As a boy I collected butterflies. I hunted them, killed them, and mounted them in an impressive display case. I knew their names, their habitats, their habits. Over 100 species. Unhappily, worms destroyed my entire collection. I see now that my youthful intention had been to capture the butterflies’ beautiful essence. I have outgrown my need to capture butterflies. I am content to view them alive and free, awed by their living beauty.
Working in the yard one day I watched my son Brian, then 9 (now 26), chasing a butterfly with a homemade pillowcase net. “I caught it!” he exclaimed. I held my breath as he peered into the net to examine his prize. He soon released the butterfly to live another day. A smile of wonder lingered on his face. I breathed a relieved sigh to see him possess the maturity I had lacked at his age. I had taught him to love beauty. And he had learned. Learned to love beauty without needing to clutch at it, control it, kill it, and mount it on a board, only to lose it in the process. He had learned a Life Ethic. Here is the poem I wrote about that occasion. (Happy birthday Brian.)
“I caught it! I caught it!” cried the boy
over my weed-whacker whir
after waving his pole-clamped pillowcase
across the sky.
Two wide eyes and a victory smile
raced to the porch where
two trembling hands
coaxed the delicate creature
through the screened bug-box door.
A bundle of awe,
the boy sat still and stared
at this astonishing bringing-together
of color and form,
at this life.
Father watched from the garden rows,
remembering his own youth’s hunt
for small, helpless prey,
whose fate was to rot
with a pin through the thorax,
and a tag with a name and a date.
But the magical fluttering rainbows had faded
fast behind their showcase.
“Nice catch, son,” father admired
with a pat and a ruffle.
“What are you going to do with him?”
“Well, I think I’ll watch him for a while, and
then I’ll let him go.”
Good boy, father sighed, as
a boy released his heart’s hold and
a captive rainbow again
graced the sky.
(I took the above photo of a Milbert’s Tortoise Shell in 2007 on the banks of Duck Lake in the high Uinta Mountains of Utah.)