Complex butterfly reveals 'gratuitous beauty'

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, April 21, 2004

The Three-tailed Swallowtail butterfly was raised by a coffee companion in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo by Bruce Hollenbach

From Oaxaca, Mexico, a coffee companion sent me a photograph and letter the other day that celebrate the wonder of "gratuitous beauty."

Bruce Hollenbach and his wife Barbara have been an important part of my life since the mid-1960s. As linguists, they are world specialists in the complex structures of the Mixtec dialects of Mexico.

As a photographer, Bruce is also not bad at discerning the finger of God in the complex patterns of a butterfly's wings. (See the accompanying photograph.)

"Some time ago someone brought me a large, green caterpillar on an ash leaf," Bruce wrote. "I raised the caterpillar until it pupated, and then I kept the chrysalis until this butterfly emerged from it."

It was a Three-tailed Swallowtail. Although occasionally found in Texas and southern Arizona, the species normally makes its home in El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, where Bruce was captivated by its awesome beauty.

"They are all really more beautiful than they would seem to need to be," he wrote. "They don't need to be this beautiful in order to breed successfully, or, at any rate, there are many less-striking butterflies that seem to maintain their populations very well."

Bruce's guess for such "gratuitous beauty"? "It arises from the creativity of an artist who was interested in the beauty for its own sake, or maybe for ours," he wrote.

"Whether it is flowers, spiders, birdsongs, sunsets, music, mountains, forests, night skies, mathematics, or rain on the roof, we are continuously surrounded by marvels of gratuitous beauty beyond all explanation, unless it should be that a loving artist poured his heart into them."

"Yes!" I said to myself. Bruce's explanation brought to mind an encounter my wife, Mary Anna, and I had with a Yellow Spotted Saxifrage some summers ago.

We were hiking in the Canadian Rockies along the Continental Divide south of Sunshine Village Ski Resort. Near Rock Isle Lake we saw a cluster of tiny white alpine flowers at our feet. The five-petal blossoms were only about a centimetre in size. Yet, when we peered deep into the throat of one of them with a 20x magnifying glass, we were greeted with a fireworks display of magnificent yellow dots far too small for us to see with our naked eye.

Clearly, it was gratuitous beauty for the sheer enjoyment of its Creator -- and for the amazement of two hikers who just happened to be carrying a magnifying glass.

Bruce saw in this kind of experience a connection with lines from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

He prayeth best who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

Bruce has a suggestion for the spiritual enjoyment of our natural surroundings:

"Get a camera and take at least 100 pictures," he wrote. "Work hard to take good ones. Then come home and try to say that there was nothing extraordinary there."

Thanks, Bruce, for this beautiful reminder.

© 2004 Warren Harbeck

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