I made the mistake of calling the chrysalis a cocoon. “It’s a chrysalis, Daddy,” my 8-year-old immediately corrected me, “Moths make cocoons, but this is a caterpillar that is turning into a butterfly and she made a chrysalis.”
I nodded seriously and pretended that I already knew what she was telling me. Between you and me, I had no idea that butterflies don’t come out of cocoons.
We were crouched down barefoot in the garden, soil squishing into the spaces between our toes, peering through the screening of a special butterfly house that goes over the top of plants. I think my wife ordered it from some obscure internet store. All summer, we’ve kept a parsley plant in a terracotta pot. It formed part of our herb garden.
Witnessing a transformation
A few weeks ago, as the temperatures began to drop along with a few over-eager dogwood leaves, five matching caterpillars climbed up onto the parsley and methodically began feasting on the leaves. Each morning, we ran outside to see how many inches they’d managed to consume off the stalks overnight.
The biggest development came when the caterpillars stopped eating and hitched themselves to various green branches by little silken harnesses they spun themselves. There they dangled, slowly spinning themselves into chrysalises. We put the protective butterfly house over the plant to keep robins from eating them while they vulnerably hang there. Even though they’re camouflaged to look like a withered parsley leaf, some of the more clever birds see through the ruse.
I’m inclined to let nature take its course — after all, butterflies somehow manage to be born every year — but it’s a chance that my two youngest daughters adamantly refuse to take. They’re protectively mothering these chrysalises at this point, showering thoughts and prayers upon them, monitoring their progress like a mother watches for her baby to open his eyes for the first time.
My daughter knows by now that I’m a writer and she demanded I write about this. Her opinion is that the world needs to know that a miracle is occurring right here at the bottom of the steps on our back porch. So here I am, because my daughter has me wrapped around her finger, telling you about the transformation of caterpillars into butterflies.
But what do butterflies do?
The poet Emily Dickinson says, “The butterfly obtains/ But little sympathy.” In her day, New Englanders thought that butterflies were too ostentatious, too precious and showy. They didn’t like how colorful butterflies are, thinking that their big, translucent wings betrayed a creature that has no penchant for hard work.
New Englanders, at that time, were only a few generations removed from having hewed towns from the old growth forests of Massachusetts. If there was one thing they valued, it was hard work. To be honest, I don’t even know what a butterfly’s job is. Bees make honey, ants build colonies, children learn their history lessons, but what does a butterfly do?
Observing how much effort went into creating the chrysalises, I have a new appreciation for the effort that goes into building a butterfly, so I have to take issue with the idea that butterflies don’t know anything about hard work. The work has been so methodical, slowing down as it does to a complete halt once the caterpillar disappears into metamorphosis, that I have to admit it’s kind of boring to watch. Every day, the progress was steady but insignificant, a leaf eaten here, a few inches of parsley stalk consumed there. My children, however, were and still remain utterly fascinated. It makes me wonder what I’m missing.
Slow and steady progress … right to eternity
Perhaps I, like the Puritans’ descendants, have missed the point. The butterfly and the caterpillar are the same creature. Even if, day after day, it seems like nothing much is happening, all the little things add up, all the work, the effort, the patience. Perhaps we don’t experience change the way we think we do. It isn’t some sudden, unexpected event. Rather, it’s the culmination of thousands of little decisions that seem unimportant at the time but, in the end, amount to an unfurling of a seemingly different creature entirely.
My children, who are watching with such intensity, whose mouths are stained with cherry Popsicle juice, whose ballerina dresses are a mess of torn tulle, who spend their days twisting in circles on the swing hung from the magnolia tree, these children are changing. One day, they’ll be adults, still very much themselves but yet made stunningly different by time and experience. Every minute I get to spend with them is a treasure, each one folds into eternity.
You and I aren’t done changing yet, either. Sometimes we feel stuck, or that our actions have no effect. I can promise, though, that we are very much works in progress. Change doesn’t seem to be happening until, suddenly, it is. So don’t give up.
What does a butterfly do? It spreads its wings to fly.