The Butterflies of Kuranda

January 06, 1994|By H. K. FLEMING

DELAND, FLORIDA — Deland, Florida.--On the day after our arrival at the northern tip of Australia we were taken by bus to a place called Kuranda where we were to view a collection of live butterflies. I can't say this prospect enthralled us. We had heard tales about kangaroos, wallabies, emus and other odd Australian creatures, but not butterflies, and anyhow we were tired after the long, long trip by plane from the States.

Yet it was on the program, so when the bus stopped at some quite ordinary-looking building we trooped inside, all 35 of us. A young woman guide then led us out to the rear where a vast net had been spread over tall tropical trees, rare flowers and shrubbery. Hundreds of butterflies, some huge and vibrantly colored, were flitting about in the dim light. The air was hot and humid.

As we lined up on a tiny winding pathway and our guide began speaking it began to dawn on us that this wasn't the usual type of potted lecture aimed at tourists -- a few learned Latin phrases plus a joke or two. Something about the speaker as well as the extraordinary background held us. She spoke lucidly, almost musically. She was, as it were, the keeper of a sanctum where butterfly was king while human beings were interlopers, even though some of these butterflies had a pitiful life span of a mere two weeks.

We said goodbye to Kuranda and our guide. The bus took off. Our thoughts now were our own. Two weeks to live! No wonder the word butterfly conjures up visions of the flighty and the frail -- compared, that is, with the seeming solidity and longevity of Homo sapiens, and yet, musing on this, questions began to darken the landscape.

What longevity?

Man only recently has discovered how to unleash gigantic powers of destruction unknown to our ancestors, and at this moment tens of thousands of atom bombs are secreted in various parts of the world along with the rocketry required to send them to a pinpoint landing. If Man were a god-like creature this expertise could be a universal blessing. Unfortunately, human nature intervenes. National boundaries are sacred. Tribal myths are sacred. Religion is sacred. The Bomb recognizes none of it.

Further, the days are gone when to produce an atomic bomb it was necessary to harness immense resources, money by the billions and scientific help by the hundreds if not thousands. A high-tech reactor yielding plutonium is not needed any more, the job can be done with ordinary uranium.

''It is only necessary to find a way of separating U-235, the fissile isotope that constitutes 0.7 percent of refined uranium, from U-238, the non-fissile isotope that makes up the other 99.3 percent. When you get 50 pounds of ''enriched material'' -- 90 percent U-235 -- it is a short step to a bomb that will blow up thousands of people.'' I quote George Melloan in the Wall Street Journal of August 11, 1991.

It is now possible, in theory at least, for one person to press a button or pull a switch to initiate the wrecking of the globe. It is possible to train a chimpanzee to do the job. They can be trained quite easily. A trained poodle can do the job. So can a cockatoo.

And so, it suddenly came to me, could one of the butterflies of Kuranda. It could be arranged that the gentlest of landings would set off a relay, which in turn would. . . . But enough.

I looked about the bus. Half of my fellow travelers seemed to be sleeping. It had been an arduous day. And when we are tired there are times when any of us can see what we do not wish to see.

H.K. Fleming, a former managing editor of The Sun, has been publishing in the Sunpapers since 1927.

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