If you have ever gone bird watching, or looked for wildflowers or mushrooms, or hunted for deer or rabbits, you will know the strange enchantment of searching for nature’s hidden treasures. I myself first knew it in childhood, hunting for butterflies in the farm fields of Connecticut, a pursuit that sadly ended when my family moved to Pittsburgh and the dense fogs of puberty and higher education descended upon me, obscuring the swallowtails and skippers.
Only decades later did the air clear. Fully quit of school and finally in love, I had been offered a cabin in West Virginia for the summer. One day after a swim, my sweetheart spread our beach towels on the open porch and soon we found them shingled with fritillaries, dozens happily feasting on the salt of our sweat and batting their orange and silvered wings in the sun. Within the month I had restocked my childhood armory — net, killing jar, spreading board, pins, display cases — and was again out roaming the fields.
I’ve roamed them ever since. Why? What am I doing?
Early on I was out to learn the names of the local fauna, to make a collection, to know the science — what the caterpillars eat, for example, or how they survive the winter. Over the years, however, these purposes have come to seem more and more beside the point. Watching a documentary recently about the old men of Italy’s Piedmont who hunt for truffles, I noticed that sometimes when they explain themselves all talk of truffles drops away. One elder says he’s drawn to the hunt because he loves to be with his dogs. And he likes to hunt at night because at night he can hear the owl. In his case and in my own, the supposed object of the hunt turns out to be a McGuffin, a decoy, something to tell your friends (and yourself) while more subtle pleasures unfold behind a cloak of purpose.
Whatever the case, over the years I have given up the killing jar and the pins. My collection I gave away. The one thing I have not yet discarded is the butterfly net. I carry it in part to catch and release the few things I can’t identify on the wing but mostly because of the way it changes the way I walk. I don’t know if the same is true for birders with their binoculars or deer hunters with their rifles, but for me, walking with the butterfly net alters my perceptions. It produces a state of mind, a kind of undifferentiated awareness otherwise difficult to attain. It is a puzzle to me why this is the case, why, that is, I can’t simply learn from walking with the net and then put it away and transfer what I know to walking without it.