Questions about butterflies

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By The Staff

Stories about butterflies are legion. There are scientific stories like the phenomenal 2,500-mile migration of some Monarch butterflies. The butterfly is often seen as a symbol of the soul (and indeed the Greek word for butterfly is “psyche”).

The classic example of metamorphosis is the life cycle of the butterfly. And the butterfly’s wing became the image of the so-called “Butterfly Effect,” referring to an observation by an obscure meteorologist named Edward Lorenz that the flutter of a butterfly’s wing might effect a weather change on the other side of the planet.

At PEEC, we enjoy learning everything we can about butterflies, but right now we’re focused on the question, “What does a butterfly have to do with the environment?” 

Do butterflies improve our quality of life? Most important, how can the flutter of a butterfly’s wing effect a change in a person’s view of the world?

We’re worried about a recent Gallup poll annual update (taken in March) about Americans’ feelings toward the environment. Gallup concluded that Americans are now less worried about environmental problems than they have been at any time in the last 20 years (admittedly, this was before the dreadful BP oil spill). This lack of worry was particularly true of younger Americans. Why do they have less concern than those of us who have lived a few decades?

Then, along with the Gallup poll came the statistic that visitation to national parks and monuments has decreased in the U.S. and in Europe. Is this related to the economy, or to the ever-present technology that allows us to visit exotic places without leaving our armchair?  Or maybe it’s related to living a predominantly urban life of comfort surrounded by concrete pavement and climate-controlled spaces?

Where do we begin regenerating our enthusiasm for the environment? Let’s start simply and let’s start with children. Perhaps it can begin with a simple idea like creating a butterfly garden.

A butterfly garden at PEEC was the vision of a group of children — the Kinnikinnick Club — who meet at the Pajarito Environmental Education Center. This past spring they became interested in butterflies. They read books, talked to experts like Dorothy Hoard and decided that butterflies have an important place in the environment. 

They learned that these amazing creatures metamorphose, are an important part of the food chain and are important pollinators. They discovered that some plants cannot live without a relationship with a butterfly.  They recognized that butterflies added to the quality of life of anyone who watched these “flying flowers.” 

The children’s enthusiasm was contagious. Adults helped by applying for an $800 grant from Keep New Mexico Beautiful. With assistance from businesses like Pajarito Greenhouse, Oasis Landscaping, Los Alamos County Environmental Services, the iCare YMCA kids and many hours of sweat equity from both adults and children, their dream of a butterfly garden has come to fruition. It is now ready for butterflies.

This is not the first project the Kinnikinnick Club has taken on. In 2009, their simple idea was to get the community to use fewer plastic bags when shopping. They researched the hazards to wildlife and ocean life caused by the bags and how long they persist in the environment.

Then they took their message to Smith’s grocery and to the community. In the first year, their campaign saved more than 865,170 plastic bags — the equivalent of 435 cases of bags — from going into the landfill or being eaten by an unsuspecting animal.

There is nothing like the enthusiasm of a child to help an adult see beyond the everyday worries and complexities of life, and there is nothing like research and education to help a child become an enthusiastic ambassador to complacent adults who may have forgotten about the beauty of a butterfly.

So even if the economy is depressed, even if technology consumes our lives, even if life seems overwhelming, we can each this summer take time to regain our enthusiasm and sense of awe for the natural world.

Take time to admire a butterfly, listen to a bird, spot a flower along a trail.  As the summer progresses, we hope that many will escape their concrete caves and emerge to enjoy the butterfly garden so lovingly designed and prepared by this group of children. The flutter of a butterfly’s wing might rekindle that lost enthusiasm for the natural environment.


Terry Foxx and Rebecca Shankland are members of the Board of Directors of PEEC, Pajarito Environmental Education Center in Los Alamos. PEEC has a summer gardening program for children, ongoing activities in the butterfly garden and lots of hikes. Further information is available at www.PajaritoEEC.org.