How an Ice Butterfly Taught Me Time

Not Japanese, but a beautiful ice sculpture entitled "Mysterious Pearl."  G.Goodwin Jr. and Snark, Creative Commons (Wikimedia)

Not Japanese, but a beautiful ice sculpture entitled “Mysterious Pearl.” G.Goodwin Jr. and Snark, Creative Commons (Wikimedia)

When I was about ten years old, my parents traveled from Pennsylvania to California. Naturally, they took me to Disneyland. I learned an important lesson that day. Not how to dress like a princess, or that it takes willful suspension of disbelief to enjoy myths re-imagined for the purpose of merchandising.I learned about time.

The city of Anaheim was holding a festival in honor of its adopted sister city in Japan. Disneyland joined in with Japanese-themed events and kitsch.

Around noon, my parents and I stopped to watch a Japanese artist working on the edge of the lake. He was carving a six-foot-tall butterfly out of a pillar of ice. I was fascinated by his meticulous yet swift chisel-work. I marveled at how the sun shone through the ice like crystal. Yet I was troubled.

“But it will melt,” I said. It was a warm, sunny California day.

“Yes,” said he. “That’s the point.”

I understood what he meant almost at once— with my head, not my heart. My heart is still struggling to understand. I have trouble letting go of places, things, people, ways of being. If I had a time machine, I used to say, I would copy every manuscript in the Library of Alexandria. All my life, I’ve been haunted by a nightmare of forever climbing a staircase whose steps close just behind my feet.

That is the story. And yet it is not the story.

Ten years after that trip to Disneyland, I met a girl in college who was a kindred spirit. One day I told her this story. To my surprise, my tale was not new to her.

She had grown up in California. She used to visit Disneyland. She remembered a special day when Disneyland threw a party for Anaheim’s sister city in Japan. She remembered a Japanese artist carving a sculpture of a butterfly out of ice. She remembered my question and his answer.

We had grown up 3,000 miles apart. We met ten years later when she moved east to attend a college an hour from my home. We were together for a good 15 years. Work called me out to California, and work kept her back east. Our bond slowly faded. Distance, as well as time, can melt butterflies.

That is the story. And yet it is not the story.

I have the same conflicting feelings about the web— and computers, and much of our modern world— that I did with that butterfly.

My writing and art are saved on floppy discs and on hard drives. Hard drives fail. Discs deteriorate. Computers that can access them fail. These technologies have been around for only a few decades. Do we really think our data files will be intelligible to any devices in a hundred year’s time?

We are transferring our work to the web, but there is no guarantee that webhosts will last much longer. Of course, paper and books also decay, but so far they have proved longer-lived than ephemeral technology.

Nor is the web the whole story. Our world may be melting.

When the most adamant climate change skeptic, the very one who manufactured the “climategate” scandal, does his own research with the goal of disproving climate change, only to find his data confirms it— we cannot be arrogant enough to assume that the world our great-grandchildren inherit will be just like ours today. Our accelerating 7 billion population is straining the world’s resources already. As a classics major who studied the decay of the Roman Empire, I see the shadow of the past cast darkly upon our future. I wonder whether the global economy and advanced infrastructure currently sustaining our technology will survive these pressures.

I wonder if anything we do or create will outlast the next few centuries, or whether so many unreadable hard drives, flash drives and floppies will be ground up for raw materials, like the manuscripts of Alexandria burned for fuel or stuffed into mummy wrappings as paper mâché.

When these thoughts nag me, I remind myself how the sunlight shone through an ice butterfly’s wings. I try hard to remember the words of an old Japanese man— who may well be dead by now— and tell myself, It doesn’t matter, as long as you’ve sculpted at least a few ice butterflies.

That is the story. And yet it is not the story.


Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Tumblr

Leave a Reply

Using Gravatars in the comments - get your own and be recognized!

XHTML: These are some of the tags you can use: <a href=""> <b> <blockquote> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>