Earthbound To Winged

Tracings of Butterfly Images across Cultures

by Barbara Sandrisser

Barbara Sandrisser, competition proposal for an outdoor winter installation, Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan (detail), mixed media, 1996.

The old, yet elegant, farmhouse in the small village of Chery Les Pouilly near the medieval town of Laon in northern France seemed chilly despite the intense early morning sunshine streaming in the windows. From afar there appeared to be a brightly colored speck moving on one of the panes. As I began my descent to the ground floor, the fuzzy speck suddenly became a beautiful butterfly flapping her red, gold and black patterned wings against the window trying to escape. (1) As I watched, she relentlessly beat her fragile wings against the unyielding glass, only to collapse on the ledge in exhaustion. After a few seconds she tried again. She must have emerged from her chrysalis inside the house, perhaps hiding in a large bunch of wild flowers picked from nearby meadows. It was early December, the first snow had appeared and vanished and, as I observed her desperate fight for temporary survival, an overwhelming sense of sadness enveloped me. Death seemed close at hand. Whether she escaped outside or remained inside, her fate was sealed.

I can still hear the delicate sound of her wings. In retrospect, it seems like a dream, an unexpected flight into another world made more intense by the fact that, when I returned a short while later, the window was empty. Her fleeting presence and subsequent absence reminded me of the whimsical anecdote by the ancient Taoist philosopher Chuang-tsu (368-286 by Barbara Sandrisser BC) about his dream that he was a carefree butterfly flitting about the summer sky. When he awoke, he became once again Chuang-tsu...or...perhaps he was actually a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang-tsu. Was he awake or asleep? Was he Chuang-tsu or a butterfly, and did it really matter?

Butterflies evoke feelings of lightness, airiness, thinness, fragility, and paradoxically of strength, perseverance and agility. Many of us are spellbound when we see a butterfly, fascinated by her colorful wings and by her ability to flit from one flower to another. A cloud of butterflies enchants us as we admire their ephemeral beauty, their luminous wings floating through the air changing from moment to moment. Of course, butterflies, like honey bees and other insects, pollinate. Ancient Chinese may have been the first to use the butterfly as a symbol for sexual intercourse, and for female spirits returning for a brief visit after death. Indeed, life's fleeting, joyful moments prior to our inevitable death seem to permeate our notions of butterflies, which may be why we equate them with nervousness. We frequently shiver, quiver and tremble as they seem to when they alight on a flower. On occasion we are jittery and skittish, experiencing butterflies in our stomachs, an imaginative, if not entirely accurate, description of that uncomfortable fluttering feeling.

The ancient Chinese character for butterfly ( , pronounced hSdie) which is also used in Japan (cho, in Japanese) merges three specific ideograms to form what I think is an extraordinarily insightful concept, rather than merely a superficial label. The first () represents insect, an accurate classification. Since butterflies tend to cluster in evergreen trees when resting, the character for tree () is included. On top of the tree hovers the world () which in the Taoist sense signifies time and change. Indeed, some ancient Taoists venerated the larvae of the swallowtail butterfly, since its metamorphosis suggests a change from one spiritual state to another, just as Chuang-tsu notes in his dream. Occasionally butterflies appear in poems in paintings without butterflies or, in one famous example, butterflies flutter around the hooves of a horse because one of the T'ang emperors suggested a poetic phrase describing his horse's fragrant hooves just after tramping through a field of wildflowers.

The viewer sees no wildflowers, only the horse and the butterflies seemingly enjoying the fragrance permeating the air around the hooves. It is the viewer's task to grasp the spiritual significance of the visual image and the poem that accompanies it. In this well known example, the character for butterfly is an important element since it provides visual clues. As in most Chinese art of that time, painting and poetry were intimate companions suggesting spiritual and philosophical ideas. To ancient Chinese scholars, butterflies seemed to soar above the world leaving the ground and, thus, the mundane behind.

