Food Feature: Butterflies are free to fly

Winging it at the Butterfly Center at Callaway Gardens

I was not particularly crazy about butterflies before last week. They're pretty and lighthearted, skittering over an open field or a parking lot, but when a meditatively inclined friend suggested I take my tense self on a day trip to Callaway Gardens to see the butterfly conservatory, I wholeheartedly ignored her for what would be interpreted as a millennium in the genealogy of a short-lived butterfly. I thought I could get to my happy place without insect assistance.It turns out that the Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, near Columbus, is actually a pretty happy place itself. More than 1,000 tropical butterflies live inside an octagon-shaped glass conservatory, hurling themselves gleefully from tropical plant to 12-foot-tall waterfall to artfully placed orange rind (some of them evidently are fruitarians). Walking around the conservatory is like being in a science fiction movie; black and pink "cattle heart" butterflies, iridescent blue butterflies and butter-yellow ones zip past my head with abandon, living their little lives to the fullest. It takes me a few minutes to get acclimated and stop fighting the urge to hit the ground.

It seemed a shame to visit something as weird as a butterfly conservatory without bringing science and animal types along, so my friend Mary Beth and her kids, Elizabeth and Grier, came with me. Elizabeth, who claimed to have learned all about butterflies in elementary school, stood inside the threshold and gawked at the winged frenzy. "Butterflies are everywhere," she gasped. "Dang!" A not-so-small herringbone-patterned set of wings promptly flew up the leg of her shorts.

It's not quiet in the Butterfly Center. The sound of waterfalls, intermittent squawks from a green parrot and a blue macaw, and the steady hum of a heavy-duty ventilation system seem like the jungle roar of what would otherwise be a silent place, marked only by the sound of chaos theory in action — the supposed effect of a butterfly's wing on the universe. People talk in the escalating tones they'd use in a theme park as they walk the conservatory's spiral path, identifying butterflies that hang like pulsing leaves from heavy stalked plants. Laminated butterfly identification cards the size of place mats are available outside the conservatory's entrance, and while I gamely took one in with me, I assumed I'd never actually use it. I began looking for types called "Julia" and "Doris" right away, two mild-looking sawdust-colored individuals who would prefer sweater sets and sensible shoes if they were people.

The $5.3 million Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center is one of the largest glass-enclosed butterfly conservatories in North America. It specializes in butterflies from Central and South America and Asia, and is the first in the world to showcase African butterflies. None are captured in the wild, but come from butterfly farms overseas and "production facilities" at Callaway Gardens. Two kiosks in the conservatory hold chrysalises, pinned up like tiny laundry lines, with insects in various stages of undress inside. Science facts are easy to come by — a placard informed me that butterflies see in ultraviolet — and, being a teenage boy, Grier was delighted to find two velvety black and magenta butterflies apparently mating on a low- hanging tree branch.

Another science fact is that butterflies have infinitely small claws on their feet, clearly evident when I thought something tapped me on the shoulder. (It was a swallowtail, hitching a ride.) A cluster of blue butterflies with wing spans like index cards temp- porarily covered my notebook — they don't stay anywhere long — and I stopped writing with my pen in midair, afraid of what might happen if I made a building full of butterflies angry. In the conservatory, it's their world, we just live in it.

"Julia" made an appearance right about the time I sat down to watch an Owl butterfly resembling a wood chip with a design like an eye on the tip of each wing alight on a lantana bush. The conservatory has a hypnotic effect, and I was thinking how nice it would be to live covered in iridescent scales and eat flowers when a delicate furry body with wings the color of toast landed on my finger and clutched my skin. It unfurled a slender proboscis, and dipped it in a drop of water that fell from the ceiling. People gathered around my elevated hand to watch. Each of us stared into a tiny universe. In action, Julia was more elegant than her picture had led me to believe.

After two hours, we pried ourselves away. We were hungry, and Grier and Elizabeth wanted to see the afternoon birds of prey show at Callaway Gardens' Discovery Center. Behind us, a group of parents, grandparents and children emerged from the conservatory. The grandfather, an elegant man wearing a sportcoat and tie even in the wet- washcloth tropical climate of the conservatory, gave one last look into the glass house. "Are we going?" he asked. "Gosh, I was getting into it!"

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