The Significance of Small Things

One day on a stroll through the Sonoran desert, I happened upon the continent’s smallest butterfly, an animal described by professional photographers as “notoriously difficult to find.” Wing to wing, he was the size of my thumbnail, his glittering color pattern discernible only through a zoom lens. At half an inch or less, his species is, in fact, in a tie with several others for the title of smallest butterfly in the world.

My sighting would be more impressive if I could tell you that the Western pygmy blue was on my bucket list for years. That I trekked thousands of miles to spend cold nights and hot days dodging thorns and camping in the shade of a palo verde tree. That I carried just enough water in my pack to keep me alive until I found him.

But the truth is more mundane: To meet this common but rarely seen animal, I did nothing more heroic than heading out the front door for a walk.

Yes, it was a little hot at midday in the suburbs of Scottsdale, where my husband and I were visiting his parents for Thanksgiving. And sure, I did get a thorn stuck, somewhat inexplicably, inside my bra. At some point, the air even got so dry that a contact lens fell apart in my eyeball.

But that was the extent of my hardship on our Arizona vacation. To put it mildly, I don’t have the physical constitution of an extreme explorer. I get cold easily. My name means “full of grace,” but my body does everything in its power to defy the concept. My eyesight is so bad and weird the doctor told me I’m a fascinating subject for her research. I get cranky when I haven’t slept enough, and unfamiliar places tend to make me sneeze, especially while traveling.

So how did I get lucky enough to see an animal rarely spotted even by seasoned enthusiasts in hot pursuit of her kind? And why is a species whose status is described as “demonstrably secure” frustratingly hard to find?

Western Pygmy Blue
Caterpillars of this Western pygmy blue (Brephidium exilis) emit a sugary solution that attracts ants who protect the caterpillars from predators.

As it turns out, the Western pygmy blue is simply overlooked by human eyes because of his size. He is so small and flies so low that he’s all too easy to pass by. In truth, I almost did the same; my camera can take the credit for catching the first glimpse of him, as I zoomed in on desert marigolds gracing the late-season landscape.

While I hadn’t set out on this trip to find the Western pygmy blue—and had never even heard of the species before—there were a few much larger animals I’d been determined to meet. It wasn’t our first visit to this otherworldly place where desert meets suburbia, but this time would be different. This time, in the land of Mars-like terrain and large backyard mammalian species, I’d put down my work, get up earlier, and never again miss the party with variations on the same theme: “Three bobcats [four javelinas; two roadrunners; a coyote] just walked by the window; too bad you were still [in bed; on your phone; insert other lame non-present behaviors here]!”

Knowing my goals for the trip, my mother-in-law, Loreen, planned numerous outings at times and to places most conducive to sightings, including the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area to find javelinas and the patio of the Tonto Bar & Grill to see coyotes visiting the adjacent golf course. And see javelinas and coyotes we did, though not always in the places we expected; as we left the restaurant, one young javelina was enjoying himself right on the front lawns of local residents.

And isn’t that how it often is? The treasures come when you’re not really looking, and often when you’re closest to home. They come when you’re willing to walk more slowly, see more deeply, and feel more acutely the rhythms of nature in your own backyard. They come when you embrace the idea that little lives matter—are in fact critical—to every other life on the planet. They come when an entire community invests in the notion of maintaining habitat not just for humans but for all animals living in their sphere.

Ninety-nine percent of the planet’s known animal species, the Western pygmy blue included, are smaller than the average bumblebee. To see this tiny butterfly and her fellow native Arizona species up close, I flew to Arizona. But once there, just as here, I had only to step outside the door, where a world of beauty—and small but significant wonders—awaited.*

Can you spot the butterfly? I had to relax, breathe, and zoom in before I could see her.
Can you spot the butterfly? I had to relax, breathe, and zoom in before I even knew he was there.

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