Sam Sugerman: A butterfly's fight

Wednesday, February 6, 2019 - 5:52pm

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The Michigan Daily

As a child I remember aimlessly running through my yard in constant pursuit of the graceful butterflies that fluttered their wings only a fingertip away from my youthful reach. My intent was never malevolent — quite the opposite. I yearned for a butterfly to latch onto my hand so I could mesmerize myself with its colors.

Though I am far removed from my backyard adventures, butterflies continue to be an emblem for my life and the lives of others, as they represent hope, display grace, denote beauty and symbolize freedom. Unfortunately, during the summer of 2017 in Mission, Texas, these dignified creatures became entangled with the Trump administration’s effort to move forward with construction of a wall for increased border security.

In July 2017 at the North American Butterfly Association’s National Butterfly Center, the center director Marianna Treviño-Wright confronted chainsaw wielding construction workers. The workers were tasked with demolishing the building and the landscape Wright and her team worked so diligently to create and preserve. This confrontation precipitated a legal battle between the Center and the Trump administration, in which the administration ultimately prevailed.

Trump eventually enforced eminent domain (the government’s power to take private property for public use) and waived 28 environmental protection laws to take over NABA’s private property in order to expedite the construction of his infamous wall. Now, in the coming weeks, 200,000 square feet of the National Butterfly Center is scheduled to be bulldozed. Four-hundred endemic and migratory species of butterflies are at risk if we do not rally and act in their support. Butterflies are too fragile to fight for themselves, and thus the fate of their beauty, grace and hope depends on the determination of engaged citizens.

The fight is especially salient because butterflies are ecologically pertinent to healthy ecosystems as they are an indicator species, meaning they provide evidence of a healthy environment. However, butterflies do not merely indicate health in an ecological scope, but their natural beauty is a microcosm of the health of society.

On an ecological level, the proposed border wall will divide the National Butterfly Center, leaving an estimated 70 percent of the land on the Mexican side of the wall. This physical partition poses a threat, as the butterflies will be challenged to navigate the wall. This reduction in viable land will lead to fewer resources for animals and catalyze the bottleneck effect which will weaken the butterflies’ genetic pool and decrease their population.

For more than 15 years, the National Butterfly Center has been a lush area of vegetation drawing flocks of wildlife and tourists alike, to witness the vibrant environment. This raises the question: Will people at the border realize that any day they may see their last butterfly all due to the construction of a border wall?

I fear this wall will slowly strip away the hope of a sustainable future, the strength to fight and the beauty of the world, much like the Holocaust did to poet Pavel Friedmann. Friedmann wrote "The Butterfly," a poem which profoundly encapsulates hope while incorporating despair during his encampment in the Theresienstadt concentration camp and ghetto. His poem discusses the last butterfly he saw. The butterfly was “dazzlingly yellow,” but after a short stay “it went away.”

The creation of the infamous wall will leave a permanent scar on our landscape. Butterflies are simply a precursor to the greater tragedy that is unfolding due to the environmental follies perpetuated by the Trump administration and its unprecedented desire to fulfill one of its many campaign promises at all costs. The construction of this small portion (38 miles) of the border wall will require the removal of over 30 million square feet of vegetation, vegetation situated on public land that is ultimately paid for by our taxes and therefore owned by the people.

President Trump is neglecting our wildlife, our backyards and our environmental health in pursuit of a wall that will only lead to larger ladders or deeper tunnels. Trump, on behalf of the butterflies and all other animals subject to the ramifications of the proposed border wall, should remove and recognize the impact of his decisions. This wall will stand far beyond his term, and will stand as a monument to hate, bigotry and environmental destruction.  

Ultimately, the border wall is not constrained to just environmental ramifications. It also is an emblem of anti-immigration. Immigrants hope for a better future and have the strength to risk their lives in pursuit of happiness and embody the beauty of the promise upon which our country was formed.

This principle was best put forth by the poet Emma Lazarus in her poem forever emblazoned on our Statue of Liberty, “The New Colossus”:  "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

I refuse to accept a person may see their last butterfly in response to ethnic tension and the fallacious misconceptions perpetuated by Trump in his pursuit to degrade the immigrants yearning to be free. I patiently await the day I can watch my kids running around a field chasing butterflies to experience their beauty first hand. I fear, however, that his wall — if constructed — leaves our country less vibrant, hopeful, beautiful and free. I fear I will never watch my children chase butterflies.

Sam Sugerman can be reached at samsug@umich.edu.