Lessons From a Butterfly Under Glass

Once a year our family makes the trip to a butterfly conservatory in Cambridge, Ontario. The moment we arrive in the humid antechamber is a moment of almost oppressive stimuli; as if a thousand fairy tales had been boiled down and dumped on a single moment of time. The moment continues throughout the tour, which I spend grinning into the air like an idiot.

It ends abruptly, however, as we exit the conservatory only to find the very same butterflies – albeit encased in plastic resin – available for purchase. I suppose it was a noble gesture on behalf of the curators to allow us to take home our own specimens; and yet as we gaze on these butterflies, frozen forever in mid-flight, we all agree that something has been lost in translation.

Perhaps the obsession with miniaturization/preservation lies somewhere in the unease we feel around stubbornly insoluble elements – butterflies floating just out of reach, a river rolling on in relentless evanescence, or the elusive scent of  autumn passing just out of reach.

I recall an episode in that celebrated classic series, The Bernstein Bears, in which Brother and Sister pillage bear country in order to support their budding entrepreneurial interests. Maps to secret honey caches, bouquets of rare wildflowers, quarts of berries, and various other Bernstein family secrets are offered on the cubs fiscal altar; such unbranded beauty, they concluded, amounted to a criminal waste of opportunity.

Jim Hench, a book reviewer for the LA times review, hones in on this trend as it relates to nature writing and mourns the pragmatism which has blunted both the author’s and reader’s ability to observe, reflect, and appreciate a world beyond themselves.

“However sophisticated recent memoirs have become. . .the genre is by definition human-centered and inward looking. The best nature writing looks away from the human narrator and seeks ultimately to lose the writerly self in a natural world both incomprehensible by, and often hostile to, human perception. That outward focus and appreciation of human limitation are key components of a balanced, comprehensive understanding of the world.”

I can only assume Mr. Hench has in mind the people who, in hopes of making appreciation more individual friendly, are determined to redefine the terms. Rene Gaudette is refreshingly candid when he remarks that, “If you really want to change society, encourage self appreciation.”

Now as anyone who has spent any amount time with an honest self-appreciator will tell you, the prospect is about as stimulating as a three day old bran muffin. And yet, faced with a feast of stars and seas, Dantes and Shakespears, barnacles and blue-footed boobies, many still prefer mealy mouthfuls of self-appreciation.

Though some of us might consider ourselves past the instruction of myth and legend, there is one that might prove instructive. One day a young man by the name of Narcissus, namesake of the same insult, made the mistake of scorning the advances of a local nymph. His carelessness provoked the ire of Nemesis, a goddess known for punishing hubris abusers, who rewarded him with the gift of terminal self-obsession. Malnourished and utterly spent, the handsome youth eventually ends his days accompanied only by his own reflection.

Here is the inevitable end of nature-appreciation in the hands of self-appreciators.

As I gaze into the mirror of the butterfly’s translucent prison, I catch sight of my own reflection and turn away – just in case.

-Benjamin Inglis, Media Assistant