Tuesday, August 23, 2011


For centuries, it was a common belief in rural Ireland that white butterflies were the souls of the departed and that they were to remain in this form until Judgment Day. We have our share of whites, Small Whites, mostly, Pieris rapae. All those souls, flitting through our garden, waiting, waiting, for the End of Days. It was considered unlucky to kill a butterfly, especially a white one.

With one exception. A red butterfly was thought to be the Devil, in pursuit of those flittering white souls. Red butterflies were killed. We have reds in our garden, Peacocks and Painted Ladies. I let them be.

Those enchantments have gone by the board. We caught just the end of them when we arrived here 40 years ago. Among the older generation of country people the fairies and were still very much alive. Holy wells were tended. Sacred trees fluttered with brightly colored rags, communications with the shadow world. Everything held a secret meaning, defined by tradition. Rural Ireland was still the land of the Golden Bough.

Then, overnight, it vanished. Ireland joined the European economic community, farmers prospered, and that was the end of faerie.

Now there is another shadow world. It permeates every nook and cranny of creation. It is as immaterial and invisible as the world of faerie. I am speaking, of course, of electromagnetic radiation, bearing into hearth and home Hollywood's own brand of fairyworld, another kind of make believe, no less a figment of imagination, no less fulfilling (or unfulfilling) of our longing for more to life than meets the eye.

For myself, I look for yet another kind of enchantment.

When I see the butterfly, I imagine in my mind's eye the extraordinary chemical machinery of life, the winding loom of he DNA, the proteins linking like lock and key, the ceaseless hubbub of molecular commerce that goes on behind the scenes, from egg, to caterpillar, to chrysalis, to adult. Surely, no land of faerie is more magical than the transformation that occurs in the chrysalis, when a creepy-crawly caterpillar curls up in a self-made sack and rearranges its molecules to emerge as a winged beauty.