No butterflies

by Dana Wilde

Early September. The goldenrod and asters glow in the hazy afternoon sunlight. The maple leaves already show signs of dryness.

On this side of the chain link fence around the basketball court, two yellow butterflies chase each other like errant electrons. Dart and kiss, light, drop, skip along the goldenrod. There's hardly a breath of wind. Humid sunlight streams like gold through the grass. The two clouded sulphurs flit and separate, one goes east, the other west toward the field. The east-moving wings swoop up then down, then back, and suddenly the chaotic yellow tandem pops together again, nips and flutters on beyond the cattails as if they were tethered on a string.

Photo by Dana Wilde. Clouded sulphur butterfly on hawkweed blossom, Unity, Maine.

Are they mating? Or fighting? Or playing? Can butterflies play? What compels companionship airborne in minds so small?

It's not the wind blowing them in dancing tandem across the field. It might not be will exactly, either, since consciousness, according to many neuroscientists, doesn't even exist – your awareness is nothing more than biochemicals firing in not-yet-mapped, arcanely complex processes. You are not there.

And neither are the butterflies, when you come down to it. The humid air, the goldenrod, the asters, the smell of fallen acorns, the sulphurs are nothing more than momentary configurations of energy. The total amount of energy in the universe, some physicists calculate, is zero.

This whole September afternoon is a leaking illusion. None of it is real at all. No more real than a dream of butterflies, or a butterfly's dream of me. They're not playing, and there's no delight in what they're not doing. No will at work, no dance, no form, no consciousness, no idea, not even wind, dry grass, or goldenrod, or asters, not the mown field or cattails, not the other side of the fence, and not the sultry air of autumn because September is a fiction too.

The neuroscientists are wrong. None of this is there at all. I can see it's not there, like an image in a mirror.

Whatever is happening, it is not this. And it's big.

Dana Wilde, a longtime teacher of contemplative literature, has been a Fulbright lecturer in Shanghai and Xiamen, China. His revelations of the natural world around his house in Troy, Maine, can be found online in the Backyard Naturalist column of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel newspapers.


  1. What delightful synchronicity! Just this morning, I overheard a humorous reflection in my mind, "Am I Chuang Tzu dreaming I'm writing a poem about a butterfly? Or am I the poem dreaming Chuang Tzu?" ---Lindsay


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