This week’s focus on the holidays of two major religions, not to mention some events in my own life, had me thinking about endings that actually turn out to be the start of something new and unexpected. My spiritual vocabulary is more deeply rooted in the biological than the Biblical, so when I think of metamorphosis and renewal, I think of Lepidoptera.
Butterflies and moths are the very model of adaptation, moving through many transformations during the course of their lives. These shape-shifters begin life as an egg. With the possible exception of avid gardeners, most of us don’t often see, or at least notice, this stage. Once they emerge as caterpillars though, their bright colors, wild patterns, and wavy gait are eye-catching, as are the web-tents spun by certain species shortly after they hatch. Moth caterpillars are usually fuzzy, so if you find one that’s smooth, you’ve probably got a future butterfly on your hands.
And speaking of hands… before you start picking up caterpillars, you should know that some of them sting. Their fuzz includes hollow quills connected to poison sacs; when touched, reactions can range from mild itchiness to severe pain, dermatitis, or even more systemic problems. I’m speaking from personal experience here, and this is a rather embarrassing confession. It’s no secret that most wild creatures try to blend into their surroundings, so when you see a brightly colored, very conspicuous animal, there’s a good chance it has a more than adequate defense system. A wildlife biologist, of all people, should know that. I do, and I did. But I had never seen a Io moth caterpillar before and wanted a closer look. My curiosity got the better of me and I let down my guard. Only after I had allowed it to crawl onto my hand did I begin to think, “Hmmm… probably not a good idea.” Good ol’ hindsight… always there just after you need it.
But I digress.
Caterpillars continue their quick-change artist life with five molts, called instars, during which they wriggle out of their too-tight skin. Finally, they find a place to hang out for a while and a different kind of skin, called a chrysalis, forms. Moth caterpillars usually prefer the added protection of a silken cocoon.
Inside the chrysalis/cocoon, a radical transformation takes place, something miraculous, even when you realize it can all be explained biologically. A death, of sorts, that must take place for something new to be born. A leap of faith. Does the caterpillar know, somewhere deep down in its DNA, that there’s more to life than being an earth-bound eating machine? Do caterpillars dream of life on the wing?
Now that I’m in my 50s, I’m starting to realize I’ve got quite a lot in common with Lepidoptera. I’ve experienced my own series of instars, breaking out of old skins when they became too restrictive and claustrophobic. And there have been times spent in the cocoon as well, wondering what, if anything, lies ahead, and how much longer I’ll have to wait to find out. Life, after all, is about taking chances… letting curiosity, excitement, optimism and wonder take the lead over caution, even if that means sometimes you get stung. I haven’t yet managed to escape the law of gravity, but I’m still dreaming of flight.