In the days before the terrible flood ruined Montpelier, before it devastated our businesses and neighborhoods, I had now and then been visiting some caterpillars living beside the river below my home in the city.
Orange and black and named Baltimore checkerspots, the spiky larvae had been eating and growing on the leaves of turtlehead, ash, and honeysuckle. Soon enough, I had hoped, each caterpillar would stop feeding, become a chrysalis, and undergo one of nature’s great makeovers to emerge as a butterfly flashing its colors on gossamer wings.
But on July 10 and 11 the rains came, and the rivers rose to flood the caterpillars’ leafy plant community — my downtown community as well. Little was spared. The waters came for cafes and bars, banks and shops, city hall and the fire station, our two movie theaters and two drug stores, our hardware store, post office, and too many offices, homes and apartments.
The flood also came for our literature. Montpelier’s public library and two bookshops were devastated. At a time when independent booksellers are, like some wildlife, threatened, piles of soggy books were, after the human suffering, among the more disturbing casualties of this disaster.
As soon as the waters withdrew, however, we Vermonters went to work. We mucked out mud from basements of downtown shops and from the homes of families we’d never met. We hauled to the curb soggy belongings and lifetimes of memories. We donated cash from our savings so that businesses and families might recover and rebuild. In community meetings we spoke of resilience and preparations for the next flood, which will surely come for more of us on a warming planet.
And yet more than two months after the storm, Montpelier’s downtown remains a construction zone. Walking past gutted storefronts and offices on Main and State streets, I fear for the future of my city because despite our caution or intellect or brute force, despite our best-laid plans, none of us can wholly protect what we love and what’s vulnerable.
Nobody knows that better than a parent. Or maybe a field biologist. Despite my life’s work, I can never fully safeguard the most precious things in nature. Bulldozers will come for the songbirds. Floating bits of plastic will come for the whales. Fires and floods will come for the butterflies — and for us.
We move onward, nonetheless. Although some of Montpelier’s businesses are gone for good and others are months away from returning, my battered state capital is at long last showing signs of life. Displaced merchants are selling goods online and at our Saturday farmers market (temporarily relocated to higher ground). Shops and eateries are gradually reopening.
But nothing has been more hopeful and affirming than the return of our independent bookstore, Bear Pond Books. Its reopening on Sept. 1 was more than a triumph over the brown water, mud, and despair, more than a testament to the volunteers and donors who helped Bear Pond’s owners recover. It was a celebration of community.
I rode my bicycle to the reopening, where I met up with friends and colleagues. There among aisles of books, we talked of art and literature, the rare birds we saw this summer, and what we’d heard about the fate of other downtown businesses. It did not matter that Bear Pond’s venerable, creaky wooden floor was a casualty of the flood. Our bookstore was back.
Pedaling home, I passed Kellogg-Hubbard Library, which is providing outdoor computer services and taking book reservations online for curbside pickup beneath a big white tent. With the library planning to reopen with a party on Oct. 7, and another bookshop, The Book Garden, on its way back, I pedaled onward with a bit more optimism for our capital city and for other flooded communities across Vermont.
Maybe even for those butterflies.
Soon after the floodwaters receded, I wandered down to the river to check on the caterpillars, finding none remaining in the muddy vegetation. But before turning for home, I noticed a splash of orange on the underside of a fern frond. These were not caterpillars, however — not anymore.
At least two of them had cheated death and gone about their metamorphosis to become adult Baltimore checkerspot butterflies. And they gave me yet another sign of hope for life persisting beside the river and in my city’s downtown.
They were mating.
Bryan Pfeiffer is a semi-retired field biologist and lecturer at the University of Vermont. He lives in Montpelier.