The backyard view from the kitchen’s breakfast area looks out on one of the garden’s accent pieces, the butterfly bush. The shrub is easily five and a half feet tall, and each shoot terminates in a panicle, a pyramid-shaped blossom consisting of tiny, densely-packed purple flowers. It is classified by botanists as buddleja davidii. Nurseries refer to it as the Harlequin variety. I prefer butterfly bush because the name so definitively bears witness to the reality my eyes see. It seems to me that for the past several weeks it has been flash-mobbed by butterflies. Perhaps they feel intimations of their month-and-a-half-long lifespan and are eager to sip as much nectar as possible before they shuffle off that mortal coil. Perhaps, like us, they feel the looming of fall in the late summer. Or, more likely, I simply have not been paying attention. Whatever the reason, the butterfly bush swarms with butterflies, mostly monarchs with their distinctive orange and black-veined wings, and swallowtails, their yellow wings edged and spiked with black. As their long tongues extract nectar, those wings pump lightly, like two chambers of a contented heart.
In art and literature, butterflies often symbolize the soul. This symbolic connection makes sense given the metamorphosis that delivers butterflies to the world. Emerson says that power is a becoming; power “resides in the transition from a past to a new state,” and “that the soul becomes.” And that soul-becoming is power, for in it is the availing force of life itself, “not the having lived.” We emerge into self-possession, ready to lay claim to our deepest humanity. The butterfly begins humbly as a caterpillar, but, in obedience to a biological urge, creates a chrysalis from its own sloughed skin, from which it emerges fully-transformed, ready, at last, to enjoy the golden summer of its winged adulthood. To use the words with which Darwin concludes Origin of Species, “from so simple a beginning,” a form “most beautiful and most wonderful” has “been . . . evolved.”
I know, of course, that butterflies have a mundane function: the pollinate flowers. But I like to think they serve the more powerful purpose of simply being beautiful, of being a fluttering, flitting calligraphy of beauty, inscribing the air and annotating the blossoms upon which they light—small joys, small wonders, small graces to nourish the soul they symbolize.