Water makes us happy.
It’s something about the sweet smell of freshwater or the negative ions in the air or the saltwater-filled cells in our body having an ancient longing for their ocean home. Something.
I don’t really care what, actually, I’m just so grateful that in my beloved mountain home, I have family with a cabin on Claytor Lake who let us come out to visit. It’s because of this tremendous stroke of luck that I got to spend Mother’s Day with my husband and daughter and in-laws looking out over deep blue waters and nearly summer-green mountains.
But the awesomeness doesn’t start at the lake. It starts on the drive down where, from my Mother’s Day Throne (AKA the passenger seat) I was able to look out at my kingdom and observe long and well as my dear husband kept the car on the road.
The drive from Blacksburg to Claytor Lake is a lovely one when you’ve got the time to look around. Just on the big roads I saw:
After steering off the highway at exit 109, the drive gets even better; winding through curving mountain roads, past cabins and farms, climbing hills and turning blind corners, observing “country” driving manners with a nod or smile or fingers lifted off the steering wheel in friendly acknowledgement of strangers who might as well be friends.
Wild phlox (Phlox paniculata) and its garden siblings were blooming all along the roadside gardens and forest edges. The purple of phlox is neither dark nor light, but a deep medium purple. Ugh. “Deep medium purple” sounds oxymoronic and way too pedestrian for this gorgeous color. Let’s call it “phlox purple” and set a trend – it’s nothing like lilac or lavender or royal purple or orchid, and it deserves its own shade name. (Why doesn’t purple have more shade names? Blue has hundreds.)
Flitting through that phlox was a season first for me (perhaps that’s why spring is my favorite season – so many “firsts” for the year, each one reassuring and joyful): an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)! They’re common enough to be both Virginia’s State Butterfly and its State Insect, but they knock me out every time. These bright yellow, black-striped and blue edged beauties are nearly 4.5 inches across; giant, yellow flower petals just floating and fluttering through the sky.
The “swallowtail” part of this butterfly’s name means that it is grouped with other butterflies (they make up the swallowtail family) that have two “tails” on their hind wings that reminded early naturalists of the points at either end of a swallow’s tail. (Swallowing these butterflies tail’s is not recommended.) We’ll have to come back to swallows themselves the next time I come back from Claytor; several members of the swallow family are native here and spend their summers feasting on the various insects that hatch by the millions from the surface of the lake.
I don’t actually associate spring with seeing butterflies, though they seem to be a centerpiece of every mass produced spring-themed card and product. The truth about butterflies is that their caterpillars and/or eggs have survived a long winter and need their food sources to leaf out before they can fill their hungry selves up with enough energy to form a chrysalis and become adult butterflies. The real butterfly bonanza comes from mid-summer through fall, when two or three generations have matured and laid eggs and little wings are fluttering everywhere.
The first butterflies to arrive in spring are those whose caterpillars feast on trees that leaf out early. The host plants for Eastern Tiger Swallowtails’ eggs and caterpillars include
- Wild black cherry (Prunus serotina),
- Common Lilac (Syinga vulgaris),
- Sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana),
- Tulip poplar/tulip tree (Liriodedron tulipifera), and
- Willow (Salix spp.),
all of which have bloomed or are blooming (the lilacs smell unbelievably good right now) and are nicely leafy caterpillar buffets.
I was gifted with another butterfly sighting once we’d arrived and were seated happily on the dock – a Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) was flying over the water toward us, probably heading for the giant weeping willow on the property to lay its eggs. Mourning Cloak caterpillars also enjoy a nice meal of willow or poplar (or elm or hackberry).
And then I was lost in conversation and good food and laughter, with only the occasional whip of the head to try to identify a bird streaking by.
As afternoon softened into the golden light of evening, conversation turned again to nature (it seems to do that around me quite a bit) and my in-laws and I got to listening to and talking about bird calls.
But that’s going to have to wait for Part Two of this post, because there’s much more to tell and I’m a nearly an hour past lunch. I’m so hungry I could practically eat willow leaves. Or tulip poplar.