Butterfly Mind


Penelope Todd, Dunedin, June 2018


Butterfly mind. That’s how memoirist Fredrik Sjöberg describes his process; he’s been named by one reviewer ‘the maestro of the episodic’. As I read his opening pages, I recognise that I also have a butterfly mind — perhaps White Cabbage to his Blue Morpho — but the fluttering, discursive quality of his story suits the reader or writer who is inclined to flit, who is happy to know a little about a lot. (It’s also what favours the editor: a sense of what rings true or otherwise, over a vast range of topics. She might be a professional dilettante.)

‘Stories just begin. We rarely know where and almost never why. It doesn’t matter. Nothing is certain any longer. I just want to shut my eyes, point at random …’ So begins Sjöberg’s The Art of Flight, a book I also snatched at random while dashing through the library. But then, is any act truly random? His sunlit tumble of words, his unapologetic style of dash and dart, points the way for me in a current project, and also right here, producing a blog post on request. And so I shall ‘just begin’ and flutter along until I have a blog-length piece of writing.

We visited the butterflies last week, the grandsons and we their grandparents. We followed the painted footsteps over the lino from Science Alive, through two heavy doors, into the three-storeyed green tropical fug of banana palms and heat-loving creepers.

The butterflies show their minds: oh, blue! the Asian Swallowtail thinks as I peel off my jumper, and at once lands on my arm. Then a draft of air or a whiff of cut fruit (oh, pineapple!) carries it up to a platter on the storey above. Then, oh, warmth! It goes to glue its ‘face’ to the sunny plastic panel that stands in for a window.

The butterfly-keeper invited us to come and watch the day’s hatchlings released from their black webbing bag. In pristine and vivid blues, yellows and greens, damp crinkles notwithstanding, the brand-new creatures entered their fake tropical paradise, a couple by way of sticky small boys’ hands where they could perch and orientate themselves in readiness for the maiden flight. Whose attention span was shorter? Indeed, it was always the butterfly who lost interest before the boy, who flew off to investigate the sensations of the upper air, the concrete wall, the glancing dance of another pair of flamboyant wings.

Outside, as I write, a dozen winged critters hop and twitter in the plum tree where an hour ago I put wet bread on the swinging wooden feeder (in lieu of the ideal birdseed, which I’ll buy next time I go to town): mostly wax-eyes who also encrust the bowl of sugar-water and the skewered apples at the other side of the house; sparrows; varieties of finch; and just now a curious starling: I say ‘curious’ because I’ve never seen one come to eat bread. This speckled youngster nosed in amongst the much smaller wax-eyes, eyed the tray, and went on its way. (I know it was young because — flitting again — I saw online that younger starlings are brown, mature ones black; and did you know that their beaks are black in winter, yellow in summer? A butterfly fact, a fancy plucked in passing.)

And so we write and so we live: eyeing what’s offered; having some kind of response in the body – registered or unregistered – that draws or repels us. Something compels us to choose or reject this item, this experience, this path or that. Butterfly mind might keep a person forever on the move, unsettled, unsatisfied, distracted and distractable. Or, if the contents of that mind can be tracked, netted, then disentangled and (dare I say) pinned to the page, before you know it you have a blog post, and who knows, possibly the beginnings of a memoir.

The only really awful thing we learned at the butterfly house is that the butterflies aren’t allowed to lay eggs. If they did, in short order the caterpillars would munch their faux jungle to shreds. To prevent the fulfilment of the butterfly lifecycle, the hothouse is kept devoid of the plants that the larvae would naturally eat; nothing in this tropical illusion will entice the butterflies to lay, so they sip at fruit, flit and glide up and down the storeys of their pseudo-ecosystem, with the plash of waterfall and play of sun, and evidently they mate. But they will never reproduce themselves.  All their kin arrive as they did, in containers of chrysalises from the Philippines and Costa Rica.

Butterfly mind is flummoxed, even alarmed. Which way to go? What further analogy can be drawn between sad lepidoptera and writer? That we risk writing our way into cul-de-sacs of sterility? What is the chance that the whole writing game is a set-up — sidelining us by some malevolent instinct away from life itself, with our need to grab it in our sticky fingers, tip it this way and that, to get it down on the page … ?

But. Oh, coffee!