Friday, August 30, 2013

Where butterflies come from

My 2014 monarch perched on my ring finger for five hours before finally leaving
for Mexico. The black pouches along the lines on his hind wings indicate he's a guy.
    Each year about this time, a friend brings me a monarch chrysalis attached to a wooden stem. Unless I mess it up, I get to witness a biological miracle.
Adios to my 2012 monarch. An hour
from departure to Mexico, she is about
to become an instant expert in the
intricacies of flight and navigation.
     Leading entomologist Dr. Lincoln Brower uses that very term—"biological miracle"—to describe where butterflies come from. Whether you profess evolution or creation, either way it takes lot of faith to explain it.
     If this is evolution, I nominate the monarch butterfly as the most highly evolved species on the planet.
     If this is creation, God is giving us a glimpse of his majesty and his imagination—not to mention a profound illustration of the new birth that Jesus promises.
     Forgive me if I'm acting like a starstruck kid in the presence of royalty, but here are a few things a monarch butterfly can do better than you:

Fountain of Youth
     There are usually four generations of monarch butterflies each year. The first three live about 6-8 weeks from the time they hatch as caterpillars. Those born this time of the year live 6-8 months—four times longer than their parents and four times longer than their children. 
     If you’re looking for the fountain of youth, follow a September monarch—and be sure to drink your milkweed!

Parading to Mexico
     Like so many of my Boone neighbors, my monarch is a snowbird who will soon be heading south. He (or she—we’ll know by the dots on the hind wings) will return to the very same pine grove in Mexico where great-great-granddaddy spent last winter. My monarch has never met his parents or grandparents, who never had the urge to fly south anyway, but he inherently knows the way. Next spring, he might make it as far north as Texas before becoming a daddy and finally dying off. Succeeding generations will complete the migration. 
     One of the best places to watch the southbound migration is on the Blue Ridge Parkway where U.S. 276 crosses between Brevard and Waynesville, NC. The higher mountains funnel thousands of monarchs through Wagon Road Gap and Tunnel Gap in the last two weeks of September.
Open fields near the Blue Ridge are great for monarch-watching in mid-September.
I met these in 2017 in the meadow at Moses Cone Memorial Park near Blowing Rock, N.C.

Defying Gravity
     Sam Snead once described a perfect golf shot landing so softly that it was “like a butterfly with sore feet.” In reality, gravity barely has a hold on these creatures. A typical monarch weighs about half a gram. A thousand monarchs weigh about one pound. Yet those born this September have the stamina to fly up to 3,000 miles on their migration to Mexico. That’s 3 million miles per pound.
     A pound-for-pound comparison may be absurd, but for a 125-pound runner to match a monarch butterfly, she’d have to jog 375 million miles, migrating to the outer limits of the solar system—and then give birth to babies whose grandchildren could find their way back on their own. 

Turning a Ford into a Learjet
 Awaiting the royal baby
     None of the aforementioned wonders compare to the metamorphosis happening right now inside the golden-beaded green chrysalis. A monarch caterpillar doesn’t just crawl inside a homespun shell and grow wings. It quickly dissolves into a green soup that Dr. Brower describes as a “rich fluid media” and then reconstitutes itself as an entirely different creature.
     I’ll let Dr. Brower explain: “Nothing like this happens in vertebrates—ever. It's a phenomenon of insects and it truly is a miraculous biological process of transformation
… Literally the entire internal contents of the caterpillar—the muscles, the entire digestive system, even the heart, even the nervous system—is totally rebuilt. It's like you took a Ford into the shop and left it there for a week and it came out as a Cadillac.”
     I thought he was going to say it came out as a Learjet—which happens to have about the same flight range as a monarch butterfly. 
     Dr. Brower also notes how the monarch “changes its ecological niche entirely when it transforms from a caterpillar to an adult butterfly. They are two ecologically different organisms, as distinct as a field mouse and a hummingbird."
     All hail the king of the butterflies!

