The Butterfly Effect
A man's one-in-a-million close encounter with an insect convinces him that the theory is true: The fluttering of gossamer wings can change the world

By Dan Southerland
Sunday, August 24, 2008

IN JULY LAST YEAR, a butterfly landed on my shoulder while I was taking a break from my office for a few minutes one afternoon to talk business with a colleague. I was sure the butterfly would soon fly off. We were walking through an L Street canyon near 19th Street NW that was surrounded by granite, concrete and glass. I had never seen a butterfly in this part of the city before. Now I had one clinging to me. It migrated to my shirt collar and stayed there.

After half an hour or so, with my new friend still perched on me, I decided that I should have a picture taken to record the

butterfly's remarkable arrival out of nowhere. So together we ducked into a MotoPhoto shop on 19th Street, just north of L.

The gentleman running the photo shop seemed to find nothing unusual about a man walking around with a butterfly on his collar and began clicking away with his camera. I thought that his flash would scare the butterfly away, but my little pal stayed put.

I decided to get the butterfly something to eat at the Smith & Wollensky steakhouse across the street. My colleague Catherine Antoine and I plunged into the rush-hour traffic on 19th, slipping between cars that were jammed together waiting for the light to change. Neither the noise nor the fumes seemed to bother the butterfly.

I asked the waiter standing outside the door of the steakhouse to find a corner table for "me, my colleague and the butterfly."

"Right away, sir," responded the waiter, acting as if there was nothing extraordinary about a butterfly dropping in at a steakhouse. We ordered calamari and two glasses of pinot noir, and I asked the waiter to get something for the butterfly.

The waiter, Emad Salha, returned with Erika Kowkabi, the restaurant's night manager, who said that they had conducted a Google search that showed butterflies like overripe fruit. They would prepare some chopped strawberries for the little guy, she said. Restaurant manager Phil McMaster also showed up to see whether he could be of assistance. On the wall behind us, portraits of George Washington and Ben Franklin looked down on the scene. The butterfly took no interest in the strawberries, and as I took out my credit card he left my shoulder for the first time, landing on the window blinds next to the table. Catherine managed to use her office identification card to coax the butterfly back to my shoulder.

It was dawning on me that I knew nothing about butterflies. My new friend's upper forewings sported reddish orange bands set against a black-and-brown background. He measured a little more than two inches from wingtip to wingtip.

A couple from Austin, sitting with their son at a neighboring table, enjoyed listening to our conversation about the butterfly, and we exchanged pleasantries. It occurred to me that a butterfly could bring out the best in people, even in this unlikely setting of dark wood, brass trim and rib-eye steaks.

I somehow lost my sense of time. We ended up discussing Middle East politics with Emad, our Palestinian American waiter. Finally I took note of the time again. We had spent nearly two hours with a butterfly in downtown Washington.

I paid the bill at exactly 5:52 p.m. (I've kept the receipt as a souvenir) and decided I might as well call it a day and head home -- with the butterfly. I phoned my wife, Muriel, to ask her to put off the movie she had planned to go to and wait for me, because I'd be bringing a butterfly home.

At 19th and M, with the butterfly on my shoulder, I hailed a cab. I immediately asked the driver to put up the windows so the butterfly wouldn't fly out. He quickly glanced back at me as though I must be slightly crazy but soon got used to the idea of chauffeuring a butterfly. During the cab ride, the butterfly stayed on my shoulder at first but then shifted to the middle of my necktie. We arrived at my home near Glen Echo and the Potomac River in about 30 minutes.

Muriel and our 20-year-old daughter, Shauna, were waiting when the cab drove up. I exited the car -- very slowly -- and took the butterfly straight to the empty birdbath in front of our house. Somehow we got the butterfly into the birdbath and brought him some chopped bananas and bright red and purple salvia from the garden. After clutching at each of the flowers, he settled on one bunch and embraced it.

