Monarch Medicine: A Meditation on Transformation

With morning dew on the grass and the sun rising over the hill, I wander through the milkweed patch choosing the healthiest young plants to feed the Monarch caterpillars. I find Monarch eggs and tiny caterpillars as I gather plants so I clip the leaf or plant, put it in my basket, and bring it home.

Last year I had 20 or 30 caterpillars in early August. This year there are 80 on my back porch, and I’ve given 10 away. It’s too many, but if I find one, I can’t stop the little girl in me from saving it. Carrying one home means I agree to feed it and keep it safe until it becomes a butterfly.

I could be reading or weeding flower beds. I could be practicing hearing or writing something that matters, but I’m healing. Instead of my usual busyness, I honor Psyche who goes through challenging transformations to become a Greek Goddess. Her name Psyche means Soul and Butterfly.

Benjamin West, Eagle Bringing cup to Psyche, 1802 (public domain)

Egg hatching

During this summer of adjusting to cochlear implant hearing, after years of grieving for my husband and hearing loss, I’m tired. My body demands rest and care. My soul needs to play, so the ten-year-old within tends caterpillars and watches them transform.

My sons laugh at me–lovingly. They call me a #butterflyhoarder. It’s true. I am.

I witness a fluttering female lay one perfect egg under a leaf on a young milkweed plant in my flower bed. Her delicate ovipositor or egg-laying hind end curls under the leaf to deposit one sticky egg before moving on.

Back porch nursery

When she leaves, I kneel on the earth, lift the leaves, and find a tiny pearly dome. I pluck the leaf and carry it to the covered dish on my back porch where eggs lie on leaves waiting to hatch. Most will develop black spots—tiny caterpillar heads chewing their way to freedom before becoming microscopically small squirmy caterpillars. A tiny leaf is enough to feed a newborn, but soon the caterpillar is chubby and ravenous.

As I prepare a mesh crate for their final week before becoming chrysilisides, I’m a priestess before an altar of fresh milkweed cuttings in a quart yogurt container. Using a leaf for transport, I move each caterpillar from the jar where it spent its first week into the crate, blessing each one. From this point, I watch and leave them alone unless they need a second container of milkweed.

caterpillars moved to crate

The big guys chomp through a milkweed leaf like corn on the cob. Two weeks after I collected them as eggs, they’re 2000 times their initial weight. They stop eating, explore the crate roof or less traveled branches and hang upside down in a J for a day or two. So quickly I usually miss it, the caterpillar skin splits and a chrysalis emerges. And then a two week pause as the caterpillar is reconstituted from caterpillar soup and imaginal disks into a butterfly. Imaginal disks? What’s that? It’s Nature’s magic.

A day or two before the butterfly birth, orange and black patterns show through the thin chrysalis skin. The skin splits and a butterfly emerges fully grown. I keep them for 8 to 24 hours or more depending on weather and how well they fly.

Chrysalises hanging in a celestial choir

The whole process honors the life of a tiny vulnerable egg which would be eaten by spiders, wasps, beetles, and other predators 99% of the time if left in the wild. On my back porch, almost all become healthy butterflies after hatching. I can protect them, at least short term, which isn’t true of much in this life. Working with them once a day grounds and quiets my usual agitation. When I release them, their orange and black wings glide through the breeze before they settle on a flower and take a sip.

The floor is unswept. The dishes unwashed. The book unread. The bill unpaid. But each caterpillar has a fresh milkweed plant to climb or a leaf to devour.

About to emerge

If they can transform from egg to butterfly in less than 6 weeks, I trust I can transform, too.

***

How do you play and bring a little joy into recovery times? How do you take a long nurturing rest or vacation when you’re drained? For other posts about the Goddess Psyche, see Mothering Monarchs, Mothering My Soul. For more about the Goddess Psyche or Soul, see Clutched: An Essential Lesson from Psyche’s Fourth Labor where you’ll also find links to other blogs I’ve written about Psyche.

32 Comments
  1. Dear Butterfly Priestess, I totally love how you’re spending all your time this summer with Psyche’s Monarch butterflies on your back porch! Oh, it makes me so happy to know that you’re creating nurseries and a graduation school for them too! Watching them grow from tiny egg to wiggling caterpillar to hanging chrysalis to beautiful butterfly, all the while monitoring and moving them into new homes before release. Wow! Talk about getting up close and personal with transformation which must be life-affirming as you transfer your learning and experiences onto yourself and see how you too have struggled with each new stage of life you entered. Elaine, this is delightfully penned and I enjoyed your photos too!

