Here to return to
Gay creatures of the element,
That in the colors of the rainbow live. — MILTON.
Speak to me as to thy thinkings. — SHAKESPEARE.
IT happened to me once to spend a long summer afternoon under a linden-tree, reading “Middlemarch.” The branches were loaded with blossoms, and the heavy perfume attracted the bees from far and near, insomuch that my ears were all the time full of their humming. Butterflies also came, though in smaller numbers, and silently. Whenever I looked up from my book I was sure to find at least one or two fluttering overhead. They were mostly of three of our larger sorts, — the Turnus, the Troilus, and the Archippus (what noble names!), beautifully contrasted in color. The Turnus specimens were evidently the remnant of a brood which had nearly passed away; their tattered wings showed that they had been exposed to the wear and tear of a long life, as butterflies reckon.
Some of them were painful to look at, and I remember one in particular, so maimed and helpless that, with a sudden impulse of compassion, I rose and stepped upon it. It seemed an act of mercy to send the wretched cripple after its kindred. As I looked at these loiterers, with their frayed and faded wings, — some of them half gone, — I found myself, almost before I knew it, thinking of Dorothea Brooke, of whose lofty ideals, bitter disappointments, and partial joys I was reviewing the story. After all, was there really any wide difference between the two lives? One was longer, the other shorter; but only as one dewdrop outlasts another on the grass.
“A moment's halt, a momentary taste
Of Being from the well amid the Waste,
And lo! the phantom caravan has reach'd
The Nothing it set out from.”
Then I fell to musing, as I had often done before, upon the mystery of an insect's life and mind.
This tiger swallow-tail, that I had just trodden into the ground, — what could have been its impressions of this curious world whereinto it had been ushered so unceremoniously, and in which its day had been so transient? A month ago, a little more or a little less, it had emerged from its silken shroud, dried its splendid party-colored wings in the sun, and forthwith had gone sailing away, over the pasture and through the wood, in quest of something, it could hardly have known what. Nobody had welcomed it. When it came, the last of its ancestors were already among the ancients. Without father or mother, without infancy or childhood, it was born full-grown, and set out, once for all, upon an independent adult existence. What such a state of uninitiated, uninstructed being may be like let those imagine who can.
It was born adult, I say; but at the same time, it was freer from care than the most favored of human children. No one ever gave it a lesson or set it a task. It was never restrained nor reproved; neither its own conscience nor any outward authority ever imposed the lightest check upon its desires. It had nobody's pleasure to think of but its own; for as it was born too late to know father or mother, so also it died too soon to see its own offspring. It made no plans, needed no estate, was subject to no ambition. Summer was here when it came forth, and summer was still here when it passed away. It was born, it lived upon honey, it loved, and it died. Happy and brief biography!
Happy and brief; but what a multitude of questions are suggested by it! Did the creature know anything of its preexistence, either in the chrysalis or earlier? If so, did it look back upon that far-away time as upon a golden age? Or was it really as careless as it seemed, neither brooding over the past nor dreaming of the future? Was it aware of its own beauty, seeing itself some day reflected in the pool as it came to the edge to drink? Did it recognize smaller butterflies—the white and the yellow, and even the diminutive “copper” — as poor relations; felicitating itself, meanwhile, upon its own superior size, its brilliant orange-red eye-spots, and its gorgeous tails? Did it mourn over its faded broken wings as age came on, or when an unexpected gust drove it sharply against a thorn? Or was it enabled to take every mischance and change in a philosophical spirit, perceiving all such evils to have their due and necessary place in the order of Nature? Was it frightened when the first night settled down upon it, — the horrible black darkness, that seemed to be making a sudden end of all things? As it saw a caterpillar here and there, did it ever suspect any relationship between the hairy crawling thing and itself; or would it have been mortally offended with any profane lepidopteran Darwin who should have hinted at such a possibility?
The Antiopa butterfly, according to some authorities a near relative of the tiger swallow-tail, has long been especially attractive to me because of its habit of passing the winter in a state of hibernation, and then reappearing upon the wing before the very earliest of the spring flowers. A year ago, Easter fell upon the first day of April. I spent the morning out-of-doors, hoping to discover some first faint tokens of a resurrection. Nor was I disappointed. In a sunny stretch of the lonely road, I cane suddenly upon five of these large “mourning-cloaks,” all of them spread flat upon the wet gravel, sucking up the moisture while the sun warmed their wings. What sight more appropriate for Easter! I thought. These were some who had been dead, and behold, they were alive again.
Then, as before under the linden-tree, I fell to wondering. What were they thinking about, these creatures so lately born a second time? Did they remember their last year's existence? And what could they possibly make of this brown and desolate world, so unlike the lingering autumnal glories in the midst of which, five or six months before, they had “fallen asleep”? Perhaps they had been dreaming. In any event, they could have no idea of the ice and snow, the storms and the frightful cold, through which they had passed. It was marvelous how such frail atoms had withstood such exposure; yet here they were, as good as new, and so happily endowed that they had no need to wait for blossoms, but could draw fresh life from the very mire of the street.
This last trait, so curiously out of character, as it seems to us, suggests one further inquiry: Have butterflies an æsthetic faculty? They appreciate each other's adornments, of course. Otherwise, what becomes of the accepted doctrine of sexual selection? And if they appreciate each other's beauty, what is to hinder our believing that they enjoy also the bright colors and dainty shapes of the flowers on which they feed? As I came out upon the veranda of a summer hotel, two or three friends exclaimed: “Oh, Mr.——, you should have been here a few minutes ago; you would have seen something quite in your line. A butterfly was fluttering over the lawn, and noticing what it took for a dandelion, it was just settling down upon it, when lo, the dandelion moved, and proved to be a goldfinch!” Evidently the insect had an eye for color, and was altogether like one of us in its capacity for being deceived.
To butterflies, as to angels, all things are pure. They extract honey from the vilest of materials. But their tastes and propensities are in some respects the very opposite of angelic; being, in fact, thoroughly human. All observers must have been struck with their quite Hibernian fondness for a shindy. Two of the same kind seldom come within hail of each other without a little set-to, just for sociability's sake, as it were; and I have seen a dozen or more gathered thickly about a precious bit of moist earth, all crowding and pushing for place in a manner not to be outdone by the most patriotic of office-seekers.
It is my private heresy, perhaps, this strong anthropomorphic turn of mind, which impels me to assume the presence of a soul in all animals, even in these airy nothings; and, having assumed its existence, to speculate as to what goes on within it. I know perfectly well that such questions as I have been raising are not to be answered. They are not meant to be answered. But I please myself with asking them, nevertheless, having little sympathy with those precise intellectual economists who count it a waste to let the fancy play with insoluble mysteries. Why is fancy winged, I should like to know, if it is never to disport itself in fields out of which the clumsy, heavy-footed understanding is debarred?