Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Parsley, Caterpillars & Hope

I woke up early on Sunday morning to make soup. We were visiting my father-in-law for the day, and I wanted to bring some extra food to leave with him. So I was chopping zucchinis and onions when I realized my recipe called for parsley. Parsley makes me happy. I only have three edible plants in my tiny garden, and parsley is one of them. Anytime I get to eat something homegrown, I am thrilled. So, I gladly grabbed my kitchen shears and headed outside to gather the fresh herbs. To my surprise, I found a squishy, green caterpillar sitting right in the middle of my parsley plant. It gave me pause. It was so beautiful, a bright light green with black and yellow stripes. I took him inside along with the leafy bunches I had gathered. Half of the parsley was washed and added to the soup. The other half was placed in a jar with Eric. (Who names their caterpillar Eric, right? I was inspired to name him after Eric Carle, the author of the beloved children's book The Very Hungry Caterpillar.) I showed my family the special find when they woke up, and we all admired him and made sure he had plenty to eat before we set out for the day.

It was a long day out, but when we returned, there was Eric. He had eaten most of the parsley in the jar. The next morning was Monday, and every leaf was gone. I had loosely covered the jar with plastic wrap, punctured with a few small holes for air, but the plastic was really not necessary. Our caterpillar friend was not going anywhere. He seemed perfectly content in the glass house, as long as there was something to eat. So, Monday morning found me outside again with my kitchen shears, gathering food for Eric. I set him on the kitchen counter while I cleaned out the jar. Then I carefully placed him back inside with all that leafy green goodness. I also added a little water, which I actually observed him bending down from a twig to drink.

It was fascinating to watch this small creature. He very slowly made his way over the parsley stalks, quietly munching, silently growing. Tuesday morning I entered the kitchen and saw the same thing as Monday: Eric with a few bare, leaf-less parsley sticks left in the jar. Oh, and poop. Lots of caterpillar poop. So, I took him out again, clean the jar, gathered A LOT of parsley, and settled him back in to go to town.

By Wednesday there was a visible difference in Eric's size. Compared to the previous Sunday, he was longer and rounder. As Eric Carle said, