A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
For most people, the arrival of spring means relief from the winter's dreariness and gloom.
But I have an additional reason to hail the advent of warm weather and sunshine: the return of butterflies, particularly the red admiral — a species with which I have a special relationship.
Red admirals are mostly black, with white spots near the wing tips, orange bands on the hind wings, and a bright red band on the forewing. They migrate over long distances and are found across the United States as well as southern Canada, Central America, Europe and Asia.
They are also a friendly species and are known to sometimes land on people. For more than a decade, they have repeatedly landed on me.
It started July 7, 2007, when a red admiral landed on my shirt collar as I walked in Washington, DC near the office where I worked. This was a busy area of office buildings and automobiles, with little vegetation. It seemed an unlikely setting for a butterfly.
When my little friend didn’t take off after a half-hour or so, I went into a photography shop to have my picture snapped with it and then took it across the street into a restaurant.
I called my wife, Muriel, to say I would be coming home early -- and bringing a butterfly. Then I managed to hail and enter a taxi cab without dislodging my passenger., although it shifted from my shirt collar to my necktie as we headed out to my home in Maryland.
To my amazement for days after that, if I came home before dark, the butterfly, which I recognized by one tattered wing, would fly out from the garden to greet me.
I named it Poppy, after “papillon,” the French word for butterfly.
Since Poppy first landed on me, other red admirals have continued to visit me near my garden almost annually. They land only on me and no one else in my family, although they sometimes briefly touch Muriel when she’s taking photos of me with one of them.
Most remarkable, perhaps, is that red admirals also have visited me in Minnesota and New York.
Two showed up at my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday celebration in St. Paul. They landed on no one but me.
The same thing happened three years later on the eve of my daughter’s wedding in Upstate New York. As I was standing in a parking lot, two red admirals circled my head. One then dropped onto the pavement in front of me and opened and closed its wings for about 10 minutes as wedding guests streamed past.
Last year’s encounters with red admirals began one evening near the end of May as Muriel and I were looking out a kitchen window. When I thought I saw a leaf on the roof of our car, she immediately recognized it as a butterfly. I’m sure it was waiting for me to come out. The last of the butterflies stayed until mid-August.
(By the way, Muriel’s almost always first to spot the butterflies. She sees things in nature that I regularly miss.)
So what’s my peculiar attraction for butterflies?
At a friend’s urging, I contacted a research entomologist at the Smithsonian Institution. He said the first one might have been attracted to my sweat; butterflies need salt, which sweat provides.
A scientist neighbor and a medical doctor friend both suggested that the butterflies had to be attracted by something chemical. The problem with that explanation is that the butterflies seem to wait for me on my car or a bush, while I’m more than 20 feet away looking at them through a window. At that point, I’m clearly not projecting anything chemical very far. As soon as I go outside, they tend to alight on me.
A biology professor and butterfly expert at Harvard University wondered whether the color of my clothes might be a factor. But they’ve landed on me no matter whether I was wearing a white shirt or a blue one, so we couldn’t determine a definitive answer.
In early September, I spent much of a day inside the library at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology searching for everything I could find on red admirals,. I was looking for something that might describe landings on the same person year after year.
With guidance from a museum employee, I looked at numerous sources including a 1922 article on the taste organs or “contact chemo-receptors” of red admirals. It said nothing about butterflies landing on people as a reaction to these chemo-receptors, and I found nothing that came close to relating to my own contacts with the butterflies.
It’s possible that part of what’s happening here is that I’m sensitized to red admirals now. I notice them in my environs in a way that others, who haven’t had the same close encounters, do not. Yet that still doesn’t explain their repeated landings on me.
Once last year while standing in my garden, for no reason I can offer, I recalled a terrible scene I’d witnessed more than 50 years ago as a reporter during the Vietnam War. I was transported to a moment when I came upon a convoy of South Vietnamese refugees that had been hit by a North Vietnamese artillery strike. There were no survivors as far as I could tell.
It was one of those things you can never get out of your head. Then a butterfly appeared. Was it trying to tell me something? Who can say?
In the end, I’m left with a feeling of gratitude. I think I’ve been blessed by butterflies.
Dan Southerland is a former foreign correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and the Washington Post, and was executive editor of Radio Free Asia
To entomologists, a red admiral is known as a Vanessa atalanta. Some say that's a variation of the 18th century phrase "red admirable" — with “admirable” meaning spirit or soul, although one butterfly expert traces the name back to 1707 and colors of a new British flag.