Many butterflies die while migrating, in part due to unpredictable weather patterns. Those of us intrigued by the seeming randomness of climate appreciate the risks inherent in weather predictions that force meteorologists to continually revise their forecasts. One wonders if American meteorologist and physicist Edward Lorenz was familiar with the Chinese character for butterfly when in the early 1960s he discovered his elegant notion of unpredictability. Named the "butterfly effect," it revolutionized the study of weather. In theory, the delicate movement of a butterfly's wings creates a small atmospheric disturbance which may (or may not) increase over time causing dramatic shifts in weather conditions thousands of miles away. Naturally it is impossible to predict exactly when in time and space a butterfly will move her wings; therefore, the ultimate effect cannot be precisely calculated. Still, the changes in the atmosphere that occur over time can be noted and refined to render a fairly accurate short-term forecast which then changes. The element of unpredictability remains part of the prediction.

Notions of transience, unpredictability and evanescence also permeate traditional Japanese literature and the arts. More than 1,000 years ago, Sei Shonagon, lady-in-waiting and confidant to the Empress, refers to them with affection in her Pillow Book along with other insects she likes and some that she hates. (2) She notes that one late spring day when the Empress was feeling a bit blue, she presented Her Majesty with a simple wheat cake, a gift from someone outside the palace. The Empress quickly dashed off a poem which suggested that, while others are busy "seeking butterflies and flowers," only Sei Shonagon knew how she felt in her heart. (3) By the 13th century, the butterflies' seeming transient and spiritual qualities made them appropriate choices for certain family crests of warrior clans, crests one can still see today on old family kimonos. Although in Japanese Buddhist lore a cloud of flying butterflies foretold impending death or the temporary presence of a visiting spirit, they were generally admired for their beauty, lightness and grace and eventually came to symbolize feminine beauty. Butterflies appeared on decorative objects such as lacquered writing boxes and wood pillows, suggesting that an elegant, refined woman's thoughts and dreams included sensuousness and sexuality.

Perhaps the butterfly that touches our hearts most is the one enveloped by beautiful music. Puccini's Madame Butterfly, a total failure when it first opened at La Scala in 1904, saddens even the sophisticated stalwart. A few months later Puccini presented a revised version in Brescia, receiving standing ovations, a welcome change from the hoots and catcalls in Milan. The tragic story of the beautiful Cho-cho-san (literally translated: The Honorable Butterfly-Butterfly) completed in 1897 by American lawyer and writer John Luther Long is, in part, based on information provided by his sister who had recently returned from Japan with her missionary husband. Puccini changed Butterfly's name to the more Italian sounding Cio-cio-san, but he thoroughly researched his topic by listening to the wife of the Japanese ambassador reading Japanese poetry in the feminine voice and by listening to Japanese music, in order to create a "Japanese" tonal atmosphere compatible with his own musical composition. The result is an opera full of delicacy and nuance, combined with strength and power, exemplified by the main character. Clearly Butterfly exceeded the merely beautiful plaything stereotype. In the end, she exhibits her strength by forcefully stabbing herself to death and the audience is profoundly saddened by the realization that she had little choice.

In late summer I often feel a touch of melancholy when I suddenly notice a monarch butterfly among the flowers in our garden. I wonder if it and its companions are on their way to Mexico to winter among the remaining fir trees in the reserves west of Mexico City. Illegal loggers continue to cut the trees, creating large holes in the protective canopies. Moreover, in 1992 and 1996 snowstorms killed millions of shivering butterflies futilely clumped together in colorful "body nests" to keep warm. Many were frozen in place; others fell into the powdery white ground creating an eerily abstract pattern of millions of fragile wings, entombed amid the snowflakes. In my mind's eye, I see their fading corpses hovering on top of the white earth. They are truly remarkable creatures; their beauty endures in spite of human and climatic intervention. They are stronger than we think yet more fragile than we understand. Like Cio-cio-san, they are easily destroyed by human indifference.

Wasn't it Chekhov who said that in nature the repulsive, voracious caterpillar turns into a lovely butterfly but that with human beings it is the other way around?¥


Japanese family crests compiled around 1913 by the Matsuya Piece-Goods Store.


1. Because she appeared determined to fly toward the light, I initially thought she might be an unusual moth, but I was assured by the owner of the farmhouse that, indeed, it was a butterfly common to the area.

2. Ivan Morris, translator and editor, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonogan (New York: (Tuttle, 1967) 69.

3. Ibid. 204.

Barbara Sandrisser is a mixed-media painter and writer who lectures on environmental aesthetics and Japanese aesthetic ideas. From 1982 to 1994, she and two other partners owned an architectural and environmental design firm, The Paul Partnership, located in New York City.


The Importance of Lightness

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