Freeing the Butterflies, A Granddaughter’s Lesson

music with butterfly copyIn 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

green caterpillar copyToday 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?”

caterpillar copyI 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.”

yellow swallowtail-butterflyThat 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.

large yellow butterfly copyArmed 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.

mad-hatter-30445_1280 copyI 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.

caterpillar cartoonAs 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.

MAGIC PORTAL copyThe 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.

butterfly on daylilly copyLiving 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.

About joanneeddy

Writer living in North Carolina. Originally from upstate New York. I love my family, my community, and my friends, and embrace 'living deliberately' in the world, trying to make a difference. I have written an as yet unpublished book, The Call, an epic fantasy with historical fiction and folklore elements. My blog is for other writers, for those who love a good read, and for all who, like me, are looking to find and live their call.
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7 Responses to Freeing the Butterflies, A Granddaughter’s Lesson

  1. Melody found caterpillars in the yard of our new home when we moved to Colorado. She was about nine years old. She did research all on her own before we even had a computer, on how to provide for them what they needed to make it safely through the winter, placing them on sticks in jars with foil on top with airholes, the right kind of leaves. To our surprise and delight,they made their cocoons, and hatched in the spring. One of the cocoons was taking longer to hatch than the others and Melody couldn’t keep herself from the impatient feeling of wanting to see what was going on inside that cocoon, and thought she would “help” the butterfly get out. To everyone’s dismay and especially to hers, we saw that it had needed more time to finish growing it’s wings, and it was now out of the protected place for it to grow. We mourned over the poor little butterfly’s arrested development, and thought much about and read much about that internal state we all need to honor and respect, that private, hidden space where transformation happens from within, which should never be hurried, but given it’s own time. The power and magic of the cocoon struck us deeply. I also want to say again, I think of Melody when I read of your experiences, and one would think you could be some kind of crackhead imagining the hookah pipe and talking caterpillar, but what I know better is that you are my sister and have always possessed a very vivid imagination, and you have not lost touch with your magical child self regardless of how you chastise yourself for leaving the yard. I just delight and marvel that you have never forgotten the literature you read as a child and can still call up a delightful image of that caterpillar with the hookah, and connect it to a present day experience, so many years later, of your big fat green caterpillar just discovered. Wow!


    • joanneeddy says:

      What a sad and touching story. Gretchen has always had a fascination with butterflies, and wanted to have a butterfly release at her wedding. The adult in me got very pragmatic when she asked. But it wasn’t just that it was going to cost hundreds extra but my bigger fear was exactly what you described, that the timing would have to be so perfect, that some of the butterflies would not be ready, and I feared how that could take what she hoped would be a magical moment at her wedding and taint it if my fears were correct.

      All my grandchildren have ways of reminding me of their parent as a child. While he is a boy Grey has Gretchen’s ability to empathize and intuit where people are. And of course Chris’ girls have to have their X from me. Caroline looks like a female Chris, loves books and school and is a natural teacher and very caretaking of others. Catherine can draw and she creates plays in her imagination to play out with her sister. Of all my granddaughters Ella looks the least like me, but still shares an amazing affinity with me. I always found the woods to be magic like she finds my garden, and I could totally lose track of time and live in books or imagination for hours before I came up for air just as she does. Also I have some adventurer in me (remember climbing to the TV Towers on Smith Hill, or trying to find the source of the creek) that can miss the possible danger. Ella is very like that. Scares me for her sometimes. She is also a fierce competitor as I always was…you should see her ‘game face’ when she plays soccer…makes me laugh!


  2. How beautifully written and photographed and what wonderful lessons as we go about our daily lives. Thank Joanne!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Bernadette says:

    To see the world through the eyes of the child is to see the world anew.

    Liked by 1 person

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