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My hometown is aflutter with butterflies. Slow your pace in front of the purple blooms of a butterfly bush and you will notice these delicate survivors, intent on the sweetness of living. Many small brown & orange butterflies alight on our bush, but there are only two, large tiger-striped swallowtails left. Last week there were many. One of the swallowtails has a long tear in his mustard wing; he sips frenetically, bloom hopping.

Our Butterfly Bush

If they are lucky, adult butterflies live 20 to 40 days after emerging from their cocoons, mating and taking sustenance from late summer flowers. Their prime seems so short and fragile. Perhaps that is why they are often symbols of impermanence. Today I told my children this Native American story, based on an episode of the wonderful animated show Raven Tales, which airs on the Smithsonian Channel, and a version of the story on the website of the United Cherokee Nations. (Children’s television does not get deeper than Raven Tales. Check it out!).

Here’s my retelling:

There was once a time when children did not grow up or grow old. The Great Spirit knew this way was not sustainable, but he wondered whether the children were ready to change and grow up. He sat on a boulder and watched the children playing, their lively brown eyes flashing, their smooth skin rosy and flushed, and he felt worried that they would not be able to handle the responsibilities of adulthood, and sad that someday they would have to feel the aches and pains of age, that their beauty would wither and fade like a bright autumn leaf. He wanted to make sure they were strong enough to understand.  So he made them a present.

The Great Spirit took all of the colors of nature, the browns of the soil, the reds and oranges of sunsets, the greens of moss and leaf, the whites of the children’s smiles, the yellows of the sun, and blended them together in a huge sack. As an afterthought, he threw birdsong into the mix. Then he shook the sack and pulled out sticky, oval objects that he gave to each child. He told the children to protect the objects until summer’s end. He asked Raven to help the children care for the gifts. The children were perplexed–the sticky little things were not very interesting. Sometimes they forgot about them and left them beside streams and under trees. But Raven always brought them back to the children, squawking and scolding and muttering under his breath.  

When the Great Spirit returned, he thanked Raven and gathered all of the ovals into his hands. He blew on them and from his hands flew hundreds of butterflies, in every color of the rainbow. The children stood amazed and awed. All of the people danced in appreciation of this beautiful new creation. But Raven and the other winged ones sat on the Great Spirit’s shoulders and complained. They felt it was not fair that he gave away the gift that made birds special, birdsong. So the Great Spirit took song away from the butterflies, leaving them silent. 

The Great Spirit asked the children if they were ready to change, and they said yes. He told them to remember that growing up is a gift and a responsibility, and that anytime they felt frightened, they should remember the butterflies, how they filled the sky with their colors for a short time, drinking sweetness and bringing new life to the world. The butterflies would always speak, without sound, of happy times. And then the children began to grow up.

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