When I was a girl of eight or so, my grandmother showed me how to carefully cut the stem of the Milkweed plant after we discovered a fat yellow, black and white striped Monarch caterpillar on a leaf. She talked me through how to gently place the plant and the creature in our empty glass jar. We had already poked holes in the metal lid. Carefully holding the jar, we walked home and put our guest in a quiet corner of the kitchen.
Every other day we added a few fresh Milkweed leaves until we found the caterpillar hanging from the lid forming its chrysalis. Like magic, a butterfly appeared in about a week. If we were lucky we witnessed its outing but more often than not the butterfly emerged alone, the torn translucent remnants of its chrysalis still hanging. We let the butterfly go at the end of the beach path where the Milkweed grew.
We were midwives to at least a half dozen butterflies that summer. It was pure wonderment.
Over the years, I attempted to recreate the scene for my kids with the store bought kits that send the caterpillars in the mail – they were not Monarchs. The mealworm looking caterpillars arrived in a plastic jar. I placed the larvae in their snazzy butterfly habitat along with the provided food. We waited and watched.
Metamorphosis is an intrinsically stirring event. However, the mail order version never matched my memories of Milkweed and Monarchs. Back then metamorphosis was more than a common science project or YouTube video – it felt more mystical and connected to nature.
Across cultures and in many religions, the butterfly’s life cycle is a symbol of transcendence and rebirth. I have learned that a caterpillar’s astounding ascent to butterfly has less to do with death or decay and more with actual transformation.
Within the chrysalis the caterpillar dissolves into a soup of cells that looks a lot like snot. The light yellow and green goo contains the cells of the caterpillar’s brain, nerves and muscles. How this goo recombines to form a butterfly is still a mystery. A clue lies in the blueprint of its future form that each caterpillar carries within itself. When scientists dissect a caterpillar they find that some of the butterfly structures have already formed before pupation. It resembles a hologram that is super thin and gets pushed tight up against the chrysalis exoskeleton. It does not liquify like the rest of the caterpillar.
Here is the freaky part.
Scientists have conducted experiments to determine if the butterfly has any awareness of its life as a caterpillar. They want to find out if there’s any “being” continuity through the stages of the butterfly’s life-cycle.
In one study, caterpillars are exposed to an unappealing odor, something like nail polish remover, while being administered a non-lethal jolt. They are exposed to the combination over and over again until the caterpillars try to escape when they smell the odor and are trained to loathe the smell. Weeks later, the caterpillars pupate and, in this experiment, become moths. All of the moths that were exposed to the jolt as caterpillars hate the smell. Only half of the moths in the control group had the same reaction. It appears that the memory of the caterpillar survived with the adult moth.
It follows that within each caterpillar is its future and within each butterfly is its past. Metamorphosis seems more like a process not an annihilation, a transformation not a death. Perhaps we are not so dissimilar from the earth bound caterpillar and just maybe our version of our butterfly self is already within. We live in a culture that tells us to look outside ourselves for answers, buy-this-do-that quick fixes. At almost fifty, I’ve come to know that it’s about finding the blueprint inside and then letting the magic happen.
I took the above photo (one of my last film rolls) in 2008 when I was in Xilitla, Mexico at the remote surrealist sculpture park at Las Pozas. We hiked to the top of the waterfall pictured. While walking along the stream above the falls, we saw four Blue Morpho butterflies silently fly across the water. I had my camera but it all happened so fast and I remember not wanting to miss the experience by trying to get a picture. I will never forget the sunlight and the iridescent blue of their wings.
Visit RadioLab to learn more about the study referenced in this blog.