Al Batt: The moment of the great butterfly release

Published 10:43 pm Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Tales From Exit 22 by Al Batt

It was a day finer than a frog hair cut four ways.

I enjoy going to the Steele County Fair. I had a purpose there. No, I wasn’t the guy they shot out of a cannon.

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I volunteered at the Friends of Rice Lake State Park booth at the Izaak Walton League’s Building during the fair. It’s a fine place to be.

Before going to work, I grabbed my jar of pennies and strolled the fairgrounds.

Foods, shopping and free stuff. The fair is like a commodious attic filled with things I’d forgotten were up there. There was a polite level of hubbub. It was a gigantic jukebox of blinking lights and varied music.

I joined 300,717 other fairgoers. The record for the Steele County Fair was set in 2013 when 350,899 people sought the sights and sounds of the fair.

Food vendors proliferated. Sweet and savory foodstuffs. I grew up being told, “Take all you want, but eat all you take.”

No one could prove that you’ve overeaten if you eat the evidence. There is a lot of grazing at the fair. Garbage cans ate well.

Parents brought young children to see things, hoping that curiosity would kill the caterwauling.

Each year, at the Friends of RLSP booth, Kathy Van Ommeren of Owatonna provides a clear display case that is a window unto the world of milkweed plants, caterpillars, chrysalises and monarch butterflies.

Monarchs typically lay a single egg on a plant, often on the bottom of a leaf near the top of the plant. It’s difficult to say how many eggs a female lays during her life, but the average is probably from 100 to 300. The last eggs are generally laid in July and August. Some adults move south in late July and August. Caterpillars of the last brood typically appear by the middle of August. They pupate by the end of August. In September, adults of the year’s last generation of monarchs congregate in large numbers on the foliage of trees and shrubs. By the end of October, they have left the state in a mass migration to their winter grounds. Monarch butterflies arrive in Minnesota around mid-May each year to start the process once again.

All insects change in form as they grow. This process is called metamorphosis. Butterflies undergo a complete metamorphosis, in which there are four distinct stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and adult. Monarch development from egg to adult is completed in about 30 days. The egg stage takes three to four days, 10 to 14 days as a caterpillar and another 10 to 14 days as a chrysalis. Temperatures can influence times.

Fair visitors saw monarch butterflies in all stages. There were eggs, caterpillars feeding on common milkweed leaves, chrysalises more beautiful than any jewelry and butterflies emerging before appreciative eyes.

After a butterfly had been in the world a few hours and its wings had dried enough for flying, I’d find a willing child to release the beautiful insect. That wasn’t a hard job.

I picked a 4-year-old girl who was with her grandmother. We moved outside and I placed the butterfly upon the open palm of the little girl’s hand. The girl was excited about the opportunity presented to her. The butterfly refused to fly. The clock ticked. Still the butterfly refused to take wing. I worried that the butterfly’s patience would exceed that of the child. It was a sad note, but not the whole song. I told the little girl that I could put it back into the display case and we could try to release it again later, but she’d have none of that.

Her attention span was impressive.

People stopped to smile at the little girl with a butterfly on her hand. Many took photos of the young lady offering a helping hand to a butterfly. The butterfly remained in place for over five minutes. I was about to pull the plug on the operation when the butterfly took to the air.

My eyes joined those of the 4-year-old, her grandmother and a flock of innocent bystanders in following the butterfly’s flight. It was a magic moment. The bad things going on in the world were forgotten. The faces of people defined happiness and that butterfly flew with countless best wishes.

The little girl stared at the sky long after the butterfly had escaped from sight.

I thanked the girl and told her that the butterfly was headed to Mexico.

I don’t think she heard me. Her smile had covered her ears.

Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday and Sunday.