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A whimsical journey on the wings of a butterfly

By Susan Eastman

This is a story about people who drive hundreds of miles in blazing heat to walk along dirt roads ragged with wildflowers and weeds, who swat helplessly at the hordes of bloodthirsty mosquitoes, who completely upturn their lives, their lawns, the interiors of their homes, who even change their paths in life -- all because of the class of animal Insecta, of the order Lepidoptera, from the superfamilies Papilionoidea and Hesperiodea. Yeah, all because of butterflies.

As I write this, I am looking into the tops of a cluster of palm trees outside my apartment window. It's midmorning, and the sun is already so bright, the green ribbons of the fronds glisten silvery in the light. Two kids walk down the sidewalk in front of the building on their way to the beach. I can't see them from where I sit, but I hear them yelling excitedly, "Butterflies! Mama! Look, butterflies! Mama, Mama! Butterflies!"

Maybe they have just learned the stages of butterfly life from egg to larva to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult butterfly. Maybe they've just mastered pronunciation of metamorphosis. That's a big word and a big idea, one that these children, so recently cast into human form and fluid about boundaries, seemed to understand with instinctive affinity. Or perhaps learning about the life cycle of the butterfly was one of the first lessons in which knowledge combusted with wonder. Now, pumped up by their teachers, they are beside themselves when they spot something fluttering through the flowers outside. Most adults don't shout with glee when we spot a butterfly, but we know a version of this excitement -- tamped down by experience into watchful appreciation.

The sidewalk curves in the shade of a large banyan tree in a park where I walk my dog. It continues past a stand of oaks and into a clearing planted with pentas (Pentas lanceolata) and firebush. On summer afternoons, the sun is so strong that it seems to have brought the world to a stop. It hones the edges of things. Even the blades of grass seem cut to diamond sharpness. The only sound is the low rumble of automobile engines revving and receding like waves in the background. Out of nowhere, two butterflies the color of lemon drops flutter through the air, draw circles around each other, tumble through the green stillness, and then suddenly disappear. They look like yellow rose petals. It's a tiny moment of transcendence.

At Butterfly World in Coral Springs, Ron Boender has culled this delight and amplified it into an experience designed to overwhelm. Boender, who opened the attraction in 1988, stocked it with brilliantly colored butterflies from around the world. His was the first such park in the Western Hemisphere and remains the largest one in the world.

New Age-cum-classical music by composer Steven Davidson greets the visitor approaching the complex. It is the soundtrack of the experience -- lifting, lilting, twirling notes of music carry you into a tropical garden lush with flowering plants. Water gurgles from fountains and tumbles over limestone rocks into dark pools.

Butterflies are everywhere, at least 3000 at any one time -- so many that signs caution visitors to check their clothes before leaving the garden area. Among the fluttering is the giant blue morph, an enormous butterfly with a wingspan of at least four inches. It is shaded the deep blue of the sky just after sunset. The red rim is a brownish-black creature with what looks like a ruffled red petticoat at the bottom of its wings, a surprise visible when it takes flight. The cythera is painted a patriotic red, white, and blue. And the wings of the tailed jay feature acid-green polka dots on a black background.

Adults wander through the garden dazzled, dazed, in a beatific stupor. Errant children chase the butterflies, hoping to capture the beauty in their hands. "I want one, Daddy," a five-year old boy implores.


Butterfly World is a world away from where Buck and Linda Cooper sit in the bed of a pickup truck bumping and grinding through what has got to be some of the flattest and ugliest country on earth. They are decked out as though on safari, in geeky-practical gear -- green rubber boots to wade through knee-high water, wide-brim field hats to shield against the brutal sun, handkerchiefs to wipe away sweat, long-sleeve shirts and slacks to ward off mosquitoes, water bottles fastened to their belts to replenish fluids, and binoculars strapped into shoulder harnesses so their weight is distributed across the back during a long day in the field. Linda, whose red hair is cut short in a no-fuss style that will take a lot of abuse from the elements, carries a small notepad and pen.

The Coopers have come to the Kissimmee Prairie State Preserve from their Haines City home on a mission. From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., with a break for lunch, they will count butterflies. They've been making the 96-mile drive once a month for a year now, since Kissimmee Prairie manager Parks Small asked the couple to do a monthly survey of the butterfly population, explaining he had noticed a large number of the black- and white-striped zebra swallowtails that spring. Small wanted to develop a list for visitors of the species commonly found in the park.

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