Jakob Hübner. Mancipium Fugacia argante, 1806.
Everything we see is expression, all of nature an image, a language and vibrant hieroglyphic script. Despite our advanced natural sciences, we are neither prepared nor trained to really look at things, being rather at loggerheads with nature. Other eras, indeed, perhaps all other eras, all earlier periods before the earth fell to technology and industry, were attuned to nature’s symbolic sorcery, reading its signs with greater simplicity, greater innocence than is our wont. This was by no means sentimental; the sentimental relationship people have with the natural world is a more recent development that may well arise from our troubled conscience with regard to that world.
A sense of nature’s language, a sense of joy in the diversity displayed at every turn by life that begets life, and the drive to divine this varied language—or, rather, the drive to find answers—are as old as humankind itself. The wonderful instinct drawing us back to the dawn of time and the secret of our beginnings, instinct born of a sense of a concealed, sacred unity behind this extraordinary diversity, of a primeval mother behind all births, a creator behind all creatures, is the root of art, and always has been. Today it would seem we balk at revering nature in the pious sense of seeking oneness in manyness; we are reluctant to acknowledge this childlike drive and make jokes whenever reminded of it, yet we are likely wrong to think ourselves and contemporary humankind irreverent and incapable of piety in experiencing nature. It is just so difficult these days—really, it’s become impossible—to do what was done in the past, innocently recasting nature as some mythical force or personifying and worshipping the Creator as a father. We may also be right in occasionally deeming old forms of piety somewhat silly or shallow, believing instead that the formidable, fateful drift toward philosophy we see happening in modern physics is ultimately a pious process.
So, whether we are pious and humble in our approach or pert and haughty, whether we mock or admire earlier expressions of belief in nature as animate: our actual relationship with nature, even when regarding it as a thing to be exploited, nevertheless remains that of a child with his mother, and the few age-old paths leading humans toward beatitude or wisdom have not grown in number. The simplest and most childlike of these paths is that of marveling at nature and warily heeding its language.
“I am here, that I may wonder!” reads a line by Goethe.
Wonder is where it starts, and though wonder is also where it ends, this is no futile path. Whether admiring a patch of moss, a crystal, flower, or golden beetle, a sky full of clouds, a sea with the serene, vast sigh of its swells, or a butterfly wing with its arrangement of crystalline ribs, contours, and the vibrant bezel of its edges, the diverse scripts and ornamentations of its markings, and the infinite, sweet, delightfully inspired transitions and shadings of its colors—whenever I experience part of nature, whether with my eyes or another of the five senses, whenever I feel drawn in, enchanted, opening myself momentarily to its existence and epiphanies, that very moment allows me to forget the avaricious, blind world of human need, and rather than thinking or issuing orders, rather than acquiring or exploiting, fighting or organizing, all I do in that moment is “wonder,” like Goethe, and not only does this wonderment establish my brotherhood with him, other poets, and sages, it also makes me a brother to those wondrous things I behold and experience as the living world: butterflies and moths, beetles, clouds, rivers and mountains, because while wandering down the path of wonder, I briefly escape the world of separation and enter the world of unity, where one thing or creature says to the other: Tat tvam asi (“That thou art”).
We look at the simpler relationship earlier generations had with nature and feel nostalgic now and then, or even envious, yet we prove unwilling to take our own times more seriously than warranted; nor do we wish to complain that our universities fail to guide us down the easiest paths to wisdom and that, rather than teaching a sense of awe, they teach the very opposite: counting and measuring over delight, sobriety over enchantment, a rigid hold on scattered individual parts over an affinity for the unified and whole. These are not schools of wisdom, after all, but schools of knowledge, though they take for granted that which they cannot teach—the capacity for experience, the capacity for being moved, the Goethean sense of wonderment—and keep mum about it, while their greatest minds recognize no nobler goal than to constitute a step toward such figures as Goethe and other true sages once more.
Butterflies, our intended focus here, are a beloved bit of creation, like flowers, favored by many as a prized and powerful object of astonishment, an especially lovely means of experience, of intuiting the great miracle, of honoring life. Like flowers, they seem specifically intended as adornment, jewelry or gems, little sparkling artworks and paeans invented by the friendliest, most charming and amusing of geniuses, dreamed up with tender creative delight. One must be blind or terribly callous not to delight at the sight of a butterfly, not to sense a remnant of childhood rapture or glimmer of Goethean wonder. And with good reason. After all, a butterfly is something special, an insect not like any other, and not really an insect at all, but the final, greatest, most festive and vitally important stage of its existence. As driven to procreate as it is prepared to die, it is the exuberant nuptial form of a creature that was until recently a slumbering pupa and, before that, a voracious caterpillar. A butterfly does not live to eat and grow old; its sole purpose is to make love and multiply. To that end, it is clad in magnificent finery. Its wings, several times larger than the body, divulge the secret of its existence in contours and color, scales and fuzz, a language both refined and varied, all in order that it may live out this existence with greater intensity, put on a more magical and tempting display for the opposite sex and glory in the celebration of procreation. People across the ages have known the significance of butterflies and their splendor; the butterfly is simply a revelation. Furthermore, because the butterfly is a festive lover and stunning shape-shifter, it has come to symbolize both impermanence and eternal persistence; from time immemorial, humans have embraced the butterfly as an allegorical and heraldic figure of the soul.
