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Jack Smith

Transcendent Tales Among the Butterflies

August 03, 1988|Jack Smith

I am inclined to be skeptical of any phenomenon that appears to be metaphysical, or beyond practical explanation.

Thus, I doubted Dick Whittinghill's story of communing in his back yard with butterflies. The long-popular radio entertainer, now retired, phoned to tell me that on several occasions recently a butterfly had landed on his hand in his garden. Sometimes, Whittinghill said, the butterfly was orange, sometimes purple. "Does that mean anything?" he asked.

I checked the story with Natural History Museum lepidopterist Julian Donahue, a neighbor of mine, and he said that the butterflies were simply marking their territories. Nothing metaphysical about it.

The orange butterfly, he said, was no doubt the gulf fritillary, and the "purple" one was the mourning cloak, which is dark brown with yellow edges. Both are abundant hereabouts this year.

But several readers have written to corroborate Whittinghill's apparently transcendental experience.

David Macpherson says he had his first contact with a mourning cloak last summer, when a butterfly with "rich brown wings edged in gold" flew from a flower to his outstretched finger in response to his sweet talk. There it remained for five or 10 minutes; this summer the same thing happened again.

Frieda M. McKenzie of Studio City sends an essay written by her mother, Marguerite Knickerbocker, of Nelson, Nev., about her "love affair" with a mourning cloak.

When she was recuperating from an illness, Mrs. Knickerbocker lay for days in the sunshine near an avocado tree; a mourning cloak landed first on her hand, then on her index finger, and when she drew her finger toward her mouth and talked to it, it landed on her lip. Then one day the butterfly lighted on her right eyelid and gave her "an electric shock." Years later, she said, she read that Albert Einstein had had the same experience.

Miss Rae Lynn recalls that a couple of years ago on the Johnny Carson show the actor Orson Bean told of experiencing "mental telepathy" with a butterfly. While sunbathing one day, Bean saw a butterly nearby and thought that if people could communicate with animals, why not with insects? He tried telepathy, and sure enough, in a few minutes the butterfly landed on his toe.

Miss Lynn tried the same thing, and a mourning cloak landed on her hand. Later she was able to demonstrate this power for friends, and for two men who were walking their dogs in a park. She said they agreed it was "spiritual."

Patti Garrity of Manhattan Beach says that back in the 1960s, when she was "thirtysomething," she was lying face down on the sand in a pink, green and yellow bikini when a butterfly "tacked its way down the shoreline" and landed on her bottom.

Violet M. Ashton of Huntington Park challenges Donahue's territorial theory. "Butterflies gather by the hundreds at certain 'salt licks' in Africa. On a hot day when we perspire freely we exude salt, and that is why butterflies light on us."

Lori McCarthy discovered this in Iguacu Falls, Brazil, where butterflies landed on her arm as she was writing a note. "A Brazilian said the butterflies were attracted to the salt residue on my arm from perspiration."

Phyllis Ansley Donaldson says Whittinghill and Donahue were both wrong about the color of the mourning cloak. She says the butterfly is "a gorgeous rich burgundy" with yellow margins and blue dots.

By happy chance, Donahue has just returned from a lepidopterist conference in Pikes Peak, Colo., where a colleague presented a slide show of butterflies landing on people.

Also, he verifies that butterflies may seek out sweat, for the salt. The sensation of electric shock, he says, may be caused by the butterfly's sharp claws or leg spines landing on a sensitive eyelid. As for the mourning cloak's color, Donahue admits he's colorblind.

John Degatina accepts no scientific explanations for Whittinghill's experience: "I am sure," he says, "that the butterflies were just paying homage to the genius who gave us the passionate comings and goings of Helen Frump."

Donahue didn't know why a butterfly would land on a bikini, but I do. Because butterflies are free.

Ben Bell of Studio City recalls the poignant last scene of "All Quiet on the Western Front" in which the young German soldier is killed by a sniper when he reaches outside his trench to touch a butterfly.

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