camp counselors grouped together in rustic cabins and squeaky metal bunkbeds.
My memories of that place and time are like the quilt's patchwork-irregular, ill-shapen, idyllic. But there are some things I remember clearly: the copperhead pulled from mulch trail just outside the mess hall, the sharply white quartz stone that lined the camp's internal path, the algae-choked pool that was deep green and deeply frigid.
And I remember marching in line with my fellow campers beyond the compound's perimeter and into the depths of the mystical forest. We carried walking sticks we found here and there and later carved into the clumsy shapes of wild beasts closer in our imaginations than real life. We sang the songs of summer camp, giggling as we changed the words to something more suitably raunchy and juvenile. We listened to our guide's words almost intently as we watched the sneakers on our feet scramble over log and stone. We were searching for flowers.
Their names were as mythical as the place itself, as the valleys that filled with rolling waves of clouds and the rich forest penetrated here and there by a great stone bald: Devil's bit. Early meadow rue. Jack-in-the-pulpit. Trillium.
On our earliest walks, we'd often find the sister violet, Viola sororia, in ankle-high patches winding like a purple and green stream through the uneven terrain. The small violet flowers with hairy stems and wide, heart-shaped leaves were common enough to warrant an overview by the guide, but never a more thorough inspection unless willing to trail behind and then catch up. I trailed behind a lot.
One cool morning as the dew still hung heavy and refracted the weak sunlight off the tip of every leaf, we marched out in search of orchids. As we trotted past the common violets, I lagged behind to tie my shoe. When I bent down to loop the wet laces, something low, slow, and wavering caught my eye. I turned to see a butterfly, wings trying to warm up for the day, perched atop a violet. Immediately I noticed the wide band of orange on its wings, set off distinctively by the rest of the black and velvety body.
"Diana," said the counselor who was trailing behind to ensure we all made it to our destination.
"Huh?" I said, expecting to see my sister kneeling down beside me. But she wasn't there. It was only the counselor and I-the rest of the group was still marching.
"That's a Diana fritillary," he said as he crouched beside me to study the butterfly that seemed nearly as big as the bill on the counselor's cap. "And over there," he continued as he pointed a yard or two away, still within the violets, "is the female."
She was just a bit smaller, still with the black base but also quite different-iridescent blue patches on the back half of her wings and thin white spots on the front. We watched the butterflies for just a few seconds more, until the campers turned out of sight and the counselor motioned for us to catch up. As we continued on the trail, the butterflies lifted from the plants and danced beneath the canopy.
Fortunately, both basic and clinical research on lupus is increasing, prompted in part by Dr. Daniel J. Wallace's The Lupus Book: A Guide for Patients and Their Families, published in 1995. In that year, over 200 lupus-related research abstracts, mostly basic, were published. And a strain of lupus within mice has been identified and duplicated so that additional, relatively expedient research can be conducted. In clinical tests, DHAE, a male hormone, is being tested through trials to determine if it can improve symptoms in women with systemic lupus. There are also clinical trials using Toleragens, molecules designed to turn off the B cells, the white blood cells that produce Anti-DNA antibodies. These antibodies are believed to be the cause of the symptoms of systemic lupus, especially kidney disease. Suppression of these antibodies may result in fewer or eliminated symptoms, decreasing the need for immunosuppressive therapies based on high-dosage steroids or chemotherapy.
Fundamentally, however, the problem is that we don't fully know how the body's immune system works. While we know that research of lupus will-and indeed already has-directly benefited research into cures of other diseases, including AIDS and muscular dystrophy, without an understanding of the disease's baseline, its cure is evasive.
The hairy black and orange caterpillar of the Diana fritillary, Speyeria diana, spends its spring and early summer days eating violet flowers and leaves after wintering over without eating a bite. The leaves are high in vitamins A and C, preparing the caterpillars for the chrysalis. By mid-June, the caterpillar changes to butterfly, which immediately begins searching for a mate. The females lay eggs in late summer, while both sexes fly strong and bright through early autumn, when the air grows cooler and their wings, wild in color, finally meet the ground. The butterflies likely die more often from the tongue of old age than that of bird or lizard. While they lack the strong toxicity of the monarch, the bright patches on their wings indicate a taste of poison not worth pursuing.
The life span of the Diana butterfly is short as we see it, but is one of the longer life cycles for butterflies in general. Most of that life-from egg to butterfly-is as caterpillar, the awkward morph that chews its way through violets that bunch together and form the purple and green streams of the Southern Appalachian forest.
Those flowers form the streams of our lives, as well. We walk by them a hundred times after their first enchantment, taking them for granted and searching for something else. It's only when something bright and wild emerges that we stop, again, and give pause.
The Diana butterfly, its own brilliant airy dance concealing and displaying the slow poison, the allergy to self, skirts along the familiar edge of our lives. She floats, wings oft paralyzed, the male butterfly and two young caterpillars in the violets below her flight. Dearest sister, the butterfly Diana, may your soft and lovely flight be with us until our own wings meet that distant, autumnal ground.
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