I decided to call in witnesses, two of our most spiritually oriented neighbors, Gina Di Medio Marrazza and Elizabeth Sammis, to see the butterfly.

Gina immediately pronounced the butterfly a reincarnation. It was someone from a past life who had come to visit. "He's trying to tell you something," she said.

Liz had a more practical explanation. "This is a message to you, Dan," she said. "It's telling you to slow down. Come home earlier. Pay attention to what's really important in life."

Shortly after 8 p.m., with the light fading, we decided to leave the butterfly to the birdbath and our garden, which happened to be full of such butterfly-friendly plants as coreopsis, phlox, lilies, salvia, coneflowers and a single butterfly bush. We figured that we'd just had an amazing experience, and now it was over.

On July 11, the day after I met the butterfly, I returned home early. Muriel picked me up at the bus stop at 7:15 p.m. A few minutes later, I was trudging up the steps to the front door when Muriel almost shouted, "He's back!"

"I saw him in the air," she said. "He was hovering over the birdbath."

Then she spotted him among the cascading leaves of the cherry tree. I saw nothing but the tree. Finally, he landed on a dry spot on the edge of the birdbath.

I soon discovered our visitor could be easily identified. He was a red admiral, also known as Vanessa atalanta, described in several books as among the friendliest of butterflies. They've turned up in locations as diverse as the summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire and the corner of Wall and Broad streets in New York's financial district, according to a 2005 book by Rick Cech and Guy Tudor. They can be found as far north as southern Canada, throughout the United States, as far south as Guatemala, in most of Europe and Central Asia, and in parts of North Africa.

In southern Europe, red admirals migrate in large numbers, but they fly less frequently en masse in North America. Cech and Tudor have documented mass flights in the spring along the East Coast about once a decade in recent years, "often followed by precipitous population crashes."

In the D.C. area, the red admirals appear to be among the most common butterflies, although the average life span is just three weeks. They turn up along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, on the edges of swamps and forests and even downtown, as I discovered. And, based on my experience, they can be amazingly adaptable. I always thought of butterflies as dainty, but it appears that some can be quite aggressive.

According to the Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America, red admiral males are "especially pugnacious, darting out at almost anything crossing their territory, even humans!" I went over to where my red admiral was perched on the birdbath. He flew up, and at that point a minor miracle occurred. He was joined by another butterfly. I thought at first that it was a female and imagined that our butterfly had found a girlfriend. But I later learned that based on its flying behavior, the second butterfly was probably a male. The two butterflies flew in loops, what I came to view as a sort of spiral dance. Male red

admirals typically chase one another to establish dominance over a particular territory. How could I be sure that my friend was male? No particular reason, just instinct. I came up with a name for him -- Poppy -- from the French "papillon" for butterfly. If I was wrong about his gender, Poppy would do just fine for a female, I thought.

So began a period of more than a month during which Poppy appeared 25 times.

If I came home after dark, he wouldn't show. But if I arrived at dusk, about 7:30 or 7:45, he invariably appeared. And day by day, he became, from my point of view, increasingly friendly and playful. I began to keep a log of his comings and goings as well as of his stunts, which reminded me of a fighter pilot who fired no weapons but just loved flying.

At first, I told very few people about Poppy. I felt somehow that I needed to protect him. My cousin Phebe, who lives in a renovated log cabin near Lexington, Va., and is wise in the ways of nature, seemed to think the butterfly might be attracted to the white shirt I was wearing when I first encountered him on L Street. So for several days, I put on the same white shirt every evening and then waited for the butterfly in front of my house. A neighbor walked by once and asked me what I was doing standing there in my white shirt.

"Looking for butterflies," I replied. But I decided that the shirt couldn't be the only attraction. I learned that butterflies are strongly attracted to the salt in human sweat, so it looked as if it was the sweat, not the shirt.

