On Gossamer Wings

I suppose you could stop seeing the Organ Mountains. If you had lived in New Mexico’s Mesilla Valley for years, your eyes could begin overlooking them, your brain tuning out their grandeur as old hat. There is nothing we cannot take for granted, no awe we cannot shrug off eventually. Mountains, our loved ones, our lives—whatever.

At Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. Image shows the jagged teeth of a mountain range silhouetted against pre-dawn light.

When you see the marvelous for the first time, though, you stop to marvel. The Organ Mountains rise from neutral ground—a green screen of creosote bush and cats-claw mesquite, the visual equivalent of the locusts that buzzed all day or the endless chorus of crickets by night. Pleasant, uniform, forgettable.

From neutrality the mountains shoot up to challenge the sky without warning. They are knife-pointed spires, defying the birds to perch. Their buttresses cast towering shadows until the sun is high. In noonday glare, they glare right back. Yet they have crannies of loose stone, relenting to greenery in search of a home. And they blush like any old softy in the flattery of evening light.

Image shows a closer view of a craggy peak. Swathes of greenery appear here and there, scoffing at the laws of gravity.
Image shows the mountains turning rosy as the sun sets. A white camper van in the foreground is already in full shade, though the peaks will continue to receive sun for a while.

Still, after a few days, there they are. They haven’t done much. Your attention wanders. What I actually remember most about the two weeks I spent there in early November is the butterflies.

Don’t ask me what kind. Mourning Cloaks I knew, and a Reakert’s Blue kindly posed long enough for me to photograph and identify it. Otherwise, they were flashes of light and color, glimpses of motion on the periphery of sight or even right in front of your nose. Few flowers bloomed, but the air was alive with butterflies like a summer night with fireflies.

Most were small, the gossamer-wing types, in copper and blue, saffron, lemon, and marigold. Light shone through them, shimmered from them. They’d be here and gone in an instant. How can they flit so erratically and still cross such distance in a heartbeat?

Often with wonders so speedy, you only have time to gasp in surprise before they’re gone. The shooting star, the stag leaping across the path, the quail startling up from underfoot. Delight happens afterward. “Did you see that??”

The butterflies should have been like that—quick, vibrant glimpses of magic. But there were too many. I’d barely had a chance to recover from the surprise of one before another appeared. Erratic flight caught my erratic attention again and again and again.

Eventually my heart decided it was easier just to live in a constant state of surprise. In that open-hearted state I could anticipate the delightfulness of butterflies and live there for a while. Open-heartedness, surprise, and delight began to tinge the green-screen blandness of everyday life: cooking, bathing, resting, tidying. Surprise gave new life to the sturdy, massive sameness of rock and spire. The little awe and the big awe claimed kinship and infused the everyday with wonder.

Image shows a close-up of peaks in silhouette. A ray of morning sun is breaking between them.

So as this new year begins, I call a toast to the erratic and fleeting, to the shimmers of gossamer just at edge of awareness. May they surprise us, just for a moment, into glimpsing the towering awe behind them.