Monday, October 20, 2014

Caterpillars Do Not Do What You Tell Them and Other Life Lessons by Karen McGovern

This post isn't really about jewelry design…Sorry.

Last Saturday was my birthday. I turned….50.

The week prior, I found myself the caregiver for over a dozen monarch butterfly caterpillars on four milkweed plants.  I realize that most people played with caterpillars in kindergarten, and learned all about how butterflies grow from first-hand experiences that occurred before the age of 10.  Well, not me.  While I have always been fascinated with nature and all things wildlife related, I had never seen, up-close and personal, caterpillars becoming butterflies other than illustrations in books and bad film strips.  Chalk it up to being the last of seven children to parents that were, frankly, exhausted by the time I rolled around.  Or crappy schooling, or whatever.  So, when my good friend and fellow artist Norm Gitzen (check out his website, ladies, his sculptures and metal works are OUTSTANDING) arrived on my doorstep with milkweed plants covered in tiny caterpillars, I was as pretty darned excited and set up my new family on my screened-in back porch.  BTW, Norm also keeps bees, so I'm very grateful he decided to bring me caterpillars...

I’m also a bit obsessive.  I am a conservation biologist who takes care of critically endangered species every day.  I happily threw myself head-first into this whole caterpillar thing.  I photographed every bug, and posted daily updates on my Facebook page.  I plucked aphids off each leaf. I did a caterpillar head-count several times a day and searched frantically for stragglers that decided to explore beyond their pots, returning them with firm admonishment to stay put (because they obviously understood the giant alien abducting them was only trying to be helpful). I watched them shed their exoskeletons and grow from a creature smaller than a grain of rice to a 3 inch monster in open-mouthed awe.  I watched them poop like tiny cows, covering my porch in “frass” (that’s the technical term for caterpillar crap—thank you Google), which I learned is fabulous fertilizer.  But nothing prepared me for the ultimate transformation—from caterpillar to chrysalis. 

The first and largest caterpillar to transform was named Hannibal.  Hannibal taught me many, many things.  He taught me that next to eating continuously, pooping continuously is a caterpillar’s favorite thing to do.  He taught me that monarch caterpillars are cannibals.  Yes, he earned his name (and, BTW, I have no idea if he was a “he” or a “she”, but for the purposes of this story, we’ll go with “he”).  While happily crunching away on a milkweed leaf, he vacuumed up one of his tiny siblings (?) without missing a beat.  Google confirmed that monarch caterpillars will mindlessly eat smaller caterpillars if they happen to be in the way of the non-stop eating machine that is a caterpillar.  So, I immediately separated all my caterpillars, made sure each had its own branch of milkweed to munch, and relocated any that moseyed too close to one another.  Aside—by this time the eye-rolling from my husband over my constant caterpillar updates was EPIC. 

Anyway, one day Hannibal refused to stay on his milkweed.  He kept crawling off the plant, off the pot, and wandering.  I picked him up and put him back over and over, but he just wouldn't stay.  In my mind he had decided living with me was the worst thing on the planet and he was risking death to get away from me.  I finally gave up and let him be.  (Again, my husband was totally cracking up behind my back).  Turns out, Hannibal was ready to change—transform into a chrysalis.  I learned that this is what they do—when ready to transform, they leave the plant (usually) and search for a safe, protected place to form a chrysalis, the last stage before becoming a butterfly.  AND WHAT A STAGE IT IS.  They hang upside down forming a “J” shape, secure themselves in place with a strong strand of sticky silk, and then, several hours later, SLIDE OUT OF THEIR SKIN IN THE FORM OF A GIANT, WET, GREEN ALIEN.  They shed their skin like an old pair of pantyhose, twist violently around and fling it off, then hang there all gooey and green and CRAZY LOOKING!  The first time I saw this I may or may not have screamed the entire time it was happening, which is amazingly fast.  Once ready to go, they split and shed their skin in under two minutes.  An hour or so later and they dry up, forming a hard, beautiful green chrysalis dotted with gleaming spots of bright gold.  HOW COOL IS THAT?!?!?!

10 days later, Hannibal emerged, again amazingly fast, in his final form.  The chrysalis turned transparent, and I could see the butterfly inside, all curled up.  He popped out in less than a minute--a gorgeous monarch butterfly.  It took a couple hours for his wings to expand and dry, then he flew away out the back porch door (which I had propped open), rested briefly on a ficus tree then hit the bright blue sky.  WHAT AN ADVENTURE!

Note the artistic use of silk fibers to tie Hannibal's chrysalis to a twig.  ART!

Now, I am an old pro at this.  I have 12 more chrysalis on my back porch.  Five under a wood folding table, four on twigs right near my kitchen window, and three I tied to chopsticks because the chrysalis were on weak leaves and I didn't want them to fall.  Three caterpillars remain on the milkweed, they each have a few days to go before transforming.  I still photograph and film like a crazy person, and am loving every second of this entire process.

NOTE: As of this writing, three chrysalis have popped out butterflies, all of whom are now in the great blue yonder!


Life is pretty miraculous.  So many forms, so many transformations to reach maturity.  You know where I am going here, right? I turned 50.  That is nothing compared to what these caterpillars turn into.  I was prepared to throw such a mental hissy-fit over this birthday, and instead I became completely enraptured and caught up in something totally outside of myself.  I know Norm had no “grand plan” in mind when he gave me the caterpillars (BTW, he’s single, ladies—chat him up), but this journey has been one of the best birthday gifts I have ever received.  Well, this and the 50 roses my husband gave me.  Fifty. Roses.  Yes, I know how lucky I am. 

So, my advice to anyone out there that is trapped inward, focusing too much on whatever you perceive to be your flaws and foibles, to simply look up.  Look outside.  Get a milkweed plant and just wait, you’ll be witness to something so amazing, so magical, so OUTSTANDING, you can’t help but realize how silly most of our mental gymnastics are.  From me worrying about getting “old” to trying to make a caterpillar do what I wanted--pfft.  It’s out of our hands, people.  Enjoy the front-row seat and marvel at the passage of time, the potential for growth and the power of transformation.

Happy Birthday to EVERYONE!


marileni said...

Καταπληκτικές οι φωτογραφίες !!!

Και τα κοσμήματα σου με άποψη!

Kisses from greece

Ann Schroeder said...

What an amazing post! I was so enraptured by your description of the caterpillar transformation that by the time you tied it back into your birthday, I'd forgotten that part. But I won't forget what you've said here. Glad you had a such a wonderful birthday and thanks for sharing it!

stregata said...

Loved this! I was lucky to experience this as a child - but I will never forget it. The exquisite beauty of a chrysalis... still takes my breath away.
Happy belated Birthday - as you see, whatever the number, life still has beautiful surprises for us.

Neena Shilvock said...

Belated Birthday greetings Karen - I enjoyed reading that, your post was so very well written
Neena Shilvock

Alicia said...

First of all, Happy Birthday, Karen! You're so lucky: you have witnessed a miracle and you are aware of it :) We've grown caterpillars a few years back, with my son. It's a wonderful process (not monarchs, we had something else, I forgot their name) and an incredible life lesson, indeed. As is watching little birds come out of their eggs (we are blessed almost every year with a nest or two that we can watch over).

Your story is beautiful!

Janet Carter said...

What a beautiful, enlightening journey with your caterpillars! Thank you for taking me along. Loved it! Happy Fiftieth too btw.

stacilouise said...

wow- just listening (reading, but I feel like you were telling me in person) with your enthusiasm was completely captivating. I love your passion for critters! how amazing to witness such awesomeness! I really want to do this with the kids now!

Marti Conrad said...

Great post!

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