Beauty in waiting

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“D’you want to see my latest project?” my friend Beate asked me. She walked over to a small table in a corner of the room. On it stood a mesh cage, about 3 feet tall and 2 feet deep with a long zippered opening on one of the side panels. Inside, milkweed branches had been put into floral water tubes which were inserted into a white plastic test tube holder. And munching on the milkweed leaves were various sizes of fattening caterpillars, resplendent in their limegreen, white and black body suits.

“Monarchs-in-waiting,” said Beate. I counted at least half a dozen caterpillars, all engaged in serious, obsessive eating and, yes, pooping. Round black pellets littered the leaves and the bottom of the cage. “I have to clean up after them at least two or three times a day,” Beate said, laughing. “See that big one over there? I call him “Sir Poopsalot.”

After visiting a friend who was raising more than 200 monarchs this year alone, Beate was inspired to begin her own nursery for Danaus Plexippus, or Monarch butterflies. She bought a couple of mesh cages to serve as the nursery rooms, and then went hunting through the healthy crop of milkweed in her garden. There she discovered a number of caterpillars as well as some eggs – tiny white specks almost invisible to the naked eye, and placed them inside the cage, along with an abundant supply of milkweed leaves. One egg hatched almost immediately into a larva a scant two millimeters long. However, in just three days, it had tripled in size and molted its first skin. Not wasting any food, the larva gobbled up the molted skin, which was rich in nutrients.

“And over here,” she continued, “come see their chrysalises.” I turned and spotted miniature football goal posts on the window sill. Two posts made of 1/4-inch wooden dowels held a cross-beam of another dowel on which hung suspended two objects that for all the world looked like jewelled pendants. The chrysalises were a soft jade green in colour, and adorned with a beaded circle of gold around the top, and dots of gold near the base.

“They’re stunning!” I said. Beate smiled and nodded. “Beauty-in-waiting,” she said.

During my short weekend visit, I too, waited – impatiently. Would the caterpillars grow large enough and fat enough for me to see them metamorphose into chrysalises? Several hours before I left, Sir Poopsalot reached the magic size and Beate transferred him, via milkweed leaf, into the smaller mesh cage. We checked regularly, but still he ate and ate. And then, on one of my caterpillar-watching stints, I saw him climb to the ceiling of the cage, wave his head back and forth, and weave an anchor of white silk. He was ready to pupate, as the scientists say. Sir Poopsalot attached his rear end to the silk anchor via a stem called a ‘cremaster’, then lowered his body and, for another long wait, hung there. Slowly, the body curved into the shape of the letter J. Pupation, that final molt to reveal the chrysalis, was about to begin.

Beate sighed. “I have yet to see one actually pupate,” she said. “They always seem to wait until I’m out of sight.” As it turned out, this time Beate did see the pupation, but not I, having had to leave before Sir Poopsalot performed his magic. An Internet search informed me of what happened. His skin split, and unlike previous molts, revealed not another striped caterpillar body, but instead, a lime green one, soft and shimmering. Over the next hour, it hardened to become the jade green jewel of the pupa. It took a few more hours before the unseen artisan added the gold beading. For the next week or so, the chrysalis hung immobile, although great transformations were being finalized inside. In fact, according to a Scientific American article, once in the chrysalis, the caterpillar first liquifies into ‘soup’, which contains what are known as ‘imaginal discs’ – organized groups of cells that correspond to each of the butterfly’s eventual body parts – eyes, wings, antennae, and so forth. Imagine! Imaginal discs from a primordial soup, transformation at its boldest!

And as we know, transformation never stops. After ten days of hanging like a jewel, the chrysalis’s gold beads turn to pewter; the jade colouring fades and becomes transparent, showing the red, orange and black wings more and more clearly. Finally, in the moment of birth, the butterfly pushes its legs against its now totally translucent chrysalis and emerges, the wings small and wet. For the next few hours, it pumps fluids into its wings, which expand steadily. It then gently bats them open and closed to dry them. Beate sent me photos of one newborn butterfly resting on the wooden dowel, opening and closing its wings in the warm sunlight that streamed through the window.

A miracle worth waiting for.

This poem by Kim Rosen is one of my favourites on the theme of transformation.

In Impossible Darkness

Do you know how
the caterpillar turns?

Do you remember
what happens
inside a cocoon?
You liquefy.

There in the thick black
of your self-spun womb,
void as the moon before waxing,

you melt
(as Christ did
for three days
in the tomb)

conceiving
in impossible darkness
the sheer
inevitability
of wings.

~ Kim Rosen

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