Find me on Substack »
Butterflies and Joy
To Save the World or to Savor the World
If there were some way to measure the joy we get from nature, to grade it on some sort of scale, then 200 orange butterflies in a meadow full of purple wildflowers would probably rank somewhere near the top. Now put that meadow beside the ocean on a crisp autumn day.
And if for some reason you don’t particularly care for butterflies, then imagine your own kind of joy. It doesn’t really matter to me what you come up with, as long as you can love it in multitudes. Like maybe those chocolate marzipan candies or the Bach cello suites (all of them) or the Boston Red Sox. And the love has to run deep, like a mother and child or Orpheus and Eurydice.
Now consider the butterflies — Monarchs in a meadow at the southern end of Monhegan Island, 11 miles off the Maine coast. A million years of evolution had directed the Monarchs to leave the island, to launch out to sea, southwest on a flight they’ve never undertaken, a migration guided by nothing more than the winds and the sun and the butterflies’ own genetic memory, a journey of 2,400 miles toward Mexico.
But the Monarchs did not leave Monhegan Island that day. Headwinds from the south kept them bottled up near the shoreline, where they floated around and sipped nectar from a patch of purple asters no more than 50 feet in diameter. Fair enough. So there, at the edge of the meadow, I stopped to consider my options. I had two:
Option One would be to photograph the butterflies for my work as a field biologist (yeah, I actually get paid to take pictures of butterflies). Option Two would be to catch as many of the Monarchs as I could in my net and tag them with a little sticker so that their journey might be tracked as part of a community science research project. Each option — employment or science — seemed worthy. So which did I choose?
Once I got inside, one among Monarchs, I dropped to my knees and looked around. Nothing else — just me and the flowers and the fluttering.
Instead, slowly, gradually, into the fluttering mass of orange and black, into the waving meadow of violet and lemon, into this lovely maelstrom … I waded. And once I got inside, one among Monarchs, I dropped to my knees and looked around. Nothing else — just me and the flowers and the fluttering. And only at that moment, when neither my camera nor my net mattered, did intellect give way to the joy of these butterflies.
Recalling it now makes me think of something E.B. White said: “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem,” White told The New York Times in 1969: “But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
I had planned my day by carrying a camera and a net. But once I stopped to be with the butterflies, and to be nothing else, to have no other purpose with them, I needed no plan. The Monarchs went from being data to being an experience. And that was a sacred reminder for me. Rather than things to photograph or to catch, the Monarchs reverted to wonder: a swarm of orange butterflies in a purple meadow beside the sea.
Better yet, in the meadow I became the migration. I found myself in one of the great events in all of nature: the audacious journey toward Mexico of an insect that weighs less than the wind. And I loved it like Orpheus and Eurydice.
To save or to savor. I’m not as conflicted as E.B. White. I’ll opt for both. At one point in the meadow, I looked up and outward, southwest across the Atlantic, where I could sense the gentle curve of Earth. I imagined a lone Monarch at sea cutting a flight path toward Mexico. And in that moment of wonder, the world got a bit smaller, it stopped spinning so fast — and became so much more worthy of saving.
PhotoShop “painting” above © Bryan Pfeiffer
More on Monarchs
Migrate or Die
The fate of late-season Monarchs in migration on the East coast. Many may not make it to Mexico.
A Monarch and a Tribute
A tale of a tagged Monarch and a tribute to the late Glenn Jenks, a teacher, musician and autumn light on the island.
"To Pimp a Butterfly"
Sorry, Kendrick Lamar. You may have won a Grammy, but you got beat in the "pimping" by a lawn-care company.