EXTINCTION OF FEMALE BLUE MORPHOS FROM THE LOVE ARCHIVE OF A MUSEOLOGIST
Nearly seraphic in wingspan, a center-fold of an iridescent blue butterfly spread across the kitchen table. Blue Morpho menelaus. Blue Morpho peleides. Perusing magazines and academic journals outside my field in museology develops my tastes of a generalist ilk. How else would a museum curator learn that female blue butterflies, depending on species, will eat milk vetch, lay eggs on thyme leaves, impersonate the noises of red ants, and frolic in blue lupine? I know of some curators, especially those with a latent desire to retreat into academia, who turn up their noses at the thought of picking up a general interest magazine. Yet how would I have learned, for instance, and I’m paraphrasing here, that nine distinct words exist for the color blue in the Mayan language, yet only three corresponding words are present in the Spanish translations. Nine words reduced to three in the space of a Spanish Mayan dictionary. Therefore, six blue butterflies are identifiable only by the Mayan Indians. If the rare language dies completely, six butterflies and their corresponding shades of blue will disappear from the world’s consciousness.
I mentioned the blue butterflies to my rock-climbing friend, Maya, in a café after work. We meet up for chats in this café because it isn’t pretentious and the owners don’t mind if customers linger a bit after their drinks or desserts are gone. The café owners, husband and wife, like to keep the regular customers coming. The interior design consists simply of mirrors of all shapes and styles, no ostentatious murals of grand vineyard estates, ruined villas, or ivied ionic columns. Newspapers are left on the tables. I was drinking strawberry almond tea since I don’t drink coffee, and my acquaintance was sipping on a foamy latte macchiato. She had recovered from anxiety attacks about her latest health fad, eating chia seeds. Fortunately, she continued to maintain a high-energy level without the hirsute green side effect.
We discovered that the chia seeds were not turning her hair green. Rather, when her new drugstore hair rinse faded, “auburn autumn” turned chartreuse.
I sipped my tea. “So six blue butterflies would vanish.”
“If six blue butterflies are omitted from translation into a world language, does it mean they’re gone for good, period?”
“In a sense.” I felt rather enamored of this melancholic image of loss: Quietly and ineluctably, six of the nine blue butterflies – six fluttering only in Mayan, three of them in Mayan and Spanish -- would lose their places to three blue butterflies in Spanish afloat in a dwindling universe of rare languages. Six blue butterflies would disappear from the world’s consciousness, winking out like little blue planets.
“Doesn’t mean they don’t exist,” said my acquaintance, “if no one knows how to name them. It’s the how that vanishes, not the what. New words will be coined. Instead of sky blue or midnight blue, how about water blue or deep sea blue?”
“But those words wouldn’t be Mayan.” “Ask a Mayan Indian to choose the words.” “What if no one speaks Mayan?”
My friend, always the practical optimist: “But people still do.”
Incidentally, the museum was extending the permanent collection on the Mayan people, including weavings, pottery, and architecture. I had done a little reading in philology, since we were developing our exhibit on the Mayan language into a large, interactive display with plaster replicas of raised stucco Mayan glyphs, an illuminated atlas illustrating the evolution and migration of proto-Mayan into various languages and dialects, and the phonology and syntax of Mayan languages. To be precise, there is not one Mayan language, but rather, a Mayan language family descended from a proto-Mayan
language thousands of years ago. Mayan languages are spoken by millions, particularly in the Yucatán peninsula, and its prototypical form was written in glyphs.
So, I guess Maya was theoretically correct about the extinction of the Mayan language if we were talking about proto-Mayan, since contemporary dialects which evolved from proto-Mayan currently exist. At any rate, I didn’t want to be too pedantic. The proto-Mayan blue butterflies multiplied into the various descendants of proto-Mayan and, in my mind’s eye, were fluttering mirrored in simultaneous universes within a giant universe called the Mayan language family: A blue butterfly is a blue butterfly is a blue butterfly. I tried describing this image to my friend, six blue butterflies in proto-Mayan mirrored concurrently in simultaneous variants of the original language, proliferating rapidly then disappearing into the mirrored parallel universes of the Mayan language in all its forms, assuming perfect semantic equivalence between the variants, that is. I had another thought: If the variants are all forgotten, then so would the concurrent existence of six blue butterflies.
But Maya waved her hand, clicking her spoon on the rim of her macchiato glass. “A blue butterfly is a blue butterfly, whether in Mayan, Spanish, English, Swahili, or Aramaic, and that’s that.”
“Who’ll save the three blue butterflies that missed the lexicographer’s notes?”
“Or lepidopterist,” she said. “Museum people like you, buried with mummies all day, covered
with archival dust, will never see a real live blue butterfly.” “I’ve seen a blue butterfly,” I said. “A blue morpho.” “Live or behind glass?”
“Alive. When I was a girl.” “Where?”
