Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Petting Butterflies

It’s good to have fun. Because sometimes when you are having fun the people around you are having fun, too—second hand!

Checking Out Mirror Neurons At The Grocery Store

A couple of mornings back I saw one of the biggest butterflies I’ve ever seen.

It was a tiger-stripe swallowtail. Beautiful, bright yellow. And very large. With its wings spread it was as large as my hand, fingers spread, from thumb to little finger.

It was fluttering around the potted flowers outside our local grocery store.

I stopped to watch it and, as I watched, it settled on a large bunch of small purple flowers right in front of me.

I kneeled down to get a closer look.

As the swallowtail inserted its proboscis into the little purple flowers, it basked with its wings spread wide and flat. (It was a cool morning and I guessed it was trying to let the sun shine onto its darker body and warm up. Butterflies use their wings to help them thermo-regulate.)

Butterflies have a kind of soft fur on their thorax and abdomen. The tiger-stripe swallowtail has dark body fur counter-pointed by bright yellow patches of fur. It’s very beautiful.

Because the swallowtail was basking with its wings wide, I decided to try something I’ve done three or four times in my life.

I very, very gently and very, very slowly extended my right index finger. I very, very gently touched the swallowtail on the soft fur of its thorax and very, very gently petted the butterfly down along its back.

The swallowtail’s wings shivered a little so I knew it was aware I was touching it, but I just petted it and then took my hand away. The swallowtail flexed its wings slightly, but remained in place feeding at the small purple flowers.

That’s pretty cool, I thought. How many people get to start their day petting a butterfly?

I stood up, took a last look at the yellow butterfly and then turned to enter the grocery store.

A tall, heavy-set middle-aged guy was standing just outside the door. He had bulging grocery bags in both hands but he was staring at me.

“Did you just pet that butterfly?” he asked.

I smiled, nodded.

“That’s pretty cool,” the man said. “And it’s pretty weird, too. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone pet a butterfly before. How did you do that?”

I explained that I just moved very slowly and very gently, always trying to look to the butterfly that I meant it no harm at all.

“Sometimes it works,” I said, “and sometimes they fly away.”

“That’s pretty cool,” the man said, again. “I never knew you could do that. Pet a butterfly. I’m going to have to give that a try.”

He didn’t look like the kind of guy who’d be interested in touching a butterfly. But that’s a strange thing about strange things: You just never know about things until you actually find out.

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