We enter the butterfly enclosure through a curtain of large, light chains painted white. There are doors behind and before.
And perhaps this unusual start, setting the stage for visiting such unusual creatures, is somehow an appropriate entrance for a display of tropical butterflies. Certainly it is so from a practical perspective, as its purpose is to protect the butterflies from escaping into a more extreme climate than the conservatory in which they were raised. So we step in under and through the chains, through the inner door, and into the room with them.
The first thing I notice is that there are not a great many butterflies immediately visible. A fair number of humans — one couldn’t miss the humans — but not butterflies. As I begin to step around the space the latter appear slowly, becoming visible as one’s eyes become more quiet. There they are, clinging upside down to tree branches, perched on various food sources carefully laid out for them, and occasionally winging their way across the spaces between.
I try to slow down among the mill of people, quietly watch, catch the pace of these creatures, so much larger than any I have seen in my garden. The crowd is not fast; it is gentle among the butterflies, fascinated. There are many photographers, some with little smartphone cameras, some with professional gear. They are quiet, but it is a room full of people, people trying to see the butterflies.
I lean closer to the trees and flowers to see them myself. They remain stationary, many half-concealed, ignoring the people all round them.
There they are. Flashes of blue in the shadows. The soft dip and flare of sooty wings in mid-air. A spark of red on bright flowers. A gleam of silver opening, closing, opening. A flash of pattern like the spots in a peacock’s tail, or the eyes in a snake’s head as it whisks through the trees.
And yet. And yet…
I find myself remembering the bright days of late autumn in my garden in Arizona. Days when Monarchs and Queen butterflies came drifting through, ecstatic to find a bank of lantana or a big shrub of lavender in bloom as they made their way southward for winter.
I am no butterfly whisperer — just a gardener and an amateur photographer — but I learned then to lower my own rhythms, wait and watch a while, let the butterflies adjust to me and me to the butterflies. They have their own quiet world among the flowers. It is my garden; nevertheless I am intruding, uninvited, but hopefully not unwanted. I have time, and I am the only human among a crowd of great-winged insects.
Now in the exhibit, I try to lower my speed to really see the creatures, make some contact, however slight. Am I the only person talking to the butterflies?
A Heliconius, black, white, red, sips from a lantana bloom in front of me. I wait till it seems fairly comfortable with my presence, then I pull up the camera. The butterfly sips and sips, its tongue curling neatly into the flowers. It is watching me as it drinks. I am watching it. As this sort of contact repeats itself in various ways, I realize this is what matters most to me: the privilege of interaction. As equals in some immutable sense.
It’s not just about viewing these wonderful beings. They, too, are sentient. They may well wonder as much about me as I about them.
The graceful Caligo that lands on my shirt front is my guest now. Thankfully, the humans don’t seem to find it strange that I talk to the butterfly on my shirt. It rests there for what seems several minutes.
Eventually it leaves, and I wander back into the crowd. We mill slowly around, looking for different types, avoiding getting into each others’ camera angles.
I see the occasional dead butterfly. I know enough about life cycles to not be overly perturbed; death comes to all creatures, and so far as I can tell, this is a very well-cared-for and safe environment for the butterflies. I do wonder a little as I see someone photographing one of these. I wonder as much at myself as anything. I have a purely personal but very bitter aversion to photographing anything once the life in it has ceased.
But there are many live ones as well. There is the Emerald Swallowtail that is just a little too high up in the tree for my short self to photograph properly. I take on, intermittently, a never-quite-successful quest to capture any of the great wings in flight (and in focus). There is the Greater Mormon that gives me the next-best option: wings spread, all dusty black and shimmering silver, against a feast of bright white zinnias.
At last it is time to go. I pass through the inner door and under the white chains. No butterflies have decided to escape on my shirt or head or shoulders. I am leaving the strange world of tropical butterflies carefully kept where people can come and discover them. I walk into the enormous outdoors, where my sister has been photographing native butterflies for a commission.
And I go home.
The flower garden in my new home is nearly non-existent because I have been sick much of this first summer. There are very few butterflies, and almost no bees. Their absence makes me feel lonely. A garden should be inhabited.
And yet I feel the freedom of creating my own garden again. Because this is how I like it: a shared world. The butterfly exhibit was an important reminder of the beauty of nature, of creatures from other regions of the world that are all intermingled now, a reminder that responsible humanity must seek to limit their own damage done.
But that is also part of my own vision in my own garden. Only it looks a good deal different.
This is how I like to live
The vision is to once again be able to creep out — with or without my camera — and watch the tiny things living their own lives in our shared space. To interact with them because it is our space: theirs and mine. They are as free to watch me as I am to watch them. I grew quickly tired of being a Human with a capital H. I like to feed the butterflies; I like to talk to the butterflies; I like to know they are not required to pose for me in a brief life inside a conservatory.
The little checkered butterflies are growing more numerous in the clover. And a flock of sparrows has taken over the fence on one end of the horse pens, as the mockingbird seemingly is no longer claiming the adjacent electric pole. The young, blue-tailed lizards continue to inhabit the front and back porches of the house. I talk to them when I see them. And I spotted a honeybee the other day.
This is how I like to live.