Tuesday, October 2, 2012

miracle monarch

One day, about three weeks ago, I was pulling all the tangled vines out from among the flowers I'm trying to grow in my yard. In one fist-full of vine, I found a little black and yellow caterpillar. I found a second one just a few feet away. Since I had destroyed their home, I brought the caterpillars with some of the leaves they were on to look at them and see if I could figure out how to raise them. When Pat saw them, he said, "Monarch caterpillars!" That was the first thing to know. But since then, I have learned a great deal about these tiny creations that astounds me. I'm sharing with you my list of...

1.) They start out as eggs that can only be laid on milkweed. (Good thing I had let the weeds in my garden go for a little while!)
2.) When the caterpillars hatch out of the eggs, they eat the milkweed, which is what makes them poisonous. (And I thought milkweed only killed out my vegetable plants!)
3.) The caterpillars grow to be pretty big. They have yellow and black stripes and antennae-things coming out both ends.
4.) When you see them hanging upside-down, they're just about to make their chrysalis. They hang and hang and hang and then, suddenly, in the span of half an hour (I know because I missed it happening...) they're encapsuled! Just like that! 
5.) This chrysalis looks a good deal smaller than the caterpillar that went into it. I was perplexed about this and then I saw body parts in the bottom of the container. Turns out, the head or the tail (can't tell which) falls off when they go into hiding. Crazy! It all looked so necessary half an hour before!
6.) The chrysalis starts out jade green with gold (like, metallic-looking) dots on it. How and why do they make these gold dots? I don't know! They're perfectly arranged just-so. Decoration? Maybe. They don't seem to have much to do with the entrance or exit, which was my first guess.
7.) Those dots start out white and yellow, actually. I know because I saw it. I have no idea how they change to gold.
8.) And then...nothing. Mine took 15 days of nothing. Both of them. 15 days.
9.) Then you start to see wing patterns -- swaths of orange, black, and white dots. I held it in my hand, then. It struck me as one of those capsules that turns into a foam animal when put in water. It was a butterfly-capsule! I could tell!
10.) Overnight, the whole thing turned black, minus the orange swaths. It got a bit of a bulge on one side. Even the gold dots turned black on the bottom. How was this happening? Nothing was going into or out of the chrysalis, and yet crazy magic was happening inside.
11.) It explodes. It must be a silent explosion, or at least a very quiet one, because I didn't hear it from the next room. But it's so fast and so much comes out that it has to be an explosion.
12.) And then, there's this monarch. It's got a polka-dotted body. Imagine that!
13.) Most monarchs live 2-6 weeks, laying their eggs and dying. There are three generations like that every spring-fall where we live. This is a lot of extravagance for such brief glory.
14.) Not all monarchs die off that quickly. For some reason, the fourth generation, born in September-October, (i.e. MY monarchs...) live 6-8 months. Why? What process knows to make these bodies sturdier? I'm amazed.
15.) These built-to-last monarchs make a trip all the way to Mexico to winter. This little creature sitting on my table, when I let it go, will fly all the way to Mexico. I am hundreds of times its size and am built to last a hundred times longer, and still I could not do it. How does it know where Mexico is? How does it not just end up lost over the Gulf? How does so much wind pass over its wings without breaking them? How can it weather storms on its way? I don't know.

I am amazed by this creation. So much work gone into this beautiful thing I've watched be born into the cage I have for it. I have nearly seen the entire process (though I admit to missing the precise beginning of the most pivotal moments) and I am left with more questions than I had before that day weeding my garden. Learning often leaves me this way.

one of the little caterpillars I found
getting ready to build its chrysalis
finishing up its chrysalis
from the back side, making its chrysalis
the yellow and white turned into the gold in the picture below
 just beginning to see the wings through the chrysalis (yesterday)
 it looked like this, minus seeing the wings, for 14 days
 butterfly capsule an hour before it emerged
 only now I realize this is part of its face looking through the chrysalis
 just coming out, unfolding wings
 curled wings and other things, floppy antennae
black and white underside before the wings unfurled to cover it
 first butterfly taking flight

I can see this second butterfly in front of me, hanging and drying its wings beside its empty chrysalis now. I have no idea how this birth just happened. I see it. It looks impossible. There's no way this creature just emerged from something 1/2 its size. I know it's true, but it's kind of unbelievable. It's one of the every-day miracles on this planet. Maybe it's ridiculous to go on this way about a butterfly. This happens all the time, after all. It's not like I've seen something never-before-seen. I could say, "Yes, I've known since The Very Hungry Caterpillar that this is what happens." Or I could watch, mouth gaping, scratching my head and praising whatever Being understands this and made it so. Maybe it's even more amazing that this is so common-place. How in this broken world can miracles like this happen every day? I stand amazed and believing.

Maybe we can all emerge from these cramped conditions stronger, more beautiful beings, taking flight.

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