The Lesson of the Butterfly, and the Message of the Wind

Carol A. Hand

At the moment, I am dealing with the challenges that always accompany innovation. For the past two weeks, when I wasn’t working outside on gardens, I was developing a new research class that began yesterday. (This is the main reason why I haven’t had a chance to read and respond to many blogs lately.)

In the process of conceptualizing the class, I reflected on the knowledge and skills that would be helpful to students in the future. Most research is built on what worked in the past in narrow clinical settings with little thought about the current socio-political context or broader future implications. I decided to try my own research experiment by testing out an experiential approach for teaching research that engages students in exploring the impact of climate change for vulnerable populations and the effectiveness of responses to recent disasters. (Duluth is still dealing with the consequences of torrential rains and flooding during June of 2012, so the implications of climate change are also very close to home.)

It took me many days to work out the basic framework and identify resources, but in essence, I’m sharing this discussion for two main reasons. First, I welcome any ideas and resources you want to share about climate change that would be helpful for me and my students. Second, it’s my way of trying to find an effective third alternative for dealing with the conflict that always accompanies paradigm shifts. Some administrators are not pleased by new ways of doing things. It is tempting for me to choose simplistically from the two most common responses to conflict: fight or flight. The third, to stand with integrity and compassion, is the path I need to work out through the process of writing. What does this mean in terms of practical actions? What past experiences can I draw from for clues?

As I ask these questions, two memories come to mind, the lesson of the butterfly and the message of the wind. The lesson of the butterfly is described in an excerpt from story I wrote for my daughter last Christmas.


The Lesson of the Butterfly

As I thought of what I could give you as a gift this year, one of the memories of your early years was actually on a summer’s day when you were Ava’s age – 6. We were living in central Illinois in a tiny town named Cullom in a farmhouse we rented – “Paul Gray’s house.” Cullom’s downtown was only one block long. It had a restaurant, and this great old variety store that sold an assortment of things farmers needed. It’s where you went to first grade and as I remember, it was one of the few schools where you did not have to deal with overt racism from teachers or bullying from other students.

Despite your relatively benign treatment at school, Cullom was not very welcoming to strangers. I remember that during our year in Cullom, we sometimes went to the restaurant in the center of town. As we walked toward the door, we could hear the loud conversations and laughter. As we entered, the room became absolutely silent as all of the local customers fixed their eyes on us. It remained silent until we left.

When we needed to shop for other things, we had to travel to one of the larger cities – each about 40 or 50 miles one-way – either Pontiac to the northwest, or Kankakee to the northeast. On a warm sunny summer day, we drove the 50 miles or so to Pontiac. Of the two choices, it was clearly the least diverse in terms of population. Although I don’t have a photo of you during those years, there is one that reminds me of this particular day.


Photo Credit: Jnana Hand and Reese Baker, photographer Phil Dowling, 1974

For some reason I am not sure I can describe, this photo captures the same state of being I remember from that day. In Pontiac, it was not a child that you were gently guiding. It was a butterfly that was fluttering around you as you walked down the sidewalk. All of your attention was focused on it as it flitted about, with the same gentle smile on your face as you followed its path down the sidewalk. It was all you saw.

It was not all I saw, however. The prejudice of many central Illinois residents is deeply rooted. Bluntly-said, many long-term residents are pointedly racist. Like the border communities that surround reservations, white residents are acutely attuned to the smallest nuances of differences in appearance that may suggest a different ancestry than theirs. As a child tanned by the sun, with lovely dark curly hair, you were unique among the people who walked down the sidewalk in Pontiac that day.

I noticed an older white couple walking toward us on the sidewalk. I really don’t know what they were thinking, but the expression on their faces when they looked at you was not warm and friendly. They stared intently with their eyes narrowed and the edges of their mouths turned down in any ugly way. I was getting ready to say something to them because the cold disapproval of their demeanor made me angry. Yet, you were so intent on the butterfly, you never noticed. You kept smiling and reaching out gently, and the butterfly responded by fluttering just in front of you as you walked along. You laughed in delight. Then, something amazing happened. The scowls of the couple suddenly changed into broad smiles, as if your joy had melted the hardness of their hearts. Your focus on the wonder of life and gentle responsiveness to beauty not only buffered you from their disapproval and meanness, but also transformed others around you.

