Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Metaphor of Metamorphosis

A month ago, I was able to attend my daughter's school field trip to the WNC Nature Center for their presentation on the life cycle of the butterfly. I thought I knew everything there was to know about the metamorphic process, but I didn't.
I knew monarchs laid their eggs on milkweed plants (the only host plant monarch caterpillars eat) and so I always let a few grow in the corner of my garden. We were able to take a few into the kids' class , and I ended up taking a few into the house for myself too.
This photo of a butterfly egg I took at the Nature Center is not a monarch, though, since it is clearly not on a milkweed. I'm not sure what kind it is.
I knew from reading Eric Carle's The Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar that caterpillars eat like mad once they hatch and get very fat -- quickly.

Often they seem to tap a main vein in the leaf and suck out the milk. Then they perch on the edge and gnaw, very methodically, carving a deeper and deeper arc into the leaf. They operate like a typewriter return at the end of a row.
munch-munch-munch - BING -whr-clack
munch-munch-munch - BING - whr-clack
I knew about chrysalises and the two week period. The part I didn't know is the part that nobody knows or really understands: what happens inside the chrysalis. The Nature Center guide put it in 2nd-grader terms that jarred me. Once the chrysalis is formed, the caterpillar turns to complete gush.
At this point my mind leaps to the FruFru song from the "Garden State" soundtrack that's helped me recompose myself countless times:
Let go. Jump in. Oh, what you waiting for? It's all right, 'cause there's Beauty in the break-down.

Complete gush. I couldn't get over it, so I looked it up on the web when I got home to make sure I had it right. Sure enough. Gush.
But then, from their imaginal discs, they reform those raw materials into something completely new: wings, legs, antennae... That's really what they're called: imaginal discs. Something within the caterpillar is encoded so that, when the time is right, they can
call into reality something only imagined previously.
I know the butterfly metaphor is used to the point of triteness, but the whole gush & imaginal discs part really got me. I latched onto the metaphor as I thought about my own writing: from my own imagination and the raw materials present (all the books I've read, experiences in my life, the nuts & bolts of the writing craft) I could create something new. I could create myself new -- as writer -- with wings. I could create -- books.
So, I began scouring the milkweed plants at our house. I sure saw lots of caterpillars, more than 20. But I didn't see any chrysalises. So, any remaining caterpillars got transferred inside where I could watch the process. You can see the ones above. The green chrysalis is only a few days old, whereas it's pretty obvious when they're about to hatch.
One source said that the process of transformation within the chrysalis takes so much energy, that a chrysalis
weighs about one-third less at hatching time than it does when it was first formed. (This also went along nicely with my writer metaphor: I couldn't kid myself that this change was going to be easy.)
The day this guy hatched, I spent the whole afternoon staring at the chrysalis, waiting to capture the moment. I
was going to document this amazing change. Look: it imagined itself into something new.
It's like the seven principles of HUNA (Hawaiian Mysticism):
  • IKE - our ideas create our reality.
  • KALA - there are no limits.
  • MAKIA - energy flows where attention goes.
  • MANAWA - now is the moment of power.
  • ALOHA - to love is to be happy with.
  • MANA - all power comes from within.
  • PONO - effectiveness is the measure of truth.
Once the emerge, they have to pump the fluid from their large bodies into their wings.
I spent all afternoon as slow witness to wet cloth-like folds straightening. His proboscis, or feeding nose-tube, coiled and uncoiled. His claw-like feet hooked into the branch as he let his wings fill and dry.
His hooked feet. Had you noticed? He only has four. All insects have six legs. Even as caterpillars, when it appears they have more, they only have six true (or reticulated) legs. (The others don't have knees that bend and simply drag along.) But this guy does not. He only has four legs.
Suddenly my happy-go-lucky metaphor took a dire turn into a warning. Obviously something went awry. Not enough to keep him from becoming a butterfly, but he was missing two legs. Did he not have sufficient raw material? Did he not use his imagination enough? What was this saying to me?
He's beautiful, though. Yes? He flew off a few hours later and is probably vacationing in Mexico by now. But I've got my eye on the second chrysalis, which has yet to hatch. It is starting to turn dark, but the wings are not becoming orange. I'm worried. I'm worried that this one has turned to gush, but that I didn't provide enough fresh milkweed during the eating phase. I'm worried that bringing into my home might have disrupted it's imaginal process. (No ironic symbolism there for the creative domestic mother.) I'm worried that when I turn to gush, I'll stay that way instead of doing the hard work, and doing all of it.
So, I'm writing about it.


Britt Kaufmann said...

Why can't I get the formatting correct ever? Makes me crazy.

Theo and Adam said...

Britt, we had a 4-legged monarch, too, and it bothered me so much that I looked it up online (where else). And the news is that the adults have 4 legs! And two teeny ones, basically invisible, that keep it an honest insect.

Nice blog! I hadn't known Kingsolver had a new book out. I am also a big fan.


Britt Kaufmann said...

Heidi - I am so relieved to know this! THANK YOU.