The Butterfly Effect: Finding Sanctuary in Butterfly Town, USA, By Jennifer Lunden was a piece of creative nonfiction that I chose to present to my Creative Nonfiction class early in 2014, during the last year of my Diploma at Victoria University (VU).
My Creative Nonfiction teacher, the wonderful Michelle Fincke, read the following analysis of ‘The Butterfly Effect’ out in class. (The 3M mask, I sometimes have to wear to protect my airways from fragrances, solvents and petrochemicals, prevented me from being able to read this out loud due to lack of oxygen, compounding already existing upper respiratory health problems; these are (head pains, sinus pain, shortness of breath) issues that happen while talking for extended periods of time while wearing the cloistering thing!)
This particular Professional Writing and Editing class was early on in the semester, and it was only during the first two weeks that I had to suffer wearing a mask for the whole class: after that short, but intense, time, this wonderful and compassionate teacher managed to persuade and gain the understudying of my fellow classmates as to why and how they could help accommodate and include me in classes. For the rest of the semester I attended classes without wearing a mask (I still wore it in my car and into the building), and I was able to read out my own work to the class. (Having the air purifiers running in the classroom also helped! As did a tick sheet, which allowed me to assess the air without having to breath it in to do so.)
Here is the written analysis of Lunden’s piece that was read out by Michelle on my behalf:
One of the reasons that I, particularly, like The Butterfly Effect: Finding Sanctuary in Butterfly Town, USA is because it’s written by the writer, Jennifer Lunden, who just happens to have the same condition that I have; although over in the US, it’s called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS); another reason is it’s about the Monarch Butterflies and their habitat, our Earth. Lunden manages to weave both topics seamlessly into this wonderfully written work of creative nonfiction.
It’s probably my all-time favourite creative nonfiction piece of another writer’s work. Ever.
The story reads like fiction because Lunden uses two timelines, the first is of her as a young girl, aged 9, where she is fascinated with Monarch caterpillars and their metamorphism into butterflies, and the second is of her as an adult diagnosed with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, researching the Monarchs, and weaving into the story her analysis that many people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity are unable to find safe habitats—as is also the case for many of the Monarch butterflies. The story is ultimately about saving the butterflies and finding solutions to the population’s decline.
One literary device used in this piece is the tactic of switching point of view (POV) throughout: mostly, it’s written in first person POV; ergo, there are two parts where it’s written in third person POV. After careful analysis of the text, I think these are both about a young girl and the way she sees the beauty of the butterflies, and her relationship with them. It’s not directly clear if the girl is Lunden, herself, or not, but personally, as a reader, I felt that it most certainly is. This switching about of POVs is also a literary device utilised by some savvy creative nonfiction writers to make their work more interesting: it creates a greater emotional connection with the reader, allowing them to see and feel events from another’s perspective.
I also enjoyed the way she has written about what it’s like to be forced to wear a mask if you have this condition and need to attempt to partake in normal life. (I’ve included two examples below.) And, during undertaking the research for this story, even though Lunden knows the journey might make her ill, she attempts it anyway, and writes about it. I can relate to this in so many ways:
it’s like our passion carries more power than our illness (sometimes; and if only for a while until we get knocked flat, once again).
It’s obvious that this is creative nonfiction because it’s factual but also something Lunden is enthusiastic about… Not only is it written using wonderful imagery and figurative language such as metaphors, similes and analogies, but also includes facts, research and quotes from interviews. These all make for mind-riveting reading. I take an awesome amount of inspiration from all of this; but, at the same time, I feel deeply despondent that it’s almost a guarantee that she will, and does, have her health intruded on by chemical exposures impacting upon her immune system, just from going out into the world to pursue her interest: writing about the butterflies.
I especially enjoyed the use of metaphors throughout the piece. Such as this example: “They are nature’s stained-glass windows, flying high between us and the sun.” to describe the butterflies and the pattern on their wings. As a reader, for me, this creates the most intensely beautiful imagery: I feel in touch with the creatures even though I’m [at the time or writing this] enclosed in a tiny foil-lined room.
“They are nature’s stained-glass windows, flying high between us and the sun.”
Rightfully so, Lunden’s story won the 2012 Pushcart Prize for Creative Non Fiction:
“The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses series, published every year since 1976, is the most honored literary project in America.”
By Jennifer Lunden
Some Extracts from Lunden’s piece (Note: the whole story is linked to at the end of this post):
“It was cold in Maine. Cold. And the snow was heaped in dirty piles on the side of the road. And the sidewalks were icy. And it got dark at 4:30 in the afternoon.
It was the dead of winter, and I wanted out, so I flew to California—to Pacific Grove, aka Butterfly Town, USA, to see the monarchs. It was a journey home, really, though I had never been there.
