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Original Issue

The idea of butterfly farming tends to lead one on to some flights of fancy

Terror touches me when I/Dream I am touching a butterfly," wrote a poet named Genevieve Taggard. You can pet a children's-zoo wallaby to your heart's content, though the wallaby may not much like it, but there is something about a butterfly you can't put your finger on.

Michael Dickens raises butterflies in Kent, England on what he calls a butterfly farm. He and Photographer Eric Storey have produced The World of Butterflies (Macmillan, $5.95), in the preface to which they point out that the finest butterflies come from lands that are fast being cleared and developed. We are going to have to establish, say the pair, "butterfly and moth farms in each climatic zone of the world."

Well. Butterfly farming sounds fine, on the level of fantasy:

"What do you do for a living?"


"What do you grow?"

"Butterflies. And silver bells. And cockleshells."

On the personal, down-home level it sounds pleasant also:

"Got a nice crop of Emperor Swallowtails over there, I see."

"Yep. But our Blue Morphos came up kind of spindly this year."

Yet how realistic is either of those visions? What if butterfly farming becomes agribusiness? Butterflies will be involved in parity troubles, and the government will be paying Senator Eastland not to grow butterflies, and there will be silos in the Midwest filled with the surplus, and we will be dealing butterflies to Russia, thereby somehow or other driving up the price of meat. Such a scenario brings on papillons noirs, which is French not only for, of course, "black butterflies" but also for "dark, gloomy thoughts."

The first thing my little girl and I ever did together—in the sense that we were both actually doing the same thing, and knew that we were, and could discuss it later (she, being so young, with the use of hand signals)—was follow a white butterfly down a residential street. It evaded us with ineffably better moves than Earl Monroe's.

As a boy I collected butterflies with my best friend David, who joined the Air Force and died in flight. His instruments failed and caused him to pilot his jet upside down in heavy fog, so that he plowed into the ground while thinking he was gaining altitude. He and I would make nets out of cheesecloth and we would put the butterflies to sleep with the fumes of Carbona cleaning fluid. You had to be careful not to touch their wings because the colors would come off, like paint—paint with somehow a suggestion of flesh about it.

I daresay Michael Dickens runs a butterfly farm as well as such a thing can be done. He does not go into any detail about his operation, but his book contains remarkable inside information about the butterfly itself. It is an insect that tastes through "setae, or small hairs, on various parts of the body, on the wings, and on the legs.... Some authorities believe that butterflies can also hear: over most of the body they have organs with drumlike structures which vibrate like the human eardrum.... In a butterfly the blood is free-flowing inside most of the body cavity and is generally not confined within tubes or arteries. This makes the creature particularly vulnerable to any kind of injury, which can easily prove fatal."

Imagine being able to hear all over your body, and to taste with your wings. Imagine living like any one of the 108 kinds of butterfly this book portrays.

The Great Eggfly is black, with blue or other-colored smudges. "Males are very pugnacious, keeping every day to the same spot when not chasing off intruders." (How a butterfly fights, unless the young Muhammad Ali was in some real sense an example, I don't know, but the Great Eggfly's wing-span may approach four inches.)

The Rajah Brooke's Birdwing, black with markings of gold and white, wingspan up to 7½ inches, is "fond of flowers and moist places, and especially hot springs. Loves decaying matter and often seen at rubbish and dung.... Frequently the males will gather to feed in dozens. The females fly higher in the hills, often 30 feet up in the flowering trees, still on the wing in the early evening. Both sexes do descend to ground level, but only in the early morning."

The Common Map looks like the Canary Islands with wavery grid lines. It "hides under leaves. In flight like a piece of paper suddenly seized by the wind."

The Green Dragontail, whose wings have tails that are longer than the rest of the wing, "often settle on the mud and drink water very greedily, squirting it out behind them such is their excess. They love flowers but do not settle, instead hovering with fast quivering wings [with those long thin tails!] whilst probing for nectar."

The Bhutan Glory is marked something like—I don't know. Butterflies are Rorschach tests. Bird feather; cat fur; smoldering triple eyes? "A feeble flyer, it floats over tree tops like a falling leaf.... On the wing all day long. Delicious odor when alive."

Will butterfly farms be like those wild-animal ranches you drive through in your car, with baboons perching on your hood? Perhaps. But it is easier to imagine people, developers, bringing the finest butterflies down, to end up only smudged with that strange paint.