Somehow, despite the challenges you have had to overcome, or perhaps in part because of them, the purity of heart symbolized on that summer’s day has remained. The ability to focus so intently on the wonder of life rather than fears and distractions is still one of the most amazing of gifts you offer others. As I contemplated what to give you for Christmas at this challenging time, all I could think of was to let you know how special you are and have always been. I love you. Miigwetch, my lovely daughter, for your beautiful spirit.


The Message of the Wind

I learned another lesson from my daughter at the end of her school year in Cullom. It was a warm, sunny day, and as always, the winds were strong and gusty in the flat corn-country that surrounded us. I was working in the garden in front of our rented house when the school bus arrived. As my daughter was walking down the steps of the bus, I noticed her arms were hugging the huge pile of papers and pictures that represented her first grade accomplishments. Suddenly, as she walked across a field toward the house, a strong gust of wind pulled the stack of papers from her grasp. I watched with concern as she lost patience and began chasing her work, stomping some papers into the ground with her little feet and crumpling others in her hands. I ran out to help her. I hoped she could learn that it is always more effective and more fun to play with the wind than it is to get angry at things we really cannot change. We couldn’t stop the wind from blowing her papers, but we could make a game of recapturing her treasures.


What can I learn from the butterfly and the wind? I can view this present challenge as a fight with the wind over which I have no control and lose the creative, adventurous spirit of an exciting experiment. I can decide to give up trying to create anything new and live as a recluse, letting the winds scatter the fragments of unrealized possibilities. Or, I can choose the lesson of the butterfly. I can choose to keep my focus on those things that inspire a sense of wonder and hope with such intensity that there is no room for distraction. Perhaps I can learn from the lesson of the butterfly. If I can focus intently enough despite the winds that surround me, the winds themselves will become calm. I owe it to my students to try. Yesterday, they eagerly rose to the challenge of working with me on this experiment even though the lovely early spring weather had finally arrived.




48 thoughts on “The Lesson of the Butterfly, and the Message of the Wind

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  1. oh what a lovely story:-) Your daughter was blessed with an amazing mother. I feel it is good that children are so innocent and don’t see things that harden us as adults. They just see beauty, It is sad that some where along our life journey, we lose that “awe” for the simple things in life…when I garden it takes me back to being a child, maybe that is why I spend so much time out there since the wind and butterflies are all around in the garden and take me places I have left behind….
    I feel many of our answers to climate change can be answered by going outside and observing..the answers are there, we just need to become a child again.
    We are “all” caught up in worldy pursuits, and many of us don’ t even go outside but to get in and out of our cars. We really don’t pay attention to what is going on outside….we need to get back to the basics of life:-)
    lovely post + I enjoy your story telling:-)

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Robbie, these are such crucial insights about nature and so eloquently said! Your gardens show the love and care you devote to creating safe and sacred space.

      I love to look at your photos, and would love to know more about how to use pea stones. I have never had luck keeping unintentional plants from taking root in pathways. And any tips for creeping Charlie? It is a pretty plant but it smothers everything else. Yet I noticed it’s one of the first things blooming in my yard, and because I know the bees need food right now, it is serving an important purpose 🙂

      And thank you for your kind words!


  2. Here’s a couple of climate change resources.

    RealClimate – “Climate science from climate scientists” (highly technical):

    robertscribbler – “Scribbling for economic, social, and environmental justice” (cutting edge science with good contextualization):

    Our climate situation is not good. Global warming is accelerating faster than expected with feedback loops, such as methane releases from tundra melting, compounding the problem. The Arctic will be ice-free in summer very soon. The massive Greenland glaciers are fast receding. The West Antarctic “plug,” which holds back the unstable continental ice behind it, is collapsing. An anomalous “kelvin wave” is pumping tremendous heat into the eastern pacific which likely will result in a serious El Nino event. Extreme weather patterns are on the rise everywhere causing untold billions in damage. Wildfires are raging in Siberia, the southwestern U.S., and elsewhere. A catastrophic sea level rise is already locked in for this century which will inundate low-lying coastal regions and vulnerable island nations around the globe. I wish this was just hyperbole, but sadly it is true. Elizabeth Kolbert called these times “The Sixth Extinction” in her new book – a comparison of current climate change to the five known mass biological extinctions in Earth’s history. See:

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Robert, thank you for important resources and for your discussion. Your specific examples of the multiple consequences of climate change highlight how crucial a topic this is as a focus for study!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What beautiful gifts you leave your daughter in your stories , Carol! If adults could just follow the lead of children, their joy in living, so much would be right with the world. Thank you for sharing this.