How did I know it was the same butterfly that landed on me each time? The answer was in his behavior. It was so consistent that it was hard to imagine another butterfly precisely duplicating it. Based on my research, it is rare for a butterfly to return to the same person time after time. Indeed, I at first thought that I must be having a unique experience. But a zoologist and amateur naturalist, Judith Shaw of Mitchellville, alerted me to a report about a boy in California who once befriended a red admiral.

Gregory Richards, 9 at the time, had an amazingly similar experience to mine, according to a United Press International story that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in July 1969. For 20 days, a butterfly believed to be a red admiral fluttered around and landed on Gregory when the boy played in the evening in front of his grandparents' home. Gregory's rendezvous with the butterfly, named Mr. Flutter by his grandmother, occurred daily, usually about 7 p.m. A local entomologist said he was amazed and couldn't understand what attracted the insect to the boy.

Richards, now 48, reached by phone at his home in Kingsburg, Calif., confirmed the story, adding that regular visits from a red admiral butterfly occurred for three consecutive summers at his grandparents' place. "I looked for him every evening," Richards said. "But if other kids were around, he wouldn't come close to me."

As early as July 12, Day Three of his stay with us, Poppy began to establish a pattern. He would emerge from the thick camouflage of the cherry tree. I couldn't see him there, but Muriel had an uncanny ability to detect his movements.

Then he would drop down to the birdbath and land on the top of the lamppost. I found that when he was on the lamppost or birdbath, I could come within six or seven inches of him and say a few words without disturbing him. He would sit at first with his wings closed, the scales on their underside looking like dried leaves -- a sort of camouflage. But then he would slowly open his wings, showing the bright orange-red bars that make this butterfly so easy to identify. It was a gesture that I saw again and again, and I took it as a sign that he knew I wouldn't harm him.

One thing is certain: Almost

nothing seemed to startle Poppy. But I made it a rule never to try to touch him. I was convinced that such a move would appear threatening. As it was, the only time I saw him dart away from his perch on the lamppost in apparent fear was when a car drove by with its sound system booming.

Even the appearance of a catbird, which watched the butterfly from a close distance on two or three occasions, didn't seem to bother Poppy. Muriel tried shouting out once to alert Poppy to the bird, but he ignored the warning. On Day Five, July 14, Poppy tried something new. He danced in the air, then landed on the lamppost and birdbath, but this time he also landed on my head, stayed there briefly and then popped onto my left shoulder. Then he teamed up with his partner again. And, finally, two more red admirals joined them and together they all showed off their flying ability, chasing one another in loops and eights. My 25-year-old son, Matthew, witnessing this, said "they zipped and dipped." I was amazed at the speed achieved by these small creatures.

From then on, it became almost routine for Poppy to land on my head once or twice in an evening. Once he landed on the rim of my glasses and sat there for a while. He also began opening his evening show by buzzing me just inches above my head.

On July 21, Poppy launched into an even more playful phase and kept a closer watch on me. He appeared at the front door of the house and fluttered about as if inviting me out to play. When I came out to greet him, he hovered, waited until I got within inches of him and then darted around the corner as if playing hide-and-seek. I found him clinging to the brick front of the house. When I approached, he opened his wings to display his brilliant colors.

That same day, he watched me rebuild a low border of stones along the driveway in front of our house. I had plans for a long, white, quartzlike stone that particularly delighted me and that would fit perfectly into a spot next to the driveway. I lifted the stone to move it to its new location. Almost as if he had anticipated this, the butterfly showed up ahead of me next to that very spot. I told Muriel that he must have been reading my mind. And, along with the lamppost and birdbath, the stone became one of the butterfly's favorite perches.

On Sunday, July 22, I missed the usual hour of Poppy's appearance. After dark, when I returned to the house, Muriel told me that at dusk Poppy had shown up several times at the dining room window as she and Shauna were having dinner. He seemed to be looking in, waiting for me to appear.

