theory, the 'butterfly effect' is the sensitive dependence on
initial conditions, where a small change at one place in a
nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later
The name of the
effect, coined by Edward Lorenz, is derived from the theoretical
example of a hurricane's formation being contingent on whether
or not a distant butterfly had flapped its wings several weeks
—From Wikipedia, the free
I've been thinking
about butterflies again, following the fluttering of my own
nonlinear mind all the way to Memorial Day gratitude.
Very attentive readers
of this column
may recall that I returned last year from my 50-year class
reunion with two monarch chrysalises, which I kept behind a net in
my kitchen until the butterflies emerged; then I moved them to the
butterfly bush in my backyard for some nectar. Chip came over to
help me determine that one was male, one female; he's good at things
For some reason I
expected them to hang around, like a stray cat. So I went in search
of a milkweed plant; it seems that monarchs can lay eggs only on
milkweed, which used to grow in vacant lots all over America.
Some readers gave me
suggestions as to where to look for it in Essex County; I got lost
in Swampscott, and decided not to drive to Haverhill after both
butterflies vanished from my yard.
I recently met a
neighbor who, to my surprise, has a domesticated version of milkweed
in her carefully-tended suburban yard. I like to think my female
monarch found it and laid some babies who eventually headed to
Mexico for the winter. The neighbor just bought me my own plant, so
I am ready if their descendants return to the family homestead.
Carol is very
knowledgeable about butterflies, and identified various kinds
flitting around Chip's and my far-from-domesticated yard. Red
Admirals are the ones that were visiting en masse on Mother's Day;
and she showed me a Black Swallowtail on my fading lilacs.
Butterflies make me
think of the butterfly effect. I once thought it was just a fanciful
notion having to do with a Buddhist concept of connectedness; which,
by the way, is the theme of the Fox series "Touch" that some of us
started watching Jan. 25 because of our attachment to Keifer
Sutherland's Jack Bauer, hero of "24," an entirely different kind of
The change is probably
good for us, though I have to wonder: What happens if Keifer's
character stops following his autistic son's exhausting quest to
connect individuals, and starts working overtime for a
counter-terrorism unit? Either way, he has an "effect," as he would
if he simply relaxed and raised milkweed on a farm in the Midwest.
It seems we all have an
effect on every place we live and everyone we touch, however
lightly. I've learned that the butterfly effect is quite real,
obviously connected to chaos theory, if you think about it, which I
did after reading Erik Larson's "Isaac's
Storm" about the deadliest hurricane in American history, which
struck the city of Galveston, Texas, in 1900.
Larson's story begins
"with an awakening of molecules ... as the sun rose over the African
highlands east of Cameroon and warmed grasslands ... and the men and
creatures that moved and breathed among them; it warmed their
exhalations and caused these to rise upwards. ... Winds converged
... thermal stream encountered moist monsoon air ... a zone of
instability ... air expanded and cooled. ... Moisture-freighted air
rose high into the troposphere ... where all weather occurs."
Clouds formed. Then
"something powerful and ultimately deadly occurred within these
clouds ... (more) warm air flowed upwards. ... In Galveston, the
humidity was nearly 100 percent."
Larson then brings in
one Ernest Zebrowski Jr. who wrote, "add a little glitch, a
metaphorical butterfly, to a complex process, and sometimes you get
an outcome no rational person could have predicted." Hence that
unexpected killer hurricane.
Moving along within the
seemingly-chaotic patterns of my mind, I find myself thinking of
Larson's latest book. "In
the Garden of Beasts" is the story of one family's witness to
Hitler's ascendancy in 1933 Germany. This would be perfect reading
on Memorial Day weekend, as we honor those who died making sure that
Hitler descended before he reached and destroyed America.
Any student of history
recognizes the cause and effect that creates it, and the slight, as
well as the large, connections that move it one way or another. It's
not hard to see the patterns from a distance, but difficult to see
them as history is happening, to know the impact of our own
exhalations as we move from decision to decision in our own lives.
Since we can't predict
the long-term butterfly effect of our decisions, the best we can do
is make them in the integrity zone where we can at least control our
intentions. In the end, we hope we'll have made even a small
difference in the way the world turned.
On Memorial Day we
honor those World War II veterans who died making a very big
difference, who changed the future in a major way. In any war, those
who fight against tyrants and terrorists create an effect called
freedom; our flag waves in their refreshing breeze.