Pushcart 2013: Jennifer Lunden: “The Butterfly Effect” (Non-fiction) from Creative Nonfiction #40, Winter 2011

"Black Cloud" by Carlos Amorales

“Black Cloud” by Carlos Amorales

When a monarch butterfly sets off on its journey to its winter destination, it does not have to pay a $100 fee because its suitcase is 25 pounds over the limit. It does not have to take off its shoes, its watch, its coat and scarf, in case of bombs. It does not have to put its carry-ons in the overhead compartment or under the seat in front of it. It does not have to watch the flight attendant demonstrate how to put on a seat belt or an oxygen mask. It does not worry about going down. It does not worry.

I have a confession to make. This will surprise some of you who know me, but I’m afraid this story forces me to admit it, as shameful as it may be, and as hard as I’ve worked in the past to leave this particular part of my personality behind: I’m a bigot. No, not against race or gender or ethnicity or religion or any of the usual factors; I’m prejudiced against people who say things like, “I have multiple chemical sensitivity.”

You may be wondering what all this has to do with butterflies. I kind of wondered that myself, while reading this essay – “First,they came for the butterflies…”? And I found an answer. The lesson: sometimes even bigots can learn something if we try.

At the age of nine, Lunden became enchanted with monarch butterflies. She describes in detail her experiences with the caterpillars and chrysalises, how she would watch them go through their stages, and, “when the moment was right,” unfurl damp wings, detach, and eventually fly away. She interweaves this with the ecological plight of the monarch butterfly: their habitat shrinking, as a direct result of “Roundup-Ready” crops and weed-killers that eliminate the milkweed they need for reproduction along their migratory routes. “They can’t find their habitat.” Fortunately, the Monarch Waystation Program is encouraging landowners to cultivate milkweed on their property, to make up for the losses Monsanto hath wrought, to provide the habitat the monarchs need. ADDENDUM: By coincidence, the annual count of Monarch Butterflies was released on Wednesday: down from 7 acres last year, to 2.94 acres this year, as reported by CBS News.

Lunden also includes the story of Pacific Grove “butterfly docent” Ro Vacarro who found her calling on a chance visit during migratory season, and experienced the susurration. She suffered from lupus, making Lunden feel a special kinship with her on two levels. Sadly, Ms. Vacarro passed away just four days before their planned meeting.

Throughout, Lunden describes her own difficulties with finding habitat, and the implications for all of us:

When it hits, it feels as though my brain has swollen inside the cradle of my scalp. A fog rolls in. My capacity to juggle a number of thoughts that once, and ability most people take for granted, dwindles. It alarms me when this happens, when my brain gives way.
I have it easy compared to some people. I know people who suffer seizures when exposed to chemicals. Those airways, joint and muscle pain, nausea, insomnia, disabling fatigue.… Some of them live in ceramic trailers in the deserts of Arizona. Some of them are homeless; they live in their cars or tents. They can’t find any place safe to breathe. They can’t find habitat.
We call ourselves “canaries in the coal mine.” We have multiple-chemical sensitivity, and our numbers are growing.

I had the same feeling reading this as I did when reading Wendell Berry’s “Nothing Living Lives Alone” last year in BASS 2012 (it’s also in this Pushcart volume): though there’s absolutely nothing I disagree with, and much, in fact, that I heartily support (if I had a back yard, I’d be out planting milkweed right now), I felt defensive, as if I were being scolded.

This essay certainly passes the “Look outward as well as inward” test I’ve been applying to all non-fiction in this volume: it carries an important message. Given my own powerful, similar reactions to two stories now, I perhaps need to “look inward in addition to outward,” to give some thought as to the source of my annoyance with these stories, whether it’s truly the stories, or something more internal. A selfish and quite bratty reaction to the lack of sympathy I receive for my own sensitivities, both those diagnosed and those merely evident? Guilt over the multiple cleaning products in my kitchen and my dissatisfaction with the baking-soda-and-orange-peel solution to everything? Or overexposure to the special snowflakes of the world, which makes it difficult to distinguish between those with serious issues and those who use sensitivity as an excuse for everything from irresponsibility to rudeness?

Whatever the cause of my, ahem, sensitivity, it remains an excellent and interesting essay about yet another corner of the environment – our habitat – we are destroying. The canaries, the butterflies, Lunden, are all warning signs.

Lunden is a Maine resident – practically a neighbor of mine, so I’m doubly ashamed of my attitude. She performed an extract of this piece (video available online, 13 minutes) at a Slant session just prior to the one Zin attended last year. There’s also an online audio recording (about 23 minutes) of her reading excerpts at the KGB Bar in NYC, a venue famous for inviting writers to present their work.

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