Between 1995 and 2005, because of graduate school, jobs, wanderlust and love, I moved across America sixteen times. Always by car, always in spring or fall. The drive I made most often was a 2,000-mile stretch between Idaho and Ohio, in either direction, sometimes alone, sometimes with my dog, once with a goldfish named Fran riding shotgun in a one-gallon water jug. Eastward, westward, I travelled the great unspooling latticework of American interstates – sun-baked juniper flats of southern Idaho, incandescent canyons of Utah, rambling prairies of Nebraska, the deep, heavy damp of Iowa in August.

It was on such a drive that I encountered one of the most marvellous things I’ve ever seen. I was crossing the western half of Wyoming, my car shuddering in a crosswind, big rafts of cumuli cruising above the highway. Everything seemed stripped clean by the wind and light. There was hardly any traffic, only a long-hauler now and then. Up ahead, the air grew abruptly darker, a thick band of grey, as if a long, opaque ribbon was being pulled along above the road. Within a few seconds, butterflies were exploding across the windshield. The air was thick with them: they cartwheeled over the hood; pieces of their wings lodged and vibrated in the wipers. For maybe a minute, at sixty then fifty then forty miles an hour, this kept up, thousands of butterflies breaking over the front of my Subaru. Sometimes their bodies seemed to simply pulverize – as if there were no liquid element to the creatures at all, just a wash of grey powder across the glass.

I decelerated to thirty, to twenty. When I was finally through the band, I pulled on to the shoulder, got out and walked back up the highway. I was maybe 1,000 miles from where I had started the day before and nearing that shaky, long-distance daze I would sometimes slip into, when I’d feel as though my brain was trailing way behind my body.

Butterflies: a long, shimmering curtain. Millions of them. They practically blotted out the sky. I felt as if some secret had torn free from the earth, something very private and old, something much larger than myself. I’d had feelings like this once or twice before: in the water off south-east Alaska, watching the wide, impossibly long silhouette of a humpback whale flow beneath my kayak; another time in the Gulf of California, watching a fisherman reach over the stern of a boat and seize the thrashing bill of a marlin with a gloved hand, and feeling in my bare feet the sleek, hard flank of the fish striking the underside of the boat. These were feelings that seemed to suggest the world possessed quantities of power I would never understand.

The butterflies coursed on and on. Some landed on fence posts, on the asphalt, on the roof of my car. A few landed on my sleeve and beat their wings carefully, thoughtfully, their bodies seeming to quiver in the wind.

Every now and then an eighteen-wheeler barrelled past, its wipers smearing back and forth, and a wreckage of insects tumbling in its wake. I stood on the shoulder of Interstate 80 for maybe fifteen minutes, waiting for the tail end of the swarm, staring up into a river of insects; staring up into the limits of my own understanding.

Some butterflies, I’d read later, migrate thousands of miles every year. In the fall, nearly every monarch butterfly in the United States east of the Rockies will attempt to fly to central Mexico. After particularly rainy winters, painted lady butterflies migrate in the other direction, from Mexico into California, in their billions.

Salmon, wildebeest, locusts. Storks, swifts, snow geese. What if the torrents of animals migrating past us every year left behind traces of their routes? What if Arctic terns sketched lines through the sky as they poured out of Antarctica and back; what if steelhead trout left thin, colourful laments behind as they muscled up our rivers? The skies above our fields would become a loom; the continents would be bundled in thread.

This year, as the leaves of spring unfurl, it’s as if I can feel the energy pumping through the interior of my cells, mitochondria careering around, charged ions bouncing off membranes, everything arranging and rearranging, some ancient physiological dictate sending its psychotropic messengers galloping through my nervous system: sell the furniture, scrub out the refrigerator, call in sick.

The brain contains, always, two opposing desires: the urge to stay and the urge to run. One hour our house feels peaceful and snug; the next, I’m yanking open windows at two in the morning with my heart thudding against the darkness. Sixteen trips across the United States, a windshield grimed with heat and fingerprints, a grille caked with dust and insects, and I still think about those butterflies, resting for a moment on my sleeve, a ten-second lull in a merciless journey.


Photograph by Dagny Mol


Jim Magee’s Hill
Science: When the world turns ugly