Mother Butterfly

I earned the name Mother Butterfly the summer I served as nursemaid to thirteen Monarchs. From egg to worm to maiden flight I was there each step of the way; monitoring, coaching, directing, and guiding my little herd of caterpillars on their quest to become light, airy, winged-ambassadors. I thought I knew everything there was to birthing these wondrous creatures until early one spring I brought home a dill plant.

Unbeknown to me, the plant included the tiny egg of a black swallowtail, a large black butterfly with blue and yellow markings. It was weeks before I spotted the caterpillar gorging on my herb, and shortly after that the weather turned cold again – winter’s final fling. In a marvel of nature the caterpillar went into something akin to hibernation, not eating or moving for days. When a freeze was forecast, I brought the plant and the insect inside. The warm house re-ignited the caterpillar’s fire and it roared back into action, ferocious appetite intact. Soon, nice and plump (my dill plant decimated), it was ready to move to the next stage – chrysalis.  That’s when the first sign of trouble appeared.

I didn’t take it back outside for fear of the cold, and so the caterpillar wandered aimlessly about the plant and pot in search of a spot to set up its cocoon. Repeatedly I found it lying at the bottom of the plant, seemingly confused and disoriented. Each time I scooped it up, and placed it back on the plant near what I deemed a desirable cocooning location, and remained hopeful that it would take my motherly advice. I was concerned it was running out of time, then one day I discovered it lifeless, curled on its back, its myriad feet pointing skyward. With a heavy heart I set the pot back outdoors certain it was dead.

A week or two must have passed before I discovered the small, brown chrysalis lying in the dirt where my caterpillar had once been. Amazed and delighted I had no way of knowing whether the creature inside was alive or dead, but I felt inspiration along with guilt for having abandoned it.  I brought the pot back inside determined to help it through its final transformative phase, if it were still alive.

Unlike Monarchs which hang suspended from overhead, the Swallowtail anchors its rear to a branch then spins a thin silky thread which it attaches to the branch creating a sling for itself; it rests tilted at a slight angle. When it emerges its limp wings need to hang unencumbered so that they can be “inflated” with fluids from the body. If cramped, the wings won’t inflate properly, becoming deformed and prohibiting flight.  With a piece of thread for the silk strand and a Starbuck’s coffee stirrer serving as a branch, I studied a photo of the intricate set up, trying repeatedly to duplicate it. After fumbling with it for hours I handed the task off to a family friend, who had just as much luck.  In the end we tied the chrysalis to the coffee stirrer and stuck it in a pot in my living room, hoping for the best. Our intentions were good.

In the beginning I checked on it often, but as the weeks rolled passed with no activity I checked it less and less, and finally hardly at all. I was certain it was dead, but the day I decided to dispose of it, I stared in disbelief. The chrysalis was opened and empty, no butterfly in sight. Shocked, amazed and fearful that it might lay a crumpled mess, or have died of neglect, I searched frantically for it.  Clinging to the side of the pot, its wings spread wide, was a huge, beautiful swallowtail. Despite every well-intended obstacle I had placed in its way, this gorgeous creature had found the will and perseverance to survive and thrive.

Exuberant, I carried the pot outside. Instinctively it knew what to do when the fresh air stirred across its wings. With hardly a flutter it lifted off on its maiden flight, a graceful, flittering circle above my head and then off, disappearing beyond my neighbor’s house and away forever. It never came my way again, but that didn’t matter; my joy was watching the miraculous feat that had unfolded ever so slowly before my doubting eyes.

After long and careful consideration, Mother Butterfly has decided to hang up her meddling wings; there are, after all, some things better left to Mother Nature.

Author’s Note: This appeared in the Almanac of Arlington Heights.