Birthday morning! Unfortunately, missed the blessed event, so this is the last photo I have of my 2013 monarch.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Clemson 53, Georgia 53: Meet the giant in the middle of this riddle

     Clemson and Georgia are not just neighbors on the map, peers in higher education, and rivals in college football's Top 25. 
     Their roots are even closer than thata lesson I learned while poking around a bluff north of the Savannah River that is the highest point in lowly McCormick County, SC.
Prof. Moses Waddel
     Two hundred years ago, a Presbyterian preacher named Moses Waddel lived on this very same ridge—just high and breezy enough to avoid the vapors that were believed to cause malaria. He had left a different sort of "bad airs" in Charleston (which he considered arrogant and sinful) to start a "log cabin academy" on the frontier, first in Georgia and later in South Carolina.
     Willington Academy was a melting-pot of older boys from Lowcountry plantations and backwoods farms—sons of proud families who knew dearly the price of freedom and believed that a classical education was essential for success in the new United States. Boys left home and boarded with local families for years while they prepped for college in a wooden schoolhouse that was little more than a barn.
     Dr. Waddel (pronounced "waddle") was a taskmaster who spoke four languages, inspired self-reliance, preached the Gospel, and taught the classics. Students were required to memorize and translate long passages of Greek and Latin every day. One of them, George McDuffie, set Willington's one-day record by reciting 1,212 lines from the Roman poet Horace.
     The loquacious McDuffie, not surprisingly, went on to become governor of South Carolina—one of 11 governors of three states who were taught by Waddel. Almost 40 of his graduates were elected to the U.S. Congress. Dozens became judges, including James Petigru, who famously declared on the eve of Secession that South Carolina was too small to be a republic and too large to be an insane asylum. President Andrew Jackson admired Dr. Waddel.

      I doubt that any high school in America can match all that (and that's not all*).
     Obscure, rough-hewn Willington was acclaimed as "the American Eton"—compared to the exclusive school that refined statesmen for the British empire. In fact, Dr. Tom Horton has written a book entitled "The American Eton" in his series "History's Lost Moments: The Stories Your Teacher Never Told You."
     My teachers never told me. I never heard of Waddel or Willington Academy** in all the years I lived in South Carolina, canvassing the state for the sake of high school football and occasionally driving through the ghost town of Willington on my way to Augusta to cover the Masters. I stumbled across them one brisk morning in December 2012, when I drove down from Anderson to look for the highest point in McCormick County—a peculiar obsession that I'll explain in another blog—and found archaeological excavations atop Cherry Hill, plus a couple of historical markers nearby.

But what does Dr. Waddel have to do with Clemson and Georgia?

     One of Dr. Waddel's early students was John C. Calhoun. Waddel married Calhoun's sister Catherine, and John studied under Waddell in 1795 at Appling, Ga., and 1800-2 at Willington. Calhoun graduated from Yale in 1804, was elected vice president under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, and settled in 1825 on the Fort Hill plantation in the newly formed Pickens County. Calhoun's daughter married Thomas Clemson, and when he outlived the family, he left the Calhoun estate to form a college to teach scientific agriculture and the mechanical arts—Clemson A&M. 
     Dr. Waddel was hired away from Willington in 1819 to revive Franklin College in Athens, Georgia, which at the time had only seven students and three professors. He served as school president for 10 years, secured state funding, and built the heart of the campus that became the University of Georgia. Waddel Hall on the historic North Quadrangle is named for him.
     Saturday night, when it comes time to run down the hill in Clemson, it's worth remembering that these two fine universities (or football factories, if you prefer) sprang from the same humble hill in McCormick—exactly 53 miles from Clemson and 53 miles from Athens.

     * There are at least 43 U.S. counties/parishes/etc named after men Dr. Waddel taught or influenced. That includes 21 counties named for Jackson, 11 for Calhoun, and 6 or 7 for Sen. William Crawford (who was a candidate for president along with Calhoun and Jackson in 1824).

     ** There was a latter-day Willington Academy in Orangeburg, which later became part of Orangeburg Prep after a merger with Wade Hampton Academy (named for another Willington graduate, Gen. Wade Hampton III, who married Gov. McDuffie's daughter)
     *** Dr. Waddel's son, John Newton Waddel, was the first president of the University of Misssissippi following the Civil War. So we could call the Georgia-Ole Miss game the Waddel Bowl.