As you read this, caterpillars on farms in El Salvador and Costa Rica are doing the 16-legged hang, bingeing and worrying about the future.
Yesterday, you were an egg. Today, you're a munching machine, chomping down leaf after leaf, packing on the centigrams. Tomorrow, you're a pupa — and is that all there is to life? Is there something after you're harvested? Do you get eaten? Maybe what they say is true. That rumor that goes around every so often, that one day you emerge, or a smidgen of you emerges, a ridiculous little body with a tongue that unfurls to such a length that it'd make Gene Simmons envious. No more solid food — you only sip nectar and the like. You sport serious antennae. You wind up with just six legs, all spindly. And, get this, in this afterlife you get wings the size of the leaves. You fly! Unbelievable.
But there's more. You wake up in Detroit! Double unbelievable. And you're a star! No way. And you just flap about and flirt for the rest of your life. All two weeks of it. Could it be true?
And you-the-reader know all this to be true, because you spend some of your summer days at the Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden of the Detroit Zoo. You're there on a morning when a couple dozen damp-winged specimens, fresh from their chrysalises, are brought out from their display case, and gently placed on a tree limb; here they dry their wings until they're ready to join the couple hundred specimens, 20-30 species, already in flight, streaking their colors from ground level up to the glass-dome roof. You recall the African-American folktale in which God tidies his creation with pruning shears, snipping a little sun here, a little sky there, creating the little "flutter-bys" to keep the flowers company. But black folk laughed at the term, made it into something more tongue-friendly, and now white folks, black folks and everyone else call them butterflies.
A docent confides that it's more peaceful in the winter, when photographers come and plant themselves for the day, declaring this their Florida vacation. But even now you can meditate on the ebb and flow of the crowds and chatter: "Don't touch. … The powder will come off their wings and they won't be able to fly. … Could that have been butterfly poo I felt on my head? … I never thought of butterflies evacuating. … They like the sun. … They might be bugs, Daddy, but they're cute. … Oh, my god, that's cute. … Let's see if we can catch them. … Oooooo. … Don't touch. … They taste with their feet. It could be they like your shampoo. … I thought that was a leaf. … We don't want to be killing butterflies, now. … That's a pretty one. … They're going to sleep. … Don't touch."
And along with the stream of comments, visitors execute veritable dances in the presence of the flitting insects. Some small children chase after the butterflies, needing to be restrained. Others, confronted with a butterfly headed their way, duck and dodge as if under attack, sometimes with a look that mixes fright with glee.
You, for your part, recall childhood times spent chasing butterflies with a glass jar, or maybe even a fancy net. And if you're of a certain age, you're absolutely convinced that you saw a wider variety of butterflies than you see in the city today, when you rarely notice anything other than another boring white cabbage variety. Or could it be you're just not looking hard enough? Now rather than chasing after butterflies, you've found a way to sit in the jar along with them.
The Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden is inside the Wildlife Interpretive Gallery of the Detroit Zoo at 8450 W. 10 Mile Rd., Royal Oak; 248-541-5717; detroitzoo.org. Garden admission is included in the general admission charge of $7 for children, $11 for adults.