In Sharman Apt Russell’s novel “An Obsession with Butterflies,” she writes that “adding butterflies to your life is like adding another dimension.” And, in truth, it is. For those of us in urban environments, tuning out the chaos that envelops our lives is often fundamental to our success and sanity. Among the bustle and buzz of city life, dampening our senses has become a necessary normal so that we may focus our attention on the smaller sphere of our own lives. This skill where we effectively detach ourselves from our surroundings can lead to a lingering disconnect when we find ourselves in nature.
When urban life overwhelms us, it is not uncommon to seek refuge in nature; foreboding buildings on concrete become a cradle of trees on a carpet of wildflowers, the roar of traffic becomes muted melodies of bird song and rustling leaves, and crowds of rushing people become a myriad of dancing swallows, flycatchers, and warblers. Although most of us are aware of this general change in scenery, we often fail to notice the butterfly; once we do, though, everything changes.
As children, many of us were filled with wonder upon seeing a butterfly, and thrilled if we were lucky enough to catch one in our little net. This sense of wonder wanes as we mature into adults, but to get it back is a remarkable thing. Once you really notice the butterflies, you become aware of how spectacular they are as a natural being – aerial art, one might say - and the dimension of butterflies opens.
Perhaps it was sparked by a Canadian Tiger Swallowtail fluttering so close, you felt the air tremble from the beat of its wings, or by reflecting on the intricately striped antennae of a Spring Azure landing on a nearby leaf. Whatever made you notice the butterflies is unimportant, because you’ve entered a new world of noticing them all. Where before there was emptiness, there is now the cryptic colours of a Common Wood Nymph resting on a fallen apple, the buttery yellow of a Clouded Sulphur atop a blade of timothy grass, or the jagged wings of a Satyr Comma perched on a tree trunk.
Butterflies have been popular as a symbol in numerous cultures throughout history, with different languages representing them with varying words, symbols, and stories. In ancient Greek, they were called psyches, which meant “soul” or “breath.” The English word butterfly likely came from the Old English word buterfleoge, which may mean "flying butter," associated with stories of witches who turned into butterflies to steal milk and butter.
Today, we often associate them with transformation, focusing on the transition from dull caterpillar to striking butterfly, and often applying it to personal growth. Their rich history and symbolic role in society is just as interesting as their ecology and diversity. Whatever interests you about the butterfly, there is always more to learn and discover.
Beginning your journey into the butterfly dimension is simple. While just being aware of them in your surroundings is a start, a field guide and a net is an excellent next step in becoming a butterfly naturalist. EALT’s conservation lands boast a variety of different ecological areas and habitats that attract a large diversity of butterflies. In addition, our custom-made Butterfly ID Guide is a great first step in identifying common butterfly species found at our natural areas and in the Edmonton region.
The next time you are out and about, look just a little closer at the fluttering colours around you - it may ignite a spark that opens up an entirely new dimension of beauty.