    On a personal note, playing often takes the form of a long walk in the woods for me. It’s the place I’m happiest in … for reconnecting with Mother Nature during my middle years has been the best healing medicine I’ve ever discovered … nothing else seems to come remotely close these days! Okay, back to those miraculous inner children … yes, as we listen to them, it’s great on so many levels! I’m so pleased you’ve chosen to listen to your tired body and attend to Psyche’s sorting tasks. I sense there will be a transformative shift in your own life soon … look to Jupiter around the 11th. Hmm, what better way to spend our time than to sit and play with our soul … our very own best friend! Love and light, Deborah.

    • Deborah, you’ll be glad to know my back porch nursery has a close view of my butterfly flower garden to the east and then, beyond that, up hill and across a field to sunrise. To the south, the bird feeder is busy with yellow and red finches and a few red winged blackbirds. Beyond the bird feeder, I see long views of fields and forests, so the porch is surrounded by open views with wind protection from the north and west sides of the house, plus a roof. It’s no wonder I go outside to check on things constantly. Vic rebuilt this porch, but didn’t change the original farm house design. Butterflies take over the table, but here’s room for two camp chairs so friends and I can have tea with Monarchs. From my office window, I see butterfly crates and a long view to the south and west. Nature is everywhere in my home, so you can see why I’m still here.

      To get to the forest, Willow and I walk 5 minutes on mowed trails through wildflower and milkweed fields before we’re in the big trees. I imagine spending more time at the lake this time of year, but usually stay here where there are no motorboats. I love the lake when summer season ends in September and tourists go home. I now have ~50 chrysalises in the crates and another 50 still in caterpillar land, so I’m waiting along with a friend’s little granddaughter. We want this to be spectacular and memorable for her so delay her visit until the releases begin in a few days. I can’t wait.

      You remind me I could have added Psyche’s sorting tasks, because this is one of those experiences along with adjusting to new sound. I’m amazed at how happy I am when tending the caterpillars or reading a poem or novel on the back porch with them close by. I’ll watch for that date. I’ve watched Jupiter sparkle from my back deck and out my bedroom windows (the sky is dark here) for months now. I wonder what will happen next. Returning love and light to you across the ocean. We’re so in need of love here.

  2. Who has time for dishes or laundry when you’ve got so much work on the butterfly farm! Look at all the work this involves. My goodness, Elaine, your a wrangler of hope and inspiration. Wish I were there on the back porch to sit mesmerized by all the transformations.

    • It doesn’t take so much time or work to tend them, Jill, because milkweed is everywhere here. It takes more time to admire and watch them more than I need to for their sake. It’s an ever changing show–and my antidote to reading the news. I love writing about them and sharing them and a woman just did a local newspaper article about them which I haven’t seen. My back porch is filled with caterpillars dreaming of becoming butterflies.

  3. Beautiful post, Elaine. I’ll forward this to my daughter who is doing the same thing with moths. Her kitchen is filled with cages of caterpillars feeding on oak leaves.

  4. You also feel like the many breasted Artemis midwifing all those eggs into transformation and birth as butterflies.
    Yes it is profoundly healing for you and for them!
    I ask to honor how I nurture myself and other forms of life–animal, mineral, vegetable!

    • That’s an image, Janet! A goddess statue I hold in mind but hadn’t thought of in relation to butterfly eggs. Now I will. I got out of bed and visited them first thing this morning as usual. One chrysalis darkened overnight and I can see orange wings, so there will be a butterfly birth today. If weather is stormy, I won’t release it until tomorrow morning. May we honor our need to take care of ourselves in whatever way we can. I’m circling back to girlhood when I was given big caregiving responsibilities at a young age because of my sick dad. That kid didn’t get much time to play.

  5. I adored this post. Glad to hear your caterpillars did so well this year.

  6. I am immediately struck by the detail of the emerging butterfly from one tiny drop – a miracle which you’ve witnessed with your own eyes. I surmise you were given the gift of observation of the this miracle because of your tender care Elaine and your enormous appreciation of nature. I see this process having a parallel in yours as your hearing senses improve gradually and you adjust to sounds. Little by little. While having also the gift of silence around you when you so choose. And, as you say in your last sentence, if they can transform, so too can you. Thank you, this is lovely!

    • Thank you, Susan. I’ve loved growing and tending living things all my life, but the Monarch mania began in 2017 when a teacher asked if she could release Monarchs on my land. They flew from her crate and I was hooked. What else is all this milkweed for? I’m in an odd physical place of craving silence and needing lots of rest and introversion while also needing to practice sound. I can listen to something like a TED talk or webcast with good quality audio without captions and with only the bionic ear and understand every word. Progress is slow and takes practice, but it’s happening. The brain works hard to process and integrate all these new signals, so that’s where the need for quiet and rest comes in. I’m so glad I can hear people and nature so much better, but there’s a price which should lessen in time. So, as always, we’re balancing the opposites.

