In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree;
In cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free!
In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
From the Hymn of Promise by Natalie Sleeth
Today I was out watering my garden when I saw a humongous caterpillar. Emerald green, smooth and plump as a baby’s bottom, as big around as my little finger and three inches long, it lay hidden under a leaf on the stem of a seedling tulip tree. When I removed the dead leaf there he was, staring at me. I couldn’t have been more surprised if he had curled up, taken out a hookah, and blowing smoke rings asked, “Who… are you?”
I stared back in only slightly less wonder than my granddaughter would. Ella thinks my garden is magical. As soon as she arrives for a visit her shoes come off and out she goes to explore. Bugs and slugs are her friends and she can spend hours making a bird play yard or setting up a trap for fairies.
But I’m a grown up. So after my brief moment of awe I lay down the hose, raced into the house, got onto the computer, and typed in my search: “large, smooth, green caterpillar.”
That took me to images and I quickly identified my new ‘friend’ as the larval form of the Yellow Swallowtail Butterfly. I have seen these fluttering in our yard all summer. And of course that makes sense because I learned that swallowtail caterpillars eat the leaves of cherries, sweet bay, lilacs, and you guessed it, tulip trees. I have them all, the latest, my tulip poplar seeding, planted this spring as a planned replacement for my aging cherries. Sadly, I also learned he wasn’t really gazing at me with his yellow, black and blue ‘eyes.’ Those are only ‘eyespots’ intended to deter predators.
Armed with all my knowledge back out I went to move the hose, intending to watch my friend while I worked…..but he was gone. I looked all over my poor tulip tree sapling which had been seriously damaged when we trimmed one of the cherries several weeks ago. I thought the trauma of being broken nearly in half and drier weather was why a number of its leaves had gotten brown on the edges. Now I knew this was a sign my friend the caterpillar had been feasting on the tree through several molts. At his current size he is close to his next ‘incarnation’ as a pupa. A little sad I got back to work on my morning watering, hoping to rediscover him hidden in another spot.
I didn’t. Perhaps moving his leaf and the shade and protection it provided was a risk to him, maybe it was an insult he couldn’t allow, or perhaps it was because knowledge had replaced magic and he had gone to find Alice or the White Rabbit, or to have tea with the Mad Hatter.
As I reflect on it I think this morning I let my interest in knowing overcome my joy in living. I was in full-blown grown-up ‘get the job done’ mode. If I had let myself see him as Ella would, as a real friend, I would have stayed to get acquainted. I would have introduced myself. Chatted a bit. I might have learned who he was. Instead I researched what he was.
One of my first creative writing assignments in college was to re-imagine an ordinary object into something more. I know we were given three items to choose from. I don’t remember what they all were, but I chose a brazil nut. I wrote as if I were seeing it for the very first time. Hard on the edges, a pebbly but not rough brown quarter moon. A seed? Peeling away its leathery cover I imagined the creamy white waxy cocoon lying inside as a shelter for a fairy child, the nesting place of one of Ella’s friends.
The adult in me wants you to know that paper became the first A I received in the class. The writer in me, the child in me, simply rejoiced in discovering the magic of telling a story. I have probably written thousands of memos and hundreds of grants since that magic moment so many years ago. I can recall a few. But none are as vivid to me as writing that one page story, sitting at the white enamel table in my grandmother’s kitchen, leaning on my elbow, writing longhand on a pad, my soul soaring free.
Living in the adult world isn’t easy. It is filled with ‘got to do’ busyness, with work and chores, requirements and responsibilities. But at the same time, those are concrete. They are items on a list that can be ticked off. For an adult what is harder is to give ourselves permission to leave all of that behind and enter the world of the child. To live healthy lives, to live joyfully, all of us need to dream, to be able to fly above the day to day. To write we need to ‘hear’ the voices of the characters who aren’t really there, to envision the shape of the apple tree living in the seed.
So today my wish is that you befriend the caterpillars. Find the cocoons that imprison you. Escape from the winters of worry. Live the promises. Free the butterflies within. It’s a great lesson for all of us, a lesson from Ella.