Last night a sudden, heavy rainstorm swept through my town.
High winds brought down electric wires, roads were flooded, and
any number of branches, sticks, twigs and leaves were blown out into
the streets, onto rooftops and into people's yards. I myself
spent the better part of the morning picking up the debris that had
been scattered across my front and back lawns. I gathered up
torn leaves and broken branches, put them into an
old wheelbarrow and carted them over to dump in a wooded lot that
lies between my house and the cemetery. Also I decided to take
to the woods a small dead branch that I'd been keeping up in my
bedroom as a kind of decoration. My eight-year-old niece had
happened to bring it into the house one afternoon while visiting early
last summer, and I'd liked its shape: its crooked, twiggy growth
seemed to me to reveal an interesting balance within the seeming
imbalance of a chance line and empty space. I've noticed since
then that many broken branches offer a similar interest in design
– but that stick had been the first. I'd leaned it up on
my dresser against the mirror and for a year it had remained there.
Today, feeling that I had at last exhausted its value,
I decided the time had come to discard it.
I took this stick with the others I'd gathered into the wooded lot
and dumped them from the wheelbarrow. As I was turning to go
back, I noticed lying on a piece of moss at the base of a tree a
small butterfly with wings of dark blue. Its wings were neatly
folded, but it was the bright upper part of the wings that showed,
not the duller underside as is usually the case. Bending down
to take a closer look, I saw that instead of resting with its legs
against the ground, the butterfly was lying on its back with its
wings folded up over its legs. Gingerly I touched it with my
finger. It fluttered a little, then came to rest again with
its wings folded as before. I thought: "It must
I remembered a book I'd once read as a child of the life of a
butterfly. At the end of the book the insect lay on the ground,
close to death: weak and exhausted, it was discovered by a nest
of marauding ants and torn apart for food as it lay. This seemed
to me cruel – but the book had explained that this was nature's
way. The weak and the maimed, the old and the sick, must sometimes
be sacrificed in order to ensure the survival of the young and the
strong. In this manner the health of the ecosystem as a whole
Then I remembered something else I'd once read, this time a story about
a monk and a layman. The monk and the layman were walking down
a village street in their native country one day when they happened
upon a starving dog. The layman wanted to buy food for the
dog, but the monk had said that this would be wrong. Feeding
the dog, he declared, would be interfering with its destiny –
and so they let it be. But this story had always seemed problematic
to me. Wasn't it possible, I'd thought, that their chancing
upon the dog and feeding it was also a part of its destiny?
Once we become aware of suffering, on however small a scale, we
become a part of its context. Our destiny and the destiny of
the sufferer intertwine. Still, the monk had said that to
feed the dog was not right. Perhaps, I thought, he knew
better than I.
I got down on my knees to examine the butterfly more closely.
Its legs were folded tightly above its body and its proboscis, that
long, straw-like appendage used to suck nectar, was fully extended.
I knew from having raised caterpillars as a boy that when a butterfly
first hatches from its chrysalis its proboscis is split lengthwise
into halves; the butterfly must seam these halves together before
it can drink. Perhaps that was what this butterfly was doing
now. I looked carefully at its wings. They were not faded
or ragged at the edges, as is usually the case with butterflies that
are old; but neither could I say that they looked bright and new.
Their color was a bit smudged. It occurred to me that this butterfly
may have hatched from its chrysalis, then fallen to the ground before
it was quite able to fly. I touched it with my finger again.
It flopped and fluttered about some more on the moss.
Thinking that the butterfly may indeed have been newly hatched, I
ran home quickly and prepared a little sugar water in a glass.
Hurrying back with the glass to the woods, I dipped a finger into
the water and held a droplet of it to the end of the butterfly's proboscis.
It grew very still, the proboscis seeming to throb faintly; I think it
drank. Then it flopped about once again on the patch of moss,
perhaps a little more energetically now; but still it did not fly.
Again it came to rest with its wings folded in that curious upside-down
position. I re-examined its legs, so tightly bunched against its
body; put a twig against them to see if it would grab onto it and
clamber up – but the legs were rigid, completely stiff.
There was no life in them at all. Whether the butterfly had
lived its life to completion and now lay dying, or had hatched from
its chrysalis somehow deformed, I could not tell. It continued
to flop about on the moss.
I did not quite know what to do. I didn't like to see it this
way and felt that, in feeding it the sugar water, I may have only
prolonged its suffering. Suddenly, and without really thinking
about it, I stamped down on the butterfly with the heel of my shoe.
The least I could do, I figured, was to put it out of its misery.
When I looked again, there was only a dark blur of wings smeared against
the green of the moss.
As I made my way back home again, there came into my mind yet another
story I'd read. This one was about a woman who, following an auto
accident, had been pronounced dead for a time, then was revived.
The woman had later said that while she was dead she'd been made to
re-experience every act performed while living, and was also made to feel
the consequence of every act, both positive and negative. She said
that she'd even been made to suffer the pain of every insect she had killed.
I wondered: Would I too someday be made to feel the pain of this
butterfly's extinction? And would that pain, which surely must not
for me be great, be more than or less than the few moment's sadness I would have
felt had I left the butterfly to suffer its natural fate? For the
butterfly, I would suppose this to have been the crueler death.
I think that the monk of my story, the monk who had seen the starving
dog, must have once faced a similar dilemma of conscience. Of the
two courses open to him, he chose the one of non-interference.
In making this choice he revealed the meaning of – and the price
paid for – the privilege of being able to apprehend each living
thing's complete personal freedom in relation to its destiny. Of
course, it might also be said that in giving his advice to not feed
the dog, he was interfering in the destiny of his companion –
perhaps even altering the design of his whole life . . .
But that is another story.