I received the November 2000 issue of Reader's Digest.
Turning it over, I was delighted to see that the rear cover held a photograph featuring a beautiful Lepidopteran, sitting on a hiker's boot in lovely wild terrain.
Substituting inferior local scenery and workmanship, the picture looked something like this:
It was accompanied by a moving and thoughtful caption -- something about the "rugged power of the Rio Grande" contrasting with "an ephemeral butterfly" "poised for a fleeting moment".
On closer study, I cracked up laughing. Then I sent an email:
Fortunately, the folks at Reader's Digest thought it was pretty hilarious too. They chatted with me, and with the photographer, and then in a high spirit of good humor they published my whole letter, a reproduction of the image, and a reply from the photographer explaining that it was a "mystery" how the moth came to be on the hiker's boot, and that this was "art, not science". I could not possibly agree more!Dear Reader's Digest:
The "Rio Grande" photograph is lovely, and your words
on the back cover of the November issue are moving and sensitive.
Thanks for publishing them!
But I thought I should let you know that both the picture and your
write-up are also pretty amusing to readers with a certain background.
The key is to recognize that the "butterfly" in the photograph is
actually a moth -- specifically, a Polyphemus moth (Antheraea
polyphemus), one of our largest and showiest native silkmoths.
Now it's not that big a mistake to call a moth a butterfly, but you
have to appreciate that Polyphemus moths simply do not fly during the
day unless disturbed, and then their goal is to find a new dark
hiding place where they can fold their wings.
The odds of finding one on a hiker's boots, with its wings spread,
in full sunshine, for long enough to take a picture, are only
slightly higher than that the Rio Grande would suddenly freeze over
at the same moment.
So the picture is fake ... uh, posed. Instead of an "ephemeral
butterfly" "poised for a fleeting moment", most likely what we really
have is a thoroughly dead moth, wings tastefully spread, probably
pinned or glued to the hiker's boot so that a stray breeze will not
dislodge it while the photographer carefully frames and exposes his
It's lovely. It's hilarious. Thank you!
Disclosure: The image posted above is actually a 4-frame (2x2) stitched panorama, overlaid by a carefully masked image of my legs, boots, and a pinned moth, with the pin cloned out of the moth and numerous contrails cloned out of the sky. Neither the river, the sky, the boots, nor the moth, ever actually looked quite like this.