Chicago winters try the soul. For me, early February is about the time that the novelty of trudging through grimy, ankle-deep slush wears off, and the lack of color and light starts to take a noticeable psychological toll. So, before pitching head first off my seasonal-mood rocker, I invited some friends to come along on a visit to the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven; housed in the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, it serves as a reminder that warmth, greenery and wildlife more pleasant than house centipedes still exist in the world. Not surprisingly, I got several takers.
In three hours at the Nature Museum, I witnessed five friends transform from men and women in their late-20s to irrepressibly curious schoolchildren. Although I only intended to spend time in the butterfly house, the rest of the museum was simply too inviting to skip over. We passed at least an hour making kissy faces at amphibians in terrariums, shrieking in surprise at a drawer full of cockroaches and gaping into curio cabinets housing weird, florid arrangements of taxidermy. However, the puckish mood changed the moment we stepped through the door of the Butterfly Haven.
Before entering, we watched a short video that laid down the house rules: be sure no butterflies hitchhike out on your sleeve, resist the temptation to pet them. When we passed through the doors into the warmth of the greenhouse, we emitted a collective gasp. The light of the sunny day filtered through lush greenery to illuminate the lustrous wings of dozens upon dozens of butterflies. The Haven is aptly named; "house" or "habitat" wouldn't do it justice. A waterfall trickles down a rocky wall into a pool of lazy goldfish; the occasional chirrup of a Red- or Yellow-Legged Honeycreeper tickles the humid air, and everywhere, absolutely everywhere, are butterflies—basking in the sun, wings spread, motionless for minutes on end. They chase each other and tumble playfully mid-flight. After months in a gray, frozen city, I felt like I had stepped through the looking glass into Eden. We stood hushed in the doorway for several minutes, as though any sudden movements might shatter the scene.
And the Haven is an Eden of sorts. You won't find evidence of the less glamorous stages of butterfly life. No caterpillars or chrysalides here—only dozens of mature butterflies. On close inspection, one notices a sparse littering of deceased Morphos, Swallowtails and Julias beneath the trees and shrubs. Button quail, which are, according the attendant on duty, amongst nature's most dim-witted birds, roost beneath the greenery and feed on dead butterflies. It seemed appropriate that such indolent and comical creatures would grossly feast on the iridescent carcasses.
Eggs laid by butterflies in the Haven as a rule don't reach maturity. The entire stock of over 75 species representing four continents is imported. Over 1,000 chrysalides are shipped to the museum each week from butterfly farms in warmer climes (that's right, butterfly farms). Visitors may observe the pupating papillion in a glass case, which serves as a barrier between themselves and a small laboratory. Lithe-fingered technicians on the other side collect freshly hatched butterflies to release into the Haven, where they live out the brief remainder of their lives in luxury.
After a meditative stay in the greenhouse, we headed to the adjacent room to goggle like expectant parents at rows of colorful pupa. We cheered on a half-emerged butterfly, whose progress was, admittedly, indiscernible. The techs, no doubt accustomed to a lot of adorable clamor on the other side of the glass, kept a remarkably stoic demeanor—except when one of them rescued a damp little butterfly from the floor of the case and successfully coaxed it onto its chrysalis to dry. The operation elicited a hearty round of applause from us and a quick grin from her.
On the way out, visitors are invited to try their hands at amateur lepidopterology by examining cases of mounted butterflies, arranged according to species, with a large magnifying glass. I have to confess we didn't hang out in this section very long. The excitement of wandering around a small tropical paradise with so many live butterflies fluttering about made the more educational portion of the visit pale in comparison. Maybe someday we'll grow up.
Guidebook Rating: There's a magical innocence to a place that exists solely for people to enjoy one of nature's most charming creatures in their final and shortest stage of life. Children and adults alike will go slack-jawed at so many butterflies in one place. Not to mention that being in a peaceful, 82-degree room full of plants is good for the soul.
Stats: The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is located at 2430 N. Cannon Drive. All exhibits are open 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Admission is $9 for adults, $7 for students and seniors, $6 for kids 12 and under; Thursdays free.