The Butterfly Net and the Magic of Attention

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.

Perhaps it has to do with the way the net declares my intention, which is to apprehend what is in front of me. Walking with the net is like reading with a pencil in hand. The pencil means you want to catch the sense of what you are reading. You intend to underline, put check marks and exclamation points in the margin and make the book your own. You may think you can read with the same quality of attention while lying in bed at night without a pencil, but you can’t. The mind notices your posture and models itself accordingly. “This dog is ready to sleep; there can’t be any rabbits here.”

As with the pencil, so with the net: Both declare the possibility of action and that possibility changes the person holding the tool. In hunting, the declaration sends awareness out toward the object of the hunt. José Ortega y Gasset once suggested that game hunters borrow alertness from their prey. A hunted animal is perpetually on guard, even when nothing is stalking it. The hunter’s acuity and stealth are responsive: As much as the animal is alert, just that much, and a little more, must I be. The ears of the deer are great cupped sound scoops, and if I hunt the deer I would do well to walk as if those ears were always seeking me.

To borrow on the prey’s alertness requires a kind of self-absenting. You do not want the animal to see you or smell you or hear you. And because all its senses are likely sharper than your own, removing yourself from their ken requires an erasure of your presence more complete than would be needed to make yourself less obvious to a fellow human. Hunting stills the hunter’s self-regard. Make very little of yourself if you wish to see clearly. Shut up, deeply, if you wish to hear. Stop your preening and declaiming. Pour your bottles of perfume into the dirt.

When I walk with the net my footsteps and my breathing fall into a slow and coordinated rhythm. I place my feet, each step slightly more deliberate and cautious than otherwise. When I walk without the net my footsteps speed up and my mind leaps ahead like a witless hound. Without the net I am above it all, interested only in some future time and place to which I am headed with quickening breath. With the net I pause and conduct a full search of each milkweed head; without the net my gaze glides over the surface, absorbing nothing.

Without the net I have few links between my imagination and the outer world. With the net an image forms inside of me and, even it nothing appears to match it, I have a point of contact. Hunters — of fossils, seashells, birds, crickets, ginseng, mistletoe — know what it is to carry a mental picture of the desired object and how magically the image helps you find the thing in fact. The seasoned mushroom hunter sees morels invisible to her companions.

But the pleasure of hunting derives from something more subtle than the congruence of image and fact. By virtue of looking for butterflies you are differently aware of everything that is not-butterfly. Once the eyes adjust, many wonders are illuminated by the halo of your search image. To see that there are no butterflies on the bark of a tree you must see the bark of the tree and, by a curious inversion, the thing not-hunted suddenly is freshly revealed. The search image is wholly mental, after all, and all that fails to match it is strikingly not. There it is, the bark of a tree! Vividly it is not in the mind. Often I find myself staring in a seizure of wonder at some simple thing — a disc of moss on the path, a column of ants in a crack of dried mud, deer scat in sunlight — which I would never have seen so clearly or with such surprise if I were not hunting for something that is not those things and is not there.

Perhaps this is one reason that a prerequisite for the pleasure of hunting is scarcity of the game. There must be the possibility of game, but the possibility shouldn’t be large. No fisherman wants to shoot fish in a barrel. I have no interest in the artificial abundance of butterfly zoos. Search images need food to keep them alive, but not much — perhaps one unusual butterfly on one flowering thistle every few years would do. Capture is a very tiny part of hunting, but its possibility activates the field, so that, for the rest of the time there is the rest of the world, spread evenly around the hovering, delighted mind.

Lewis Hyde is the author of several books including “The Gift,” “Trickster Makes This World” and, most recently, “A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past.” He is at work on a book about butterfly hunting.

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