By T. Emerson May,
I must confess that I was first introduced to the idea of holding butterflies by Orson Bean, a raconteur and sometime television gameshow guest from the 1960s and 70s, more recently starring in Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. He recounted on a television show many years ago how, as he was sitting alone in his back yard, he saw a butterfly flying about his head. In a moment of intuitive genius Bean determined to attract the little creature to himself and hold it. Bean began communicating to it telepathically, and to his amazement the butterfly landed on his outstretched hand.
Each regarded the other for a few seconds, perhaps no more than 20 seconds in all, and finally the butterfly flew away. I sat transfixed in my chair, listening to
Bean recount the story on television. At first my impression was that either Bean or I (or both of us) was crazy, he for telling the story and I for believing it. I filed the story away in the recesses of my mind
for some years. But from time to time, the story came out of its hiding place and reappeared in my conscious thoughts, always with a haunting, spiritual overtone.
At last, years later, I too was sitting in the back yard of my home one bright summer day and the story reemerged when I spotted a delicate yellow butterfly circling,
as if waiting for the control tower to grant landing permission. In a leap of pure faith, I directed my thoughts to the butterfly and, after a moment, he landed near me on the chaise lounge on which I was reclining.
My first conscious thought was, Thank you, Orson Bean. You were right.
Afraid of frightening the little gentleman, I simply sat there and looked at him for over a minute. I cannot tell you with certainty that the butterfly was male, but
I think he was. Sexing a butterfly is difficult for a layman. Finally, I determined that I would extend my hand in invitation to sit on it. To my absolute astonishment, he did exactly that. He moved very slowly but
confidently to my finger. Once he was situated I lifted my hand closer to my face and studied the butterfly for a few seconds. I studied his head, legs, his feeding tube (Butterflies do not have mouths; they have
long tubes which are kept tightly coiled when not in use.) At last he grew wary and flew away. I watched as he circled again and finally flew far across the row of houses behind ours and disappeared.
It is difficult to describe the feeling of exultation which I felt at that moment. I had communed with a butterfly! I did not know what we had said to one another,
but we had communed! I cannot say with absolute conviction that the interlude with the butterfly was a catalyst in guiding me toward a greater life understanding, but I am convinced that his appearance was surely
more than coincidence. For a long time afterward I looked for a cosmic meaning in the meeting, but sadly none ever appeared. I was extremely proud of myself for taking that leap of faith in offering my hand to the
butterfly. I suppose I expected God to paste one of those shiny metallic stars on my gradebook, the kind we got in the fourth grade. I gained some satisfaction by duplicating the episode almost at will throughout
that summer and in several summers to follow. I even developed a method of coating my finger with honey, or some other sweet substance, and feeding the butterflies who exhibited the courage to commune with me. It
was almost disappointing to see the little fellows suck up the nectar; I thought that what was originally a spiritual interlude was becoming just a feeding frenzy. They were going to McDonalds! But I finally
realized that I was underestimating the great courage they demonstrated by eating from my hand.
It was not until I recently read a remarkable book by Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, that I gained a better insight into the significance of holding a
butterfly. Moore says that not only each human has a soul, but that the world, the universe, a tree, even a butterfly has a soul. We enrich our soul by communion with trees and butterflies. Plains Indians called
butterflies Little people who fly. Perhaps they knew 10,000 years ago what we are only recently learning: Humankind is only one of several thousand species on the Earth; we do not own the Earth; we do not even
hold a lease on it. Native Americans understood that no species was superior to another. Each species, the elk, the buffalo, the butterfly has as much right to exist as humans. Perhaps when we hold a butterfly we
are saying, I could easily crush your tiny body, but I choose instead to simply hold you in my hand and think about our existence. We are exercising a discipline of power which is critical to the care of our soul.
Perhaps, too, the butterfly is caring for his soul by landing on our hand. Perhaps he is saying, My soul needs enrichment. I will land on this human and study his face, legs and hand. I sense that his soul is
rested and he will not harm me. It is typically egocentric for us to believe that any such episode would be defined on our terms, not the butterflys.
Moore talks about what he calls power of the soul. He says that it is a mistake to say that the soul must be weak and effete, by alluding to Christianitys
reference to lambs and sheep. There is no need, says Moore, to apologize for the power of the soul. Perhaps we add strength to our soul by inhibiting strength of body. As in judo or kung fu, we win the fight by
walking away from it, so we gain strength of soul by curbing our human need for destruction. Perhaps the butterfly understands this at a much deeper spiritual level than we are capable of understanding; perhaps that
is why he suffers us.
Perhaps the lesson in it all is that there is no lesson. The reason we stop and look at a sunset is the same reason we are compelled to stroke a butterflys wings. We
do a great disservice by analyzing everything for an underlying reason. A Chinese writer once asked, Am I a man dreaming that I am a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man? Would my life be
substantially different had I never reached out my hand to the butterfly? Very probably, yes, it would be. Would it be worse? That is very difficult to say. As Spock might say, Insufficient data to reach a logical
conclusion. Perhaps the butterfly would simply have landed on the readers hand, and perhaps the reader would have written this instead of the author. Then my soul would be enriched by reading the story instead of