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News-Sentinel reporter faces her greatest fear at Lodi Grape Festival exhibit

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Dan Evans/News-Sentinel

News-Sentinel reporter Sara Jane Pohlman, who has a phobia of moths and butterflies, recoils in fear as monarch butterflies fly out of a soft cage in the Butterfly Adventures exhibit at the Lodi Grape Festival on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013.

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What happens when you take the only local reporter known for her fear of butterflies and send her into a tent full of 650 of the colorful, fluttering insects? Horrified yelps.

I was 8 years old when the terror first struck. I was reading on the floor of my bedroom. The window to the backyard had no screen and was open. I was told to leave it closed, but I loved the Delta breeze cooling the room and ruffling curtains. That night, the breeze wasn’t the only thing coming in. I looked up from my book to turn on the overhead light. That’s when a huge furry brown moth zoomed at my face, bounced off, and swooped around the dormant ceiling fan.

This vivid memory was flitting around my brain as I approached the Butterfly Adventures exhibit in Cabernet Hall at the Grape Festival on Thursday. My coworkers had convinced me that encountering the tiny monsters on their own turf would be a healthy therapy session.

My fear is real, visceral. I don’t like their fluttering, their erratic flight patterns or their tiny, wriggling legs.

Intellectually, I understand the difference between a dull, woolly moth and a bright, delicate butterfly. Primally, it’s the same fear. This would be tough.

I remember calling for my dad to come and capture the moth that had taken over my room. He poked his head in the door, looked around and scoffed. There was nothing there. The moth had hidden in my closet. Dad closed the door, leaving me on my own with the flying beast.

But I would not be alone with the butterflies this time. Peter Noah, who runs the exhibit, met me at the entrance. Perched on a wooden stool, he explained all the reasons my fears are irrational.

“They have no claws, no mouth. They sip nectar through their tongues, like a straw,” he said. “When a butterfly runs into you, it annoys them more than anything else.”

Inside the exhibit, 250 painted lady butterflies and 400 monarch butterflies waited. Some rested on flowering plants or flew about. Still more were zipped inside mesh pop-up boxes.

I wish I had the same small mesh box as a kid, to trap the moth that made my closet its home. Instead, I had pulled the closet door shut and curled up on my bed, tugging my pink comforter over my head. I barely slept, convinced the monster was growing larger and stronger and would greet me in the morning, fangs bared.

I could see all the butterflies in the exhibit, though, and none were larger than my palm.

Noah instructed me to dip a feeding stick into a small dish of agave nectar, where a monarch was getting a drink. I managed it, my long arm stretched out wide.

Noah unzipped a mesh box a few inches and coaxed out a painted lady. It perched on the end of the feeding stick, enjoying the snack. I thrust out the small stick near another butterfly trying to emerge from the box. It was interested, but flew off after a moment — probably due to my shaking hands.

I tried to pick it up off the floor where it landed. The painted lady hopped away.

“He’s done with you,” Noah said.

Next, the monarchs. Noah dipped his hand into the box and closed two fingers around the folded wings of a butterfly, right near its furry body. I reached near its legs with my nectar-coated feeding stick. The butterfly gripped the stick for a moment, then flew at my face. I yelped. My muscles seized up. I was frozen.

“How are you doing? You OK?” Noah asked, kindly showing concern for a grown woman with panic visible on her face and in her eyes.

I was all right. Until Noah told me the next step: Unzipping the case and releasing 100 butterflies into the room.

I opened the cage in slow motion, watching the antennae and legs on a few insects trying to crawl out. Ugh.

Noah took over. He had me take one side of the top flap and turn it over, letting the creatures fly free. I jumped back, squirming, trying not to step on any butterflies that might be on the floor.

That’s where I eventually found the killer moth. Dead, on the floor of my closet. My dad scooped it up the next morning, apologized for blowing me off, and threw it out. Maybe it wasn’t really all that big in the morning light.

Surrounded by butterflies, chest heaving, trying to catch my breath, Noah asked again how I was.

“One flew into my armpit!” I yelped.

“And was that worse for you, or the butterfly?” he asked.

Oh. I guess so. I turned and looked up to see the butterflies soaring around the top of the exhibit.

Up close, the detail of their tiny bodies is striking. From a distance, they put on a stunning show of color. I suppose they won’t kill me after all.

Contact Lodi Living Editor Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com.

GRAPE FESTIVAL AT A GLANCE

When: Today and Saturday, noon to midnight; Sunday, noon to 11 p.m.

Where: 413 E. Lockeford St., Lodi.

Admission: Free for children 5 and under; $5 for youths 6 to 12; $9 for adults.

Carnival rides: Unlimited rides for $28 at the gate.

Parking: $5 when parking in the Grape Bowl parking lot, Union Pacific lot just south of Lockeford Street and on the east side of the grounds in the east field.

More information: Call 209-369-2771, fax 209-369-9185 or email info@grapefestival.com.

13 images

Dan Evans/News-Sentinel

News-Sentinel reporter Sara Jane Pohlman, who has a phobia of moths and butterflies, recoils in fear as monarch butterflies fly out of a soft cage in the Butterfly Adventures exhibit at the Lodi Grape Festival on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013.

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