I grew up in a box-shaped house on a well-manicured lawn in the suburbs of a mid-sized Canadian city in Ontario. Across the road and abutting the river was a patch of city land, untended, wild, a field of tall grasses flecked with milkweed and Queen Anne’s lace. There, I discovered my first monarch caterpillar. I was 9 years old, and I had never seen anything like it. Boldly ringed in concentric stripes—black, yellow and white—it was stretched out on a milkweed leaf, eating. I plucked it off, held it in my hand, touched it with my fingers. Its skin was smooth, leathery. It did not roll up in a ball. It did not seem afraid. Docile. I broke off the milkweed near the top and carried my find home.
I scoured the fields in search of more. I filled jars with milkweed and caterpillars. I pounded nail holes in the lids. I spent hours watching them.
They ate voraciously. I could see their mandibles working. I could see the chunks they took out of the leaves, bite by bite. They grew fast, and before I knew it, they were climbing to the lids of their jars. They spun small mounds of silk and attached themselves to the mounds and hung there in the shapes of J’s for a long, long time. And then, when the moment was right, they split the skins on their backs, wrestled with themselves and turned inside-out, and, suddenly, there they were, something wholly different: an emerald green chrysalis with little golden flecks and a gold crown.
They would hang for days, for what seemed like forever, and nothing changed. And then one day, I could see the darkening. The butterfly was forming. Soon, I could see the outline of a wing. The orange. The black veins. The white polka dots.
The waiting for what would come next. … It seemed interminable.
I didn’t want to miss it.”
Example one by Jennifer Lunden:
“I have a carbon filter mask. If I were to give it a name, I think it would have a male name. Tom. Something strong and protective.
My mask is battleship gray. It shields me from perfumes and colognes, air fresheners, cleaning products, pesticides, fumes from fresh paint. I carry it in a baggie in my purse, and I take it out now, on this airplane, and strap it on.
I wear it when I can feel the headache coming on. When it hits, it feels as though my brain has swollen inside the cradle of my scalp. A fog rolls in. My capacity to juggle a number of thoughts at once, an ability most people take for granted, dwindles. It alarms me when this happens, when my brain gives way.
I have it easy compared to some people. I know people who suffer seizures when exposed to chemicals. Closed airways, joint and muscle pain, nausea, insomnia, disabling fatigue. Panic attacks, mood swings. I know people who could never hazard the bad air on planes. Some of them live in ceramic trailers in the deserts of Arizona. Some of them are homeless; they live in their cars or tents. They can’t find anyplace safe to breathe. They can’t find habitat.
We call ourselves “canaries in the coal mine.” We have multiple-chemical sensitivity, and our numbers are growing.”
Example two by Jennifer Lunden
“My other mask—my special occasion mask—is a flowery, lacy affair, skin-toned, with a little rose appliqué by its left strap. Feminine. Or as feminine as a fume-deterring mask can be.
It’s not any better, really, this flowery, lacy mask. What I really want is a mask bearing an appliquéd symbol that stands for “your toxic products are making me sick.” It would be nice if the symbol could point out, too, that 62,000 chemicals used in the United States have never been tested for safety. That we are human guinea pigs. That while we think our government would surely protect us from egregious toxins, we are wrong.
But what would that symbol look like?
If I have to wear something that makes me stand out in a crowd, I’d rather it not be something that stands for “crazy” (think Michael Jackson) or “communicable” (think SARS). I want people to know that this mask isn’t about me so much as it is about us.”
I love the way that Lunden has drawn attention to the Monarch Butterflies while also showing how people sensitive to chemicals are intrinsically linked to what is happening to our precious ecosystem and its inhabitants. Of course, when I read about her experience with the mask, it blew my mind: here is a person going through what I am and she is (or was at the time) studying creative nonfiction!
When my teacher read this out to the class, I could tell she really liked it because she read it with such enthusiasm, and she even said to me that I had chosen a great piece because of the content and my situation: Getting a whole class to go fragrance free when the school is yet to implement a fragrance-free policy (yet!) is no easy task—for the teacher or the student!
However, I truly believe that having this particular author’s work on this particular subject read out to the class as my example of a work of creative nonfiction helped lay the foundation for getting that large group of students to help me. It surely helped cement in the understanding of why it was so important that students not wear chemical-laden products to class. And, yes, it worked!
To Jennifer Lunden, Michelle Fincke, my fellow students and VU, if you ever read this post, thank you: all of you have enriched my life in so many ways. Yay! I have a Diploma. (I can’t stop saying this; and I still feel like I’m dreaming.)
Love Michellina and the world’s Butterflies xo
More About Jennifer Lunden
Read Jennifer Lunden’s Blog: One Canary Sings ~ Notes from an Industrialised Body
Read all of ‘The Butterfly Effect: Finding Sanctuary in Butterfly Town, USA‘ ~ by Jennifer Lunden
Creative Nonfiction.org: Creative Nonfiction ~ True Stories Told Well
Jennifer Lunden: I Know the Truth, I Know it In My Body