On the Meaning of a Winter Butterfly / by Brandon Keim

One morning several weeks ago, during a freakish warm snap of mid-winter sunbathing weather, I had coffee in a pocket forest down the street. An orange flutter caught my eye. There, on the leaf litter, radiating in a sunbeam, was this little guy.

A butterfly in February. Such an unexpected and beautiful sight. And I didn’t know what to make of it. Not just in the sense of not recognizing the species, though I didn’t, but also the fact of his appearance during that unseasonable warm spell. I wondered whether he’d been awakened too early, before the flowers that sustained him had bloomed. Maybe he was doomed.

So on the one hand, a beautiful and marvelous little being; on the other, a sign of our climate-changed times, in which nature’s synchronies are scrambled and animals starve and ecologies collapse.

These days a lot of moments have this vibe. What ought to be small moments of pleasure come with an asterisk: is it all just going to fall apart? Is a bluebird or an old oak tree just a last glimpse of a world already contracting, so that on an evolutionary time scale we’re like spectators enjoying the minor aesthetic details of the sixth great extinction?

I pushed those thoughts away and took a photograph of the butterfly. Later I looked him up: an eastern comma, one of the first species to emerge in spring. During a warm spell they might come out, then go back to hibernating when it’s cold again. Instead of flowers they feed on tree sap and rotting fruit. There was plenty of that around.

The butterfly would be just fine.

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