Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Lesson from Xpakay

It started out as a normal August afternoon.

Late in the month I drove out to spend a couple of days with my friend Jonathan at Hacienda San Antonio Xpakay. It was hot, and as well as Jonathan, who'd been in town on business, my friend Victor was in the car as we drove out Mérida's Calle 42 and trundled along the back roads, through tiny pueblos and haciendas, out to Xpakay.

I've mentioned this hacienda many times. It's one of the magic places in Mexico that have taught me a great deal about the country, its culture, and about greater things.

We'd thrown hammocks, machete, water, food and extra clothes into the car. We stopped several times along the route to observe sights that caught our interest, buy cold drinks in a tiny mom-and-pop store, and later to attend to the necessities of nature after consuming the cold drinks. It was a pretty typical drive in the country.

A typical drive, that is, until we got to the hacienda road.

There are butterflies, mariposas, all year here but the population hits its apex in summer. When it is hot, the butterflies often stop to drink in damp areas around sources of water. The rainy-season puddles in the ruts of this road must provide the most accessible water source in the area. Anything that disturbs the resting butterflies, a wandering cow, a person, or a passing vehicle, scatters them.

There were plenty of the multi-colored insects fluttering around as we entered the 3.5-kilometer dirt track to the hacienda, but we noticed nothing remarkable. Then we rounded a curve in a low spot. Startled by the car, dense waves of the insects began to rise in front of us. It was a breathtaking sight. We slowed to a crawl. As they fled the car, the tendrils of escaping insects seemed to curve into the distance like smoke.

The rapid opening and closing of wings made the swarms of butterflies seem to sparkle jerkily, as if this real-life scene was a primitive film animation. A swarm  -- also known as a rabble -- of such magnitude must contain many thousands of insects. Perhaps tens of thousands. This day they were mostly white, yellow, orange, and shades of light green. These are not large, ornate, showy species, but the types with wings of one solid color.

I'd seen butterflies along the back roads of Xpakay on a number of occasions, but the numbers I'd viewed here in the past were nothing like what we saw this day. We must have hit the very height of the season for several species. The sight made me think of other species that mass together in impressive numbers: the salmon, for instance, of my home state of Alaska. Although still numerous in some areas, the populations of these species are mere shadows of what they once were.

I thought of the American buffalo, slaughtered by the tens of millions for meat, hides and target practice in the 19th century. I thought of the Passenger Pigeon, once so numerous in North American that their flights darkened the skies for days as they passed overhead. It led me to consider other vital parts of the natural world we have lost and continue to lose by daily increments. Many are not as spectacular or attention-grabbing as these examples, but important still in the overall scheme of things.

I suppose that such masses of butterflies were once much more common all over the world, but due to destruction of habitat, contamination and the use of pesticides they now are rarely seen. Because the destruction has taken several human generations to occur, we have become accustomed to their now-meager numbers. In most cases, we don't know anything different, so we don't realize what we've missed.

We've lost a huge amount and we keep losing more due to our tremendous fascination with consumption. The incredible numbers of butterflies here in Yucatán make me think. There are things we can still save. What are we doing about it?

My regular readers will ask me, "Where are the pictures?" The truth is that it happened so quickly, and I was so enchanted by the sight, that I took no pictures of the butterflies, preferring to enjoy the moment as I experienced it. Here's an earlier post on butterflies at Xpakay.


  1. I sure can understand no photos, Marc. Experiences like that can be savored for SO long, even without photos. A camera may well have destroyed it.

    I had a similar thrill one day, feeding the pigeons outside the Itzimna church. I'll never forget the whirlwind that enveloped me--flapping wings from head to toe, within inches of me. I've never been able to recreate it either; but I sure am grateful for that one happening.

  2. Alinde, you bring up a good point. Often, in the midst of a wonderful moment, to take out the camera and make images spoils the whole experience. Concentrating on making the pictures, you miss too much. As a songwriter friend of mine once wrote, sometimes it's better to "make a picture with your mind."

  3. Your friend is so right, Marc. The mind sometimes gives a superior photo. I could go on and on about this, but I'll try to be brief: I tried to capture my favorite dog's smile, photographically. I failed, photographically. But when the vet said, "Would you like to say good-by….?", I entered the room, spoke her name, and she raised her head off the table, smiled, and then sank away.

    I loved Quieta so much. I'll never forget that last smile--camera or not.


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