As it happens, the German term for butterfly, Schmetterling, is not very old; nor did all dialects use it. This peculiar word, while energetic in character, also feels quite raw, unsuitable even. Known and used only in Saxony and perhaps Thuringia, it did not enter the written language or general usage until the eighteenth century. Schmetterling was previously unknown in southern Germany and Switzerland, where the oldest and most beautiful word for butterflies was Fifalter (or Zwiespalter*), but because human language, like the language and script found on butterfly wings, is a matter not of reason and calculation, but of creative and poetic potential, a single name did not suffice and, as is the case with everything we love, language instead produced several names—many, in fact. In Switzerland today, butterflies and moths are usually referred to as Fifalter or Vogel (“bird”), with such variations as Tagvogel (“day bird”), Nachtvogel (“night bird”), and Sommervogel (“summer bird”). Given the multitude of names for these creatures as a whole (including Butterfliegen, or “butter flies,” Molkendiebe, or “whey thieves,” and a range of others), which also change according to a region’s landscape and dialect, one can imagine how many names must exist for individual butterfly species—though this will soon read “must have existed,” for they are slowly dying out, like the names of local flowers, and if not for the children who discover a love of butterflies and collecting, these monikers, many of them marvelous, would gradually vanish as well, just as many areas have seen the wealth of butterfly species die out and disappear since industrialization and the rationalization of agriculture.
And on behalf of butterfly collectors, young and elderly alike, a further point bears mentioning. The fact that collectors kill butterflies and moths, stick them on pins, and preserve them, that they may endure and retain as much of their beauty as possible, for as long as possible, has been deemed—often with an air of sentimentality—an act of rank barbarism since the age of J.-J. Rousseau, and literature written between 1750 and 1850 features the comical figure of the pedant unable to enjoy or admire butterflies unless they are dead and skewered on pins. What was mostly nonsense, even then, is almost total nonsense today. There are, of course, collectors of all ages who will never content themselves with letting the creatures live and observing them in the wild, but even the roughest of this lot help ensure that butterflies aren’t forgotten, that certain wonderful old names endure, and, at times, they contribute to our dear butterflies’ very survival. Just as a love of hunting teaches nothing less than to tend one’s prey, butterfly hunters were the first to recognize how the eradication of certain plants (e.g., stinging nettles) and other acts of violence in an ecosystem can lead to the rapid dwindling of butterfly populations. Not that the cabbage white or a similar foe of the farmer and gardener would suffer any losses; instead, it’s the finer, rarer, and prettier species losing the battle and disappearing whenever humans get too involved in a landscape. A true butterfly lover does more than treat the caterpillar, pupa, and eggs with care; he also does what he can to allow for as many types of butterflies as possible to flourish in his area. I myself, though many years have passed since my days as a collector, have been known to sow nettles.
Every child with a butterfly collection has heard of the much bigger, much brighter, much more brilliant butterflies found in hotter climes, in India, Brazil, or Madagascar. Some have even laid eyes on them, in museums or personal collections, because these days one can purchase exotic butterflies, preserved (often beautifully so) and mounted on cotton under glass; even those who haven’t glimpsed them have seen reproductions. When I was younger, I remember, I very badly wanted to see one particular butterfly that my books told me could be found in Andalusia in the month of May. And whenever I encountered some magnificent specimen of the tropics in a museum or a friend’s collection, I felt that indescribable delight of childhood tugging at me, something akin to the thrill I had, for instance, experienced as a boy the first time I spotted an Apollo. Accompanying this delight, which contains its share of melancholy, at the sight of such wondrous creatures I would often take that step out of my not-always-so-poetic life and into Goethean wonder, experiencing a moment of enchantment, devotion, and piety.
And later, what I never thought possible happened to me, as I myself sailed the seas to disembark on sultry foreign coasts. I traveled by crocodile-infested waters through tropical forests to see tropical butterflies in their natural habitat. With that, many of my boyhood dreams came true, and in coming true, some also tarnished. The fascination with butterflies, however, never flagged; this little door to the ineffable, this lovely and effortless pathway to awe, has rarely quit me.
*Translator’s note: The use of the word Zwiespalter for butterflies is in reference to the bipartite quality of their bodies.
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