Mourning Cloak

"Look! There's a mourning cloak by the sandbox," I told the elementary students. We were having lunch at the picnic tables on the playground. The butterfly was being very cooperative, almost posing for our observation.

"Do you know what a cloak is?" Alas, the children are not familiar with Charlie Needs A Cloak, by Tomie dePaola, a wonderful picture book about a shepherd who shears his sheep, cards and spins the wool, weaves and dyes the cloth, and sews a beautiful new red cloak despite comic interference from the sheep.

A cloak is like Superman's cape, but big enough to wrap around you to keep warm. It's not like a coat, because it doesn't have sleeves. The elementary teacher and I were making progress explaining the butterfly's peculiar name.

"Mourning is when you feel very sad after someone you care about dies. People used to wear black clothes for a long time when someone died. A mourning cloak is a big black cape you would wear to a funeral," I explained.

The butterfly isn't actually black, but a very dark brown with hints of purple in the sunshine. Remember those stories of young brides wearing mourning clothes at their weddings before they left their families forever to set off on the Oregon Trail? Mourning cloaks also remind me of the movie "Amadeus" and the grieving common folk following Mozart's cortege.

Our butterfly sunning its wings by the sandbox seems dramatic, not gloomy. I was afraid of mourning cloak butterflies as a child. My parents made butterfly nets for us so I could earn a Campfire Girl bead by catching and identifying butterflies. Chasing butterflies was great exercise and fresh air whether we caught anything or not. Why was I afraid of mourning cloaks?

I wanted to check my facts before I said any more to the children. Mourning cloaks are quite unusual because they live up to ten months, longer than any other species. They can be seen on warm winter days when they come out of hibernation from under tree bark and other sheltered places. They settle on high, sunny spots to absorb heat through their outspread dark wings.

When we used to hike in Fontenelle Forest beside the Missouri River south of Omaha, we would see mourning cloaks flitting about in early February when snow was still on the ground. Mourning cloaks are the state butterfly of Montana, so I found some useful teaching information at www.montanakids.com. I also recommend the Butterfly Lab site for pictures of mourning cloaks and other butterflies every child should learn.

Mourning cloaks were scary, but not nearly as scary as miller moths. Now that I think about it, I probably first learned about "mourning" after the assassination of JFK when I was eight years old, about the same age I became a butterfly-chasing Camp Fire Girl. Going with my mother to pray silently in the nave at First Plymouth Church and trying to understand this national sadness and fear must be entangled in my butterfly memories. How does an eight-year-old understand grieving and mourning?

Miller moths are scary because when you get up in the night to go to the bathroom and turn on the light, they fly at you!

© 2007 Nancy L. Ruder


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