When asked to interpret the theme of our latest issue, Flourish/Collapse, through his own lens, photographer Gareth McConnell turned to butterflies as symbols of hope and renewal, but also darker forces, like destruction and death. Their intricacies led him to their metamorphosis and how, ultimately, transformation is a form of salvation—present in every one of us.

I find butterflies to be a particularly potent symbol for the environmental crisis of our time. They have fascinated man across cultures, from time immemorial. They represent the parable of the life cycle: First we are born; then we become the caterpillar, the insatiable worm toiling on earth; then the chrysalis as death, the coffin; then the butterfly as the resurrection or reemergence in an afterlife. Whether you want to read that in a religious or scientific way, it is a cycle and therefore circular—it goes around and around endlessly.


Butterflies are symbolic of hope and renewal, but simultaneously, there is also a long tradition of them representing darker forces of temptation, destruction, and death. It seems like that could be the reading we also need to pay attention to now—the dark messenger, the prospect of the end of that life cycle completely, the spirit crushed, the end not just for the butterfly or the insect or the bee but for all of us, because we are inextricably interlinked.

Butterfly wing by Gareth McConnell

I should make it clear that I am a total layman in terms of lepidopterology. What I’m thinking about is more subjective, as in the butterfly representing the natural world, a metaphor for the material expression of the endless creative mind of evolution, nature, God, whatever you want to call it. I’m just looking and asking you to look at what an amazingly intricate and unknowable place this Earth is, how amazingly intricate and unknowable these creatures are, how amazingly intricate and unknowable a creature you are—we are—the symphony of life, the beautiful struggle. What are you going to do to help?


To me, metamorphosis means that salvation is present in every one of us.

This article appears in Volume 03: Flourish/Collapse of Atmos.

Shop Atmos Volume 03: Flourish/Collapse

Nature is a delicate balance of expansion and collapse, flourish and famine, growth and decay. Have human beings permanently disrupted this cycle, throwing the wheel off its axis, or are we just paving way for the next species to thrive? Is it still possible for us to return to a point of flourishing without collapse? Explore these questions with the Extinction Rebellion, the women warriors of the Amazon, and more of our heroes on the frontlines of conservation. Featuring contributions from Sylvia Earle, Elizabeth L. Cline, Ben Toms, Sam Rock, Stefanie Moshammer, Liliana Merizalde, Kristin-Lee Moolman, Gareth McConnell, Pieter Hugo, Simon Armitage, and more.

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