In the springtime, the southwestern edge of my apartment courtyard becomes a butterfly highway. Sandwiched between two concrete walls, edged with barbed wire, I sit on a small patch of grass watching them fly by. They bob through the branches of a few trees, flowing with gusts of wind, around the sharp leaves of bamboo trees, up and over the wall. They often slip between the spaces of taut barbed wires not much larger than themselves, seemingly oblivious to the jagged spurs that could destroy a wing.
Sometimes they take breaks on the leaves of bamboo stalks, or on the curls of fallen leaves. They bask in the sun to warm their fragile bodies, pumping wings providing glimpses of otherworldly colors. The most common are the small ones that harbor pale shades of green and yellow. Once when I held one, its color remained on my fingertips, long after it flew away, its brilliance shimmering like fairy dust. Others butterflies are varying shades of brown, easily camouflaging themselves on the bark of trees. The black ones with tiny dots of color flitter like small vortexes in the sky, commanding the eye to behold their fleeting presence. My favorites are the giant ones with wings of shifting shades of bright blue and green, lined sharply in black. They weave around various obstacles, up and over that wall, to a world beyond which I cannot see. I sit there amongst fallen leaves, counting them fly by in haste, wondering to myself what butterfly business they could all be participating in.
In Hindi, the word for butterfly is Titali. Somehow I feel this name is more fitting. The word is broken into short and fast syllables, the sound sweet when vocalized, embodying their flittering movement and their beauty. In Sanskrit, the word for butterfly is Chitrapatanga, composed of two words – chitra meaning “picture,” and patanga meaning “flying insect.” Chitrapatanga then, is “the flying creature worthy of a picture.”
Indeed a titali is worth photographing. Yet, the luminosity of their colors cannot be as vividly recorded in a photograph as when witnessed with the naked eye. Modern science attributes the striking colors of butterflies to iridescence, an intricate phenomenon that involves the filtration of light through layers of scales on their wings, creating multiple reflections, ultimately amplifying color perceivable to the eye from various angles.
Their unique ability to play with light makes them one of the most attractive insects on Earth. Beyond their shimmering wings, I think most people like butterflies because of their symbolism. Across many cultures, they are a symbol for metamorphosis, both in the literal and intangible sense. Caterpillars face immense obstacles before becoming such delicate beauties. And as adults, butterflies have to take care to survive seemingly harmless natural elements like the wind or rain. Butterflies represent perseverance – the ability to face all obstacles and transform into a being of extraordinary beauty. Their delicateness reflects this, their presence reminding us that life is fragile.
While humans are reminded of the delicateness of life, for butterflies, daily life is becoming increasingly fragile, the obstacles growing greater through environmental degradation. The prevalence of habitat loss, and the extensive use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers create greater burdens for the existence their species, not just in India, but across the world. In a much larger sphere, climate change is disrupting natural cycles; its effects reverberating throughout the ecosystems and worsening the environmental conditions through which the butterfly must struggle to survive.
Throughout the environmental classes I took for my B.A., I read how butterflies play the role of indicator species – a term given to specific species who are sensitive to environmental changes. Their presence, or lack thereof, in a given ecosystem is an indicator to the environment’s health and vitality. At an alarming rate, many species of butterflies are facing extinction; a issue that serves as a testament to the environmental degradation we are ultimately the root cause of. The extinction of any butterfly species, in any part of the world, in any ecosystem, inevitably creates an irreversible loss to the web of life, ultimately degrading the Earth’s biodiversity.
The threats of extinction for butterflies are also degrading something less tangible, but something I feel to be immensely important. The disappearance of such wonderful creatures is slowly deteriorating one of the world’s greatest symbols of surviving and thriving in a world ever changing. Butterflies are the embodiment of hope for the future of Mother Earth, its ecosystems, and all living beings – animals, plants, us. If we lose them, we lose hope.