A shift of light. A cloud slides away from the sun and, quite suddenly, the air fills with motion. Wings of gold flutter as at least fifteen Monarch butterflies alight from the garden bed in front of which we stand. Flutter. There is no more apt word for the movement. It is delicate and delightful.
My one year-old daughter begins to shout, “Bubba! Bubba!” I scoop her up and we chase after the objects of her enchantment. We find them all around us as they glide and then settle on new blossoms, sipping, fueling, recharging their bright existence.
A month later, the air cooling as summer slips towards autumn, we return to the local butterfly garden. The change is immediately palpable. Blossoms close and drop as the plants go to seed. My eyes scan the air. Will we see any “bubbas”?
Determination and time our friends, we watch and wait. And finally, we glimpse golden movement. We scamper over and there it is: a Monarch feeding. But something is not right. The wings that open and close are badly damaged with chunks missing.
As I watch the butterfly shift to a nearby flower, thoughts pour through me. I marvel at the creature’s ability to fly, given the state of its wings. I wonder how far it can fly. Far enough for the journey ahead? And I consider what to say to my daughter, who is avidly watching the Monarch’s every move. She understands and notices so much, often more than I appreciate.
The butterfly extends its damaged wings and I see my daughter’s eyes widen, taking in something new. A “bubba,” yes, but with distinct differences.
How to explain hurt, loss, and potential hardship? These questions have assuredly stumped parents for centuries. Why is the world unjust? Why do beings die too young? Why do many people not have enough to eat? Why isn’t every butterfly perfect and whole? How about every human?
And then there is the more recent addition: how to look into the eyes of beautiful young people freshly in love with the equally beautiful world and explain that the world and our future as part of it are threatened. The threat didn’t come from a predatory bird or some other unavoidable fact of life. It came from human choices. Including our own.
As I felt my daughter turn, kick and grow within me, I pondered these questions. I walked the woods during the nine months of her gestation and I talked to her and to the birds and trees and squirrels. Over and over again, I came back to: “I’m so sorry.” And, importantly, “I’m here to learn with you. I am ready to try a different way of being. Together, we begin anew.”
Back to the butterfly garden and one of the first explanatory tests of my young parenthood. As I contemplate what to say, my mind travels with those tattered vibrant films on the journey ahead, one filled with mystery, one that has stunned scientists and filled spectators with wonder.
Riding powerful currents of air with wings the thickness of just one cell, this creature of vibrant orange traverses state after state, headed south over the U.S. With stops along the way, the butterfly eventually soars above the open water of the Gulf of Mexico. Below, waves roll and dolphins breach.
The epic journey culminates in southwestern Mexico, thousands of miles from the starting place in rural Maine. Amidst the branches of oyamel fir trees, also known as “sacred trees,” this single butterfly from Maine huddles together with millions of fellow fliers. The miniscule hearts slow and the butterflies sleep through the cooler winter months.
This butterfly has never made the journey ahead. She hatched here in Maine, probably shedding her chrysalis only weeks prior. And yet, she knows exactly where to go. Her flight will be guided by a sense of purpose and direction as of yet unexplained by scientists, and not for a lack of trying.
But the journey is really the second miracle of this butterfly’s young life. Already, she transformed in a process with details that must touch the heart and ignite the imagination of even the most cynical among us.
Hatching from an egg as a caterpillar during late-summer, this creature then ate her way through leaf after leaf on the many milkweed plants that line the little butterfly garden. As she grew, she shed her skin again and again.
After about two weeks of gluttony, something alchemical within the caterpillar’s body caused an intricate chain of reactions. First, she began to slow. Meals were less frequents, movement less ambitious. Then, she selected a particular location and created a silk-like mat to which she attached herself, hanging in a J-shape for nearly a full day. Finally, the caterpillar shed her skin for the fifth and final time, revealing the light green of the forming chrysalis beneath.
Within the chrysalis, and in just about two weeks time, the caterpillar essentially disintegrated into goo. From that goo, the butterfly was constructed. The caterpillar’s mouthparts were no longer needed. A proboscis, long legs and reproductive organs formed. And, of course, the beautiful golden and black wings.
For the first hour after the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis, it is unable to fly. In the first stage of its new existence, it is at its most vulnerable, completely at the mercy of any predators.
I watch my daughter watch the butterfly and I am overwhelmed with admiration. Transformation is not easy. And yet, when I consider the future we share, I think: we all must transform.
Transformation is exciting. It’s also scary. To fully dive into the creative goo from which we can collaboratively rise anew, we must be willing to shed that former self, prior understandings of who we are and our place in this world. We must allow ourselves to be transformed, this time by love for the earth and our fierce need for one another.
Perhaps it is that love, a deep, muscular love rooted in respect, that will guide our way, serving as the internal compass that somehow leads us exactly where we need to go on a journey never before taken.
All great transformation begins in the minds of those who would envision a different way and the hearts that courageously lean into change. And so as I watch my daughter watch the butterfly, I realize I do not need to provide answers. Instead, it is my responsibility to create the fertile ground and the space–the chrysalis, if you will–for her to weave her own vision. And, like any true vision, it will be one complete with frailty, vulnerability and the many imperfections in this world and the possibility and hope of radical transformation.
The butterflies shouldn’t be able to make that journey, whether tattered or perfectly whole. But they do.