Yesterday, when J. was watering the flowers in the patio he discovered a swallowtail butterfly on the dwarf lemon tree. It had floppy wings. J. had never seen a butterfly with floppy wings, so he peered at it rather intently. He realized that it had just emerged from its chrysalis and was waiting for its wings to stiffen before it could fly. Here is a picture:
The metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a chrysalis and subsequently into a butterfly is among the most intriguing mysteries of life on Earth. What could be more amazing? However, J. had never considered the packing, folding, and unfolding involved, like a parachute opening in the air. A swallowtail is a big butterfly, perhaps the biggest in this locale. The chrysalis from which it emerged was about an inch long from point to point and perhaps 3/8’s of an inch thick. No wonder that the comparatively huge wings were floppy. They had been origami folded into a very tight space. And now they were majestic indeed!
It Flies Away
J. left the new butterfly to mature a bit and went back to writing. When he returned to look at it an hour later, it was startled and flew away, perhaps before it was quite ready. It landed in a hedge. When J. looked for it later, it was gone. The following day, J. saw a swallowtail fly happily by, perhaps the same one.
This caused J. to think about butterflies as a source of similes and metaphors. Their lives and their beauty are fleeting. Their flight appears joyful, random, and carefree. They remind us that life is short, beauty is ephemeral, and we should live well while we can.
In the case of the butterfly, something green and ugly transforms into something dramatically beautiful. This made J. think about a book he had once taught, Ovid’s Metamorphoses. J. thought that the butterfly scenario was quite the opposite of what generally happens in Ovid. In Ovid, nearly every story involves a beautiful maiden becoming a tree, a cow, a bird, or even an echo, often due to a lustful encounter with Jupiter.
But perhaps even more powerful for the metaphorical imagination is the metamorphosis from a crawling thing to a flying thing. Flying transcends the gravity that pulls us down. Flying stands for freedom. We all want to fly in some form or another. And we all imagine a future in which our present circumstances are thrown off and we can fly toward our true potential.
Flight Will Come
J. thought back to the swallowtail, waiting until its wings were stiff enough to fly. When big changes happen, we are not always ready to fly. Our wings are not stiff enough. But hopefully, flight will come.