17 January 2010

The Butterfly Effect

Sometimes life will give you signs, and it is good if you can see them, because they can show you the way and prepare you for what is to come. The most important signs are usually not labeled, so they are like secret signs. They occur in the physical world, but they map your inner landscape, and they are made just for you. Since they are secrets, you cannot read them directly — instead you must use feeling and intuition to uncover their meaning.

– Jonathan Harris, Jan 16, 2010*

A few months ago, Kevin from Given Collective contacted me about another project he was cooking up (he was behind both One City Left and DOCUMENT Magazine). His next idea was for an online, thematic version of DOCUMENT called Weeklies, and asked if I would consider contributing. At the time something pretty strange was happening around me, and I decided to write about it and call it The Butterfly Effect. Kevin graciously commissioned a Toronto-based illustrator to create a visual to go along with my piece. Awesome!

Screen shot 2010-01-18 at 9.59.33 AM

At the end of September, I read a crazy article in an in-flight magazine, of all places, about the migration paths of monarch butterflies. Every year they fly from Canada and the Northern US all the way down to the volcanic belt of Mexico and back, and for thousands of years this path was a mystery. Then in the 1970s, an American engineer and a kid who had never met each other figured it all out together. The engineer was traveling in Mexico, and had known about a Canadian entomologist who had been trying to figure out the monarchs’ paths by tagging butterflies before they left region each year. The engineer spoke to some locals, scaled some volcanoes, and after a long time of searching happened upon a tagged butterfly. He called the number on the tag, and was shocked when it wasn’t the entomologist on the other end, but a 12 year-old boy in Texas. The boy had been tagging butterflies as a hobby for some time, but had no idea he would one day play a huge part in figuring out one of the biggest mysteries ever.

Two or three weeks later, some research at work led me to the coolest example of biomimicry I have ever come across. Nano-engineers have been using butterfly wings as inspiration to build better security systems. The wings are made up of thousands of little scales, and there is one type of butterfly whose wings change color when they sense certain atmospheric changes. These engineers are trying to recreate the basic structures of the wing scales to improve the technology in public security sensors (potentially making us safer at concert venues, in the subway, at airports, etc.). I couldn’t stop talking about it for days.

Not soon after that, I turned around at work to see Clay putting a presentation together. The slide he was making was a single monarch butterfly on a dark background. When I asked him about it (having forgotten about both the migration and biomimicry cases), all he said was, “Butterflies are actually kind of awesome.” All of a sudden something clicked in my head, and we spent the next few minutes talking about it. He brought up the butterfly effect, which had slipped my mind until then: that something as slight as the flap of a butterfly wing can alter the atmosphere enough to drastically affect weather patterns in the future.

By the time I read a blog post that weekend announcing the opening of a massive butterfly exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, I started feeling like there must be something going on here. I told Jack about it, and over the course of the next couple of weeks, butterfly imagery started popping up everywhere for him as well, the photographic evidence of which would turn up in my Inbox every day. I saw a blue morpho perched among piles of bones and shells in a window display on a cold and gray afternoon; I looked up from a pounding headache in the coffee shop to see a paper kite on a poster; I walked to the subway in the freezing rain to see the silhouette of wings on a hanging store sign; they were in a short story about nuclear holocaust; in the song title of a band I had never heard of who reached out to me online. Sure, this could be partially a case of perceptual vigilance, a type of selective perception that makes one more attuned to (and notice) the things they are looking for.

Refusing to believe that cognitive bias explained this entire thing, I read everything I could about butterflies. Spending some time on Wikipedia, I learned that throughout history butterflies have stood for both good and bad things, depending on the culture. Sometimes seeing one means a loved one is going to visit you, and other times it means that somebody is about to die. Sometimes you can expect good fortune if one lands on you, and other times you will have bad luck if you don’t kill the first one you see each year.

Reading a dream dictionary told me that butterflies often symbolize some kind of major transition. Remembering the fact that I had been through three major life changes in the second half of 2009 got me thinking about the subconscious. If the cryptic things that pop up in our dreams are actually manifestations of our conscious thoughts or stories that our lives are writing, why can’t these symbols be present in our waking life as well? Perhaps they are for everyone, but are so subtle that we don’t notice them at all or even know to look for them.

It’s clear that I haven’t figured this out yet or come to any sort of conclusion. In the meantime, butterflies have become a type of cognitive security blanket for me, every time I see one now, my mood soars. Maybe it’s my own way of telling myself that Things Are Pretty Great.


While I was thinking about all of this, I kept a small Flickr set documenting some of my (and a couple of Jack's) butterfly sightings. Check it out if you're so inclined. Otherwise: Thank you Kevin, thank you Devin for the illustration, and thank you *Jack for keeping the serendipity coming always! })i({
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