HAPPINESS.—A butterfly, which when pursued, seems always just beyond your grasp; but if you sit down quietly, may alight upon you. ~ “A Chapter of Definitions,” Daily Crescent, 1848 June 23rd
Years ago, I planted Swamp Milkweed in my backyard. With a name like that, it’s a wonder anyone would plant it willingly in one’s backyard, but I knew something about Swamp Milkweed. I’d read that the Monarch butterfly lays its eggs on a Swamp Milkweed plant, and I wondered if it might be true, even in a suburban backyard.
What transpired that summer was beyond my expectations. Even my boys, then all very young and curious about the mysterious plant that would attract the great orange butterflies. We checked the plant often, even after the modest pink blossoms appeared and passed. Then all at once, it seemed we had 5 yellow and black striped caterpillars. Monarch caterpillars!
My oldest son checked the caterpillars morning, noon, and night, until one day he discovered only 3 caterpillars remained. Then two, and then horrifically, one.
With quick research, we figured out how to bring the remaining caterpillar into the house. We supplied it with fresh leaves until it became so engorged it could hardly move. Then the yellow and black caterpillar began strange moves. We all saw it happen–over the course of ten minutes, the caterpillar hung from the top of the stick inside its habitat, dropped while hanging from one end of its body, and began moves that I can only describe as the hula.
Monarch caterpillar transforming
At the end of its dance, a shroud of white silk enveloped it — a chrysalis.
Monarch butterfly chrysalis
For weeks, my boys and I watched to see what would happen. Over time, the white silk became translucent, and as suddenly as the caterpillar spun its transformational chrysalis, one morning as the sun rose, the chrysalis split into two pieces. A black caterpillar-like body clung to the stick with long black legs, and dripping wet wings hung limp from its back.
Monarch butterfly emerging from chrysalis
Over hours that morning, the caterpillar worked with much effort to wring the excess dampness and liquid from its body and wings. The dripping continued, until at about noon, when the sun shone highest in the sky, the new creature began to stretch. Its wings began to unfurl. Its legs climbed the stick until it poised, ready to take flight.
Monarch butterfly with chrysalis
We brought the container outside. It was a beautiful, late summer day when our caterpillar-turned-butterfly took flight.
Monarch butterfly after transformation preparing to fly
Its first motions into the air, when it let go of the stick, sent it twirling, flailing, almost. But within another few seconds, the butterfly found its wings and it began to make circles around us. I think the four of us erupted with celebration so loud it scared the butterfly. It landed a few times on a tree, once on one of my son’s heads, once on my shoulder. And then, it took flight, higher and higher, until it disappeared from sight.
There are many analogies that I’ve drawn inside my head from those days. I’ve always loved butterflies, deeply. But after that up-close encounter with the miracle that occurs right before our eyes, every butterfly is precious to me.
So today, on October 9 (Sunday before this posts), 2016, when my youngest son, now taller than I am, noticed a Monarch butterfly outside on our waning butterfly bush, I knew I had to grab my camera.
It turns out, today’s Monarch was one of the most beautiful I’ve seen. There isn’t a single mark on his wings, no scratches either. Pure miraculous beauty.
And to think this month, from Ohio and all across the U.S., the Monarch butterflies are migrating to their overwintering grounds in Mexico … a long, incredible journey for creatures so delicate.
Have you watched a butterfly transform? Have you seen Monarchs along their lilting migration south? One of my favorite things I look forward to every year. Enjoy!