“It landed on my hair at the butterfly sanctuary.” Blue morpho. A metaphysical creature, iridescent blue as an illusion like the moon appearing brilliant in daytime, cerulean and serene. Soothed by hot amber tea, I fell quiet. The city pace of the afternoon dropped a bit as the sun set on the left side of
the café. Shadows lengthened through windows, caramelized in long rays of setting sun. “If we stop calling the blue butterflies by their names, soon we’ll stop seeing them. Names generate meaning through gradations of difference. The shades of blue will disappear from the world’s consciousness. Eventually, if a language loses words and their circulation in communities stop, the language also disappears.” I added, “The world’s rare languages are the blue butterflies.” A crescent of amber tea rested in my tilted cup. “Can you think of any extinct languages?”
“Latin,” she said.
“A language no one even knows about anymore.” “No.”
“There’s a Syrian village where Aramaic is still spoken daily.” “Is blue blue there?”
“Blue is blue everywhere.”
“If I say blue in English, is it blue in Aramaic, blue in Chinese?” “Yes.”
“What languages are spoken in your family?” “Dialect. Creole, Patois.”
“Who speaks Patois?”
“My mother, my aunts and uncles, and my grandparents.” “What about you?”
“If it’s not spoken fast.” “What about cousins?” “About the same.”
“See, in one more generation, it’ll vanish from your family. Now, imagine if your family were the only one on earth who spoke Patois. A Chinese language phenomenon is disappearing this way, too.” In southern China is a village where, for centuries, women shared their own system of writing called women’s writing, Nushu. Now only a handful of ninety year-old women in that village know it, and academic scholars are working hard to preserve Nushu while the women are still alive. “Nushu is spoken in the village’s dialect, but the rare writing is what makes it wonderful. Few can read it. A tiny culture of book-making and book-binding preserves it. Exquisite knots and stitches. Songs for their daughters before weddings, sad songs about parting. Women would write songs and poems in chapbooks, on paper fans, and swatches of cloth.”
“Is it hard to read?”
“It’s fine and curved like mosquitoes.” “Why not just write in Chinese?”
“The men wouldn’t let them learn it.” “Can you read it?”
“No.” I finished my strawberry almond tea and set the cup on its saucer. The afternoon crowd thinned as evening folks entered. The notion of drinking coffee at night, when one should go to sleep, amused me. The sun dropped lower on the horizon and burned a craze of molten gold, molten red, flashing on my friend’s sunglasses, which she’d put on indoors since she was facing the western windows of the café. Inwardly, I focused on the last blue butterfly in the universe, a suspended robin’s egg or turquoise pendant hovering against a drape of black velvet darkness. The world’s blue-and-white swirled marble looked small in comparison, one veiled sphere of light in a blended stream of countless lights, the Milky Way. One misty arm of the galaxy, an infinitesmal slice of the universe, and who knows how many other universes out there mirrored one another in form and color like blue butterflies.
Mandarin Chinese is the blue butterfly living inside me, the language my parents carried inside themselves when they crossed the blue-eyed ocean. My future progeny will inherit blue butterflies by virtue of tongue if I teach them. After I am gone, where will the blue butterflies go? Who will share the spirit of my parents, the original immigrants, the first blue butterflies who taught me to remember, to reach out with both hands, and to love? Who will notice if we don’t teach the names of blue butterflies to our children? Are they disappearing even as we speak?
“Blue is not blue,” I said into the caramelized rays of setting sun. “There’s the blue of the ocean my parents crossed, wide and blue like blue eyes. Vivid blue of the blue butterflies, words we’re keeping alive in our family’s love for the mother tongue.” Who will teach the languages if we forget? New languages, like the blue-eyed ocean’s vast, wild impasse, stormy and ice-cold, will wash over the new generations. Who will reach over the ocean to learn the immigrant tongue from scratch with a dictionary and grammar handbook? My future children float like blue butterflies inside the jar of my heart, captured by an irresistible current of love, yet unaware of the significance of their own iridescence.
My acquaintance said, “If the butterflies themselves don’t disappear when their colors are no longer named, what exactly is lost? What is lost when our languages are forgotten?”
What is lost?
The ability to name each blue butterfly on
Karen An-hwei Lee is the author of the poetry collections, Phyla of Joy (Tupelo 2012), Ardor (Tupelo 2008), and In Medias Res (Sarabande 2004). She authored a novel, Sonata in K (Ellipsis 2017). A former writing resident at MacDowell Colony of the Arts and the Millay Arts Colony, she previously served as Full Professor of English and Chair at a liberal arts college in greater Los Angeles. She holds an M.F.A. from the Program in Literary Arts at Brown University and a Ph.D. in British & American Literature from the University of California, Berkeley. Currently, she lives in San Diego and serves in the university administration at Point Loma Nazarene University. Lee is a voting member of the National Book Critics Circle.