By Elieen Smith
We called it “the end,” and in truth it was. It was where the paved road, aptly called Dune Road, ended. You reached the inlet and you could see Fire Island on the other side. We’d walk there from our house which was about three miles away. It was not an easy walk then. Much of it was in the sand and we would limp along leaving our large and small footprints behind us. We were determined to get to the end. Often, we would want to give up but the sight of the water and the rocks kept us going. We would make this walk once or twice a summer. The children would keep asking when we were going to the end and we’d finally give in and go knowing what we were in for.
One summer late in August, a friend came to visit. She was a very talented nature photographer. My daughter wanted her to see “the end.” Her camera was in its usual place around her neck. It was bulky and heavy, not like the portable digitals we have today. Cell phones were still in the realm of science fiction. She agreed to take the walk and the three of us set out. We tried to turn our faces away from the burning sun. We fought off the insects. We were aware of an eerie silence around us and we felt that we were not alone. As we moved further towards land’s end, we noticed hints of color around us. We looked more closely and we saw swarms of monarch butterflies. My daughter used to get excited when she saw one butterfly and would try to catch it in her butterfly net. Here, there were thousands. It was truly an unbelievable sight and my photographer friend wanted to capture the moment on film. We found a pine tree that was completely covered with butterflies. You could hardly see the green needles so covered was the tree with the monarchs. They looked like little jewels decorating the trees. My friend got down on her knees and asked us to remain perfectly still. She was waiting for the butterflies to spread their wings and shoot the picture at that instant. We waited rather uncomfortably. The sun was beating down on us, the insects were attacking and we couldn’t make a sound. My friend was covered with bugs, so much so that you couldn’t see the flesh on her rather chubby arms.
We stood that way, barely breathing for about two minutes. Suddenly, as if led by a conductor, the butterflies complied and opened their wings. The camera snapped and the picture was taken. It was a memorable sight. We looked from the butterflies to each other, unable to speak. We walked slowly back to our house, tired and hot but chattering endlessly about our experience. We couldn’t wait to see the photograph.
Later that week, I read in the New York Times that monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico at the end of the summer. They all fly to the tip of Westhampton Beach (without benefit of a navigation system) and take off from there. What we saw were the butterflies at their last resting place in the United States. We had coincidentally chosen the best day for our walk. It is possible that they parted soon after we had seen them.
The photograph was as beautiful as the moment. We received a copy as a gift and for years, it hung in my daughter’s room. When she left home, she asked if she could take the photograph with her and it now hangs in her home. That fall, when her teacher asked the class to write about the summer vacation, she immediately knew that she would write about that day at the beach. She wrote about that day many times, including in her college application essay.
When I look back on that day and wonder what made it so memorable, I realize that it was more than just the butterflies. It was the excitement of discovery combined with a scene of unforgettable beauty. It was a moment shared by the three of us that would never be repeated. We knew that we had witnessed something special. The gift was not only the photograph, but also it was the time, the place, the people and the joy that something natural and beautiful can bring into our lives.