The Key To Life’s Goodness Is In The Dirt

The Key To Life’s Goodness Is In The Dirt

The Smoky Mountains of Tennessee are teaming with life. Being summer the creeks are running, birds are prolific but what stood out for me were the forest floors teaming with butterfly congregations. At a few different spots we came across gorgeous groups of tiger and pipevine swallowtails doing something called puddling. In little spots of dappled light they’re drawn to soil rich in salts and minerals that they sit and dip their lengthy proboscis into, sapping up what is missing from their diet.

A view from atop Mt. Sterling (5,842 ft elevation) in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This photograph was taken from the historic, 60 ft. steel fire lookout tower built in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. This is the highest elevation of any fire tower remaining in the eastern USA. From the top of the Mt. Sterling Tower, you overlook Cataloochee Valley, the Pigeon River Gorge, the Unaka Mountains, the main ridge of the Smokies, the Black Mountains (east), and the end of the Southern Appalachians. Photograph by Trevor Donnelly

Pipevine swallowtail butterflies lapping up salts and nutrients from the forest floor. When not in use, their proboscis fold up into a tight spiral.

Interestingly it’s typically only the males of the species that do it. Scientists have found evidence that the males then pass these salts onto the females during mating via a spermatophore, a package which contains the sperm. A sort of nuptial gift as it were. Receiving the salts from the males saves the females the danger of gathering at these puddling sites. It could also serve as an ideal place for females to find potential mates.

A group of pipevine swallowtails involved in puddling. Researchers have found that curiously it is normally only the male of the species that practices this activity.

A tiger swallowtail and pipevine swallowtail feeding together. At first I crept up on these butterflies, sure that they would fly away as we approached them but they were not perturbed by our presence at all.

Some of these magnificent groups of butterflies we found perched on large piles of deer and horse poo, sipping up nutrients from the dung. We all know that butterflies go through a rather tough process to become the beautiful creatures that they are but to me this dung puddling took the realisation one step further that sub-par circumstances often serve us with the best ingredients for growth.  I feel very fortunate to be traveling at the moment but it’s not always easy when you’re doing it without a plan and just stepping into the unknown from one day to the next based on a feeling. Broken down cars, cancelled flights, multiple homes and test driving the country’s cheapest used vehicles with a dodgy salesman lacking all his teeth can challenge you until you’re reminded by butterflies that sometimes it’s the really shitty times that give us our strength and sustenance and, who knows, potentially even a future mate.

Although I still find the chances of the latter rather slim in an American used car lot.