What could be more beautiful than an iridescent blue butterfly alighting on one’s hand? A lot of things, according to my toddler, and it didn’t even land on him. While I smiled the moment it touched my skin, he shuddered. Fortunately, it flew off before he had a more extreme reaction. While the trip to the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History’s butterfly exhibit didn’t quite go as planned, it was still worth the trek out in some frigid weather.
The temperature on President’s Day in Washington D.C. was in the single digits. And yet, I knew I needed to get out of the house; cabin fever sets in on me quickly. I had planned to go to the butterfly house for weeks, so I wasn’t going to allow a little chill stop me.
So we bundled up layer upon layer, complete with a fleece blanket over Sprout in his stroller. While we shivered our way to the museum, it turns out that the butterfly exhibit is a great place to visit in the winter. Because many of the butterflies are tropical, the museum has to blast the heat to keep them active. I had to strip off my fleece jacket to keep from sweating.
Entering the exhibit, I expected to set Sprout down and have him hold my hand as we walked. I also expected him to enjoy the butterflies – butterfly is actually one of the few signs he knows. But I underestimated the sensory overload butterflies cause in a toddler. Instead, he just wanted me to carry him the whole time. On my hip, he displayed his typical watchful eye. As I pointed out the flying wonders perched on leaves and flowers, his attention followed. He was like a little field biologist, seemingly making mental notes about all of the things he saw – blue morpho, Viceroys, blue-banded swallowtails. But that interest didn’t dispel his dislike of their unpredictability. The few times butterflies came close to his head, his whole head twitched. I told him several times, “I know they seem scary, but I won’t let them hurt you” and added, “They’re more afraid of you than you are than them” for good measure. That was, until Chris pointed out that insects probably don’t have a sense of fear. Thanks for the scientific insight, honey.
Sprout seemed to like the hornworm caterpillars better, which looked similar to the eponymous Very Hungry Caterpillar and were safely contained in a glass jar.
In contrast to the seemingly innocuous butterflies, Sprout was much more enamored with a creepier creature – a giant tarantula. Elsewhere in the museum’s insect zoo, a volunteer was feeding the big spiders. Maybe because the fat, happy, fuzzy spider didn’t move or because it was in a box, Sprout had no problem peering in. Guided by the docent, I explained to Sprout that like the character in one of his favorite books, the Very Busy Spider, this spider also builds webs. But instead of building a web on a fence post, tarantulas build webs on the ground and even make little caves to hide in.
Elsewhere, I continued to connect his favorite stories with animals we saw. Pointing to a crab, I said, “It’s like the one in This is Not My Hat, that gives away the hiding place!” Looking at chrysalises, I commented that they were like the little houses that the Hungry Caterpillar and Squiggly Wiggly build for themselves. In the wilderness photography exhibit, he “maaaaed” at a photo of mountain goats that looked just like the Three Billy Goats Gruff. I love drawing those lines between stories and nature, showing him how science and narrative are not separate things.
But his absolute favorite thing in the entire museum was both unexpected and heart-warming – the model of the right whale. As we walked through the Ocean Hall, he stopped, looked up, and started yelping at it in excitement. Hilariously, he was making his “roar” noise at the gentle creature. I suspect he associates roaring with any large animal, whether it’s a lion, dinosaur or whale. As I wanted to be a marine biologist for years before moving towards science communication in general, I adore the fact that of all things, the whale caught his eye. I can’t wait to bring him on a real whale watch.
In the coldest weather, it was great to enter a different, warmer world outside of our house for a little while.