    1. Thank you, Mandy. I so appreciate your kind words and agree that children teach us so much if we take the time to watch and listen and protect them from harm. I applaud the work you do to help raise awareness about these issues.


    1. Thank you for sharing such important insights, Peter, and for your kind words. Your blog is one I rely on for important information about global climate change, and one of the inspirations for focusing on these issues in the class I am teaching. I thank you for that as well.


    1. Thank you for sharing your insights, Dr. Bramhall! (May I call you Stuart?)
      I agree that shifting paradigms requires personal investment — and I’m excited about the response of students so far. The challenge for me at the moment is keeping my focus on creativity and filling in all of the details I still need to address while I find diplomatic ways of fending off the pressures of an administrator who doesn’t want this approach to work…


  4. Reblogged this on Dolphin and commented:
    Wonderful stories. My take on the butterfly story is that it is easier to just close down and protect oneself from the negative energy of others than it is to let your inner light and joy shine, regardless. Because opening oneself up to ignoring the negative and focusing on the positive comes with a certain vulnerability. It means that those people may not respond to your light and still react negatively. It takes a certain amount of courage to shine your light.


      1. Your story reminded me of my son.
        Many years ago we were out and he saw a little boy who was blind and said to me, ” Oh Mommy, he is blind, that it so sad.”
        I looked down at him in his wheelchair and said, ” but honey, you cannot walk.”
        He looked at me with the innocence that only a child could and said, ” but he cannot SEE! “

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Carol, what a lovely story about your daughter, the child with the magical spirit!

    Carol, maybe look up Shelley Sacks from Oxford Brooks University. James Reed is very sensitive in his approach to climate change, and in SA, Pieter van Heyningen works with the Stellenbosch innovation Project and is very aware of the impacts of climate change on poor communities. He’s lovely. Antoinette Raimond understands design, heritage and sustainability and is one of the kindest people I know.

    Thanks for sharing your lovely stories. I needed to hear them today.


  6. Carol, You’ve gotten such good feedback, I almost feel superfluous. I do agree with those who mentioned the personal. I think using that approach and encouraging students to look at what is happening in areas they’ve lived in or visited – to see climate change in action. And also, to encourage exploration and debate of the full topic. For, we must accept that no matter how environmentally conscious we are in our practices, this earth, this environment will be in a constant state of change. So for me, if we could elevate the discussion above who or what is causing climate change and rather look at what can we do to prepare for these environmental and natural changes. And I’m guessing this is still related to social services, so looking at what is now being done in any number of villages facing encroaching waters could be very rewarding research. And I am still a bit like your daughter, entranced by the butterfly and blind to the frowns. Looking forward to seeing how the class develops.


    1. Thank you for your thoughtful insights, Skywalker. I appreciate your perspective on avoiding blaming — it deflects attention away from the important topics — what do we know, what do we need to know, and what can we do to make a difference.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh thank you! Carol, I forgot about Professor Don Foster from UCT ( how could I)? He doesn’t look at climate change but he’s convinced transformation cannot take place without acknowledgement of space/identity. He’s in psychology, not social work and his focus is on critical theory. His arguments may help? Nick shepherd also looks at space and identity. He has a book called Desire Lines and focuses a lot on heritage.

    Thanks again, Carol!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Carol,
    For those interested in renewable energy solutions, learning the late Hermann Scheer of Germany’s story is a good first action. He was a driving force in Germany’s renewable energy growth before passing away at age 66 in 2010, as well as a world recognized solar energy leader. This was Hermann Scheer’s personal website:
    There are also many excellent interviews of Hermann Scheer on YouTube.


  9. Playing with the wind is an elegant metaphor for learning to accept the ups and downs of life and everything in-betweens. I know the feeling of fighting the wind and the frustration that comes from trying to make life conform to my preconceived notions. When unexpected events blow around the things I have constructed my life upon, it can be a time to resist change or embrace it. I wish I could say I never stomp my feet or clench my fists but I cannot.