The butterfly obviously had no fear of Muriel, Shauna or Matthew. When I came home too late to see Poppy, he would sometimes wait for a while on the lamppost. Muriel would go out to tell him she was sorry that I could not be there. Muriel, Shauna and Matthew all stood outside with me several times while I waited for Poppy. But he never landed on them.

I became so attached to the butterfly that I would try to leave work early enough to get home in time to see him. One evening I walked out of the office and realized that I was going to be too late. So instead of taking my usual trip by Metro and bus, I jumped in a taxi and rode straight home, an extravagance, but it was worth it. Poppy showed up just a few minutes after I reached the house.

My feelings at this point were approaching love for this small creature. Poppy seemed to have a real personality. Our dog, cat and rabbit had to play to a certain extent by our rules. The cat, of course, did call the shots sometimes. But Poppy called all the shots. He didn't depend on me for food or water. He decided when to show up and when to leave. Except for possible concerns about predators (birds, lizards and other insects, for example), he was as free as you can get.

I'm convinced that he also had a tremendous sense of joy. The novelist Vladimir Nabokov picked up on this. A passionate amateur lepidopterist, Nabokov once wrote that the red admiral is "a most frolicsome fly." Nabokov also liked to refer to the butterfly as "Red Admirable," a name that according to at least one account was used as far back as the 18th century.

I began paying a lot more respect to all insects. Poppy taught me how little we know about these small creatures. He didn't completely change my life, but he certainly enhanced my ability to question. If a moth wandered into our house, I resisted the temptation to swat and instead tried to find a way to carry it outside. I also got a spider and a beetle out of the house recently without harming them.

August began with more butterfly duets and head and shoulder landings. Poppy seemed to fly faster than before and enjoyed chasing his friend. He also took to buzzing our car, a silver-colored Saturn. The car never looked more beautiful.

I began to prepare myself psychologically for Poppy's departure. Red admirals sometimes migrate, and I clung to the idea that my butterfly friend would soon head southward to a nice setting in Florida just ahead of winter. I figured it would take him weeks to get there. I later learned that this was a bit of a romantic notion at this stage in the butterfly's life and that he probably faced imminent death. Other red admirals at this point were nowhere to be seen. Poppy seemed to be on his own.

On Aug. 15, I stood outside for half an hour waiting for Poppy. Then I gave up, guessing that he was gone. Suddenly he flew overhead near the cherry tree. He soared fairly high, so high that I lost sight of him. I'd like to think that it was a final salute. I never saw him again.

Neighbors asked if he would come back. I explained that this was unlikely. But I held on to the notion that a small miracle had occurred. I had made a connection with the natural world that I had never dreamed possible.

I later described my experience to one of the most respected experts in the field, Bob Robbins, research entomologist and curator of lepidoptera for the Smithsonian Institution. Robbins said much of the red admiral's behavior in the evenings related to staking out territory and perching to look out for female butterflies. The butterfly might have been attracted to my sweat and might even have been using my head as a perch.

But Robbins found it unusual that I could approach within inches of the butterfly when he was on the lamppost or birdbath. Most butterflies will not let people come up to them, he said. He also thought it unusual that the same red admiral would stay in my garden and return time after time for more than a month. But he conceded that the butterfly's consistent behavior might mean it was indeed the same male butterfly. Finally, the idea that a butterfly would stick with me in a confined space such as a photo shop, then stay on my shoulder for more than an hour in a steakhouse and later ride home with me in a taxicab -- that, he said, was "really, really unusual."

Had it not happened, and fortunately I have witnesses to confirm that it did, Robbins would have considered the cab ride to be "utterly unlikely."

I asked Robbins if he was aware of butterflies living in downtown Washington.

"They're there, but they're not very conspicuous," he said. "They're not very happy there. They don't like the noise, the cars and the pollution."

Well, I can certify that at least one D.C. butterfly managed to escape that fate, take a taxi ride out of town and survive to have the time of his life in the suburbs. And for 37 days, so did I.

Dan Southerland, executive editor of Radio Free Asia, is a former reporter and Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post.

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