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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.