    The Message of the Wind reminds me of the serenity prayer when I was in recovery from addiction…Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference. I have amended it to…”change the things I cannot accept.” Perhaps, the wisdom lies in knowing when to play with the wind and when to fight it. Peace to you, Carol.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I love your addition to the serenity prayer, Jeff. I also wish I could say I “never stomp my feet or clench my fists” — this story was my attempt to find an alternative.

      Peace to you, too, Jeff.


      1. Carol: an inspiring story of turning prejudice to warmth. Growing up in a northern BC mill town, my best friend was Stoney Indian because the other white kids rejected me for being different. Why? Simply because I had glasses and was known as a “bookworm.” The positive side of that rejection was getting to know another person considered “different” and becoming good buddies.


        1. Sean, It’s good to hear from you! Thank you for your kind words, and for sharing an important childhood memory about difference and the opportunity it gave you to make a new friend. Sometimes, there are gifts that one can only find when one is one the margins. Being a “bookworm” at an early age has no doubt contributed to your skills as a versatile, engaging writer.


  10. As both a writer and an artist, your stories speak to me so powerfully, Carol. The Lesson of the Butterfly addresses the process of following one’s passions which, for creative people, means following one’s inspiration. Allowing the vision to unfold, to be realized. The Message of the Wind is just as important because the creative process involves hanging in there despite upsets, mistakes, disasters and learning by working with what you have, by messing around no matter how challenging. You are a wise woman, Carol, and it is such a gift to receive the benefit of your insights. Thank you.


  11. Lovely story, lovely lesson! …another proof that we are all born innocent, maybe because this is the way we suppose to live and understand life! LM


  12. This post moved me deeply, especially the story about the butterfly. It takes great strength and purity of focus to prevent war. What your story says to me is that each of us has that strength, even an innocent child. Imagine what would happen if everyone concentrated on the butterflies instead of fear propaganda. Beautifully stated.


    1. Thank you for such a lovely, poetic comment, Anne. It reminds me of a line from Joni Mitchell’s song, Woodstock:
      “And I dreamed I saw the bombers riding shotgun in the sky
      and they were turning into butterflies above our nation.”
      It is possible.


  13. “Your focus on the wonder of life and gentle responsiveness to beauty not only buffered you from their disapproval and meanness, but also transformed others around you.”
    What a wonderful story Carola…having myself a son with “curly hair and tanned skin” I felt close to your story…I rarely experience open racism, sexism or any “ism” myself, but it has happened…in most cases I’m unaware that it is happening until I see the outcomes of my efforts: my voice tends to be ignored in certain circles.
    But no matter the struggles ahead (and we as a species have many), we need to remember to stay focused on what matters, keep our connections with Nature and try to understand our place in it…my approach to Climate Change is that we are not a chosen species, we are not in the middle (or top) of anything and we don’t represent a progressive and linear “evolution” to something “better”…we are part of the whole, we are not very different from plants or animals, and whatever we do to this Earth and its ecosystems, we are doing to ourselves…


    1. Sylvia, thank you for your kind words and for sharing such important insights about our interdependence with the natural world entrusted to us to tend and care for, not to exploit and destroy.


        1. Thank you for the link, Sylvia. It’s a great article and so timely. I just shared the link with the students in the research class I’m teaching. They are all engaged in planning and conducting little research projects to explore the impact of climate change on local communities as a foundation for identifying what can be done to help communities learn more and become involved.


  14. You have etched these two stories into my heart this morning and I hope they will become a part of my wisdom sharing library waiting for me to recall when I need the stories for myself or to share with others. Thank you friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. It seems to me, and I may be over-reading into your description, that you are developing a research curriculum that includes “Project Based Learning” in a socio-cultural context related to climate change. PBL is certainly in vogue in North Carolina, and there is much scholarly research that shows students make greater gains in understanding and detention with this kind of approach. So if I am not off base, you are probably on to something great! I do have friends in our local environmental to see if they might have some recommendations. Regarding your stories…how evocative and moving…you are clearly a wonderful teacher and mother, and are blessed with a wonderful daughter…so enjoy your blog! Jo

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind and thoughtful comments, Jo, and for giving a name to this approach. Students did make extraordinary gains on a subject that scared them – research – using applied methods to explore a topic of importance for their future work. Sadly, It was the last class I taught. Teaching for this particular college helped me make the decision not to teach any more. I love working with students, but not bureaucracies that are only interested in attracting students as a source of revenue. I’m willing to share the curriculum I developed if any of your friends are interested.


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