  7. I love every detail of this and look forward to my visit to the monarch nursery!

    • One chrysalis is orange and black this morning and a few others darkening. Once the Monarch births begin there will be many until late September. Monarchs, monarchs everywhere! I’ll have a wonderful time sharing butterfly flight with your granddaughter. Another friend adopted 10 tiny caterpillars to raise with her grandson and she wrote a piece I’ll post later in the month. This activity is made for kids and the kid in me.

  8. This was truly lovely to read first thing this morning with my coffee. I can now start the active part of day weeding my mother’s flower beds. Beds that remain untouched these 27 years since she’s been gone until I make my annual pilgrimage from the west coast back to the homeland of Central New York.

    • Thank you. You’re in my general neighborhood, Jan, and I hope the rain and cool temperatures make the weeding easy. I wonder who lives in your mom’s home now. Obviously someone less smitten with the flower beds than you. May you see many butterflies while you liberate those plants.

  9. You know the George Orwell quote: “Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon one can neither resist nor understand.”

    I feel the need for rest and recuperation now. But not yet. Not quite yet. Like you, I will recover as you are doing after so many years of constant stress. It won’t be butterflies, but sometime in the month of October I can imagine a respite, a daily life without an agenda.

    You are my teacher in healing, re-discovering childlike wonder, letting the days glide by. Thank you, Elaine, priestess of playfulness.

    • George Orwell is wise. I love writing short pieces and submitting here and there, although I’m taking a break from that this summer. I haven’t felt the passion needed to write a second book. I read and work on ideas and mythologies associated with inner transformation, but it’s stewing on the back burner. The stew will need high heat for me to take the next steps. I’m carefully avoiding setting new goals for a while.

      I hope you’ll get a rest. I found promoting my book as demanding and rewarding as writing it. It opened many doors which stayed open, so there was a moving out of my inner world into readings, radio interviews, workshops, and talks. It sounds like that’s already beginning for you. I had the added pressure of my hearing going nuts just before my book was accepted for publication in 2013. I couldn’t back away and loved talking about and promoting the book and giving a TEDx talk–even as I struggled with hearing,fatigue, and vertigo from inner ear chaos. I’m terrible at resting, Marian, but I’m practicing. I listened to a youtube lecture from Marion Woodman (my hearing practice yesterday) about facing the rejected and despised side of embodiment–from our bodies to the earth. Marion came to her work through addiction (anorexia) and spoke in this lecture about driving our bodies with overwork being an addiction. I know that’s been true for me, although not right now. I had to change.

      I LOVE being the priestess of playfulness. It’s the best title I can imagine right now. I released a Monarch this morning. Many, many more to come. I’ll go for a milkweed walk this afternoon. With love and hope for your book and for your big steps to come with balance and self-care.

      • Thanks for this thoughtful comment. I do identify with overwork, which seems unavoidable right now.

        Just yesterday I read an article in The Saturday Evening POST about Eisenhower as general in World War slipping away to a small cottage where he played golf, read cowboy novels, and played bridge, probably saving him from a mental crack-up, working 15-18 hours a day. That put things in perspective for me.

        Thanks for your nudge toward a life of balance and self-care. 🙂

  10. Your post reminded me of back when I was a child, I tried to do the same with caterpillars, hoping to save them and watch their rebirth into butterflies. You are the butterfly whisperer Elaine. <3

    • If someone had done this with me in elementary school, I’d have wanted to be a Lepidopterist (crazy Greek word). A kid would need a teacher. Summer of 2017, I had a teacher who taught her elementary school students how to raise and protect them. She and I stay in touch and she’s delighted by my mania. Why not make use of all this milkweed?

  11. I’m trying to love this idea, Elaine. I love that you’re doing it and getting so much out of it but I’m a little squeamish myself and thinking of you in the middle of all these chrysalises and caterpillars is making me squirm. I do understand how it feels to be a part of life re-birthing itself. I love watching babies and bunnies. And this summer I took up vegetable gardening for the first time. It is so amazing to watch something grow and change. Unfortunately I cannot get into the buggy or wormy parts of the process. Don’t know if I’ll ever get used to those creatures. But yes, life is amazing and beautiful. I can’t imagine not having butterflies in this world.

    • I’m one of those women who enjoys nonpoisonous snakes, spiders, and worms and most everything except mosquitoes, tiny biting flies, and ticks. They caterpillars are in their mesh crates on my back porch crawling around on milkweed branches, so they aren’t living in my bed. I love all aspects from the little black head chewing its way through the tiny egg to increasing its weight 2000 times in 2 weeks to hanging upside down in a J to become a chrysalis. And then the butterfly release and those tiny little clasping feet walking on my fingers before launching themselves in the sky. It’s all magic to me. There are many butterflies in my world. I’d raise a Swallowtail or two if I could find a chrysalis. Would you love this more if you photographed it? You can, you know.

  12. What a wonderful story you have shared with us. Here on the other side of the world, down under we are experiencing Misty cloudy overcast days after heavy falls of snow on the mountains. The earth is drinking in the moisture for all living things as we prepare for spring and long hot summer. The stillness and the silence of the beauty that surrounds me. The mystery of deep growth going on in hidden places. How wonderful to connect with cycle of life through caring for the caterpillars during their metamorphosis.
    Thanks for your sharing. Josephine Dyer

    • Thank you, Josephine. And soon the environments will be reversed. We had the longest winter ever in 2019. It would not let go and warm up until June. I love the way you describe the drinking of the moisture. I have more than adequate moisture here and I’m grateful. I share the stillness with you as most migrating birds have left now or moved to the woods with their kids and the only bird songs are crows and an occasional catbird. Last night there were crickets and coyote howls, a sure sign of coming fall. May we both thrive in Nature’s Blessings.

  13. We need more Butterfly Priestesses like you in the world, Elaine. I wish I could sit on your porch eith you, have a “cuppa,” and watch the newly hatched butterflies dance in the wind. Sending good hearin/heart-healing thoughts your way.

    Much love,

    Jenna

    • I wish you could, too, Jenna. I released 8 gorgeous flyers today. I never tire of watching their first flights. They were eager to explore the world. “Go forth and lay plentiful numbers of eggs…” Love to you, too, as you dig deeply into your project. I’ve been in recovery mode, but a quieter life allows new ideas to rise to the surface. I hope to see you in CA in the spring if a plan I’m cooking with a friend works out. She’s retiring this fall, so then we’ll get serious about dates and possibilities.

  14. What a lovely post, Elaine! And thinking of you as “the priestess of playfulness” makes me smile. Yesterday I came across the following post, “Biking with Butterflies,” in the Daily Good, which also is where I first learned about you:
    http://www.dailygood.org/more.php?n=8157
    The author, Sara Dykman, writes, “I would end up following five generations of monarchs 10,201 miles on my bicycle, from Mexico to Canada and back: trailing the migration and lending my voice to the efforts underway to protect it.” Clearly, you and she are kindred spirits.
    One of my favorite sentences in your post is “The floor is unswept. The dishes unwashed. The book unread. The bill unpaid. But each caterpillar has a fresh milkweed plant to climb or a leaf to devour.” You certainly can’t be the priestess of playfulness if your floor is always swept and the dishes done! As someone living with a chronic illness, my life continues to be much more about being rather than doing, and you continue to inspire me. Yesterday I sat on my porch swing for a long time and watched five newly fledged barn swallows sit on the fence waiting for the mama bird to feed them, jockeying for position to be the next one in line. And soon it will be their time to move on.

    • I read the article you suggested when it came out and shared it on FB, amazed at the energy of this young woman’s journey as I tend my littles on a protected back porch. I cleaned the first mesh crate I filled in July because all butterflies had flown and filled it with 14 medium caterpillars this morning. They immediately climbed and explored the plants and began chomping. They aren’t interested in climbing if it doesn’t smell or taste like milkweed. They’re focused!

      You’ll have to give me a little poetic license, Anne. The floors are rarely swept year round until the dog hair becomes unbearable. I feel grumpy if I wake up to dirty dishes, so they get done last thing of the day. The bills do have to be paid (I’m grateful for online banking) and I want to read. I don’t want to feel pushed or obligated, and I need lots of rest while my brain sorts out new sound. Along with many others, I’m reading ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ at bedtime. I’m also re-reading Marion Woodman books, but slowly with Monarch duties (45 released so far and they keep coming). I’m re-reading ‘Dancing in the Flames’ by Woodman and Dickson and read Elinor Dickson’s new book ‘Dancing at the Stillpoint’ about her relationship with Marion. Not a great book, but some insight into Marion as Elinor’s friend rather than as a teacher. I love your swallows. The cavity nesting birds are done for the season here. When we had a 200 year-old barn and the barn swallows nested inside, I loved watching swallow flying lessons on the barn roof. Such a gift to watch these creatures. I promise to continue to play rather than sweep the floors.

  15. Yes, yes, you have full poetic license, Elaine! I really didn’t imagine you sitting amongst stacks of dirty dishes with the bill collectors calling, but I do love thinking of you not feeling pushed by obligations while you attend to what heals your body and feeds your soul–and am grateful for your promise to continue to play rather than sweep the floors.

    • Thank you. 😉 At the moment I have a messy kitchen and mail and bills scattered on the dining room table where I seldom eat anymore, but I began the morning by checking on the caterpillars. Four new butterflies this morning and they’ll fly after their wings dry. They’re bringers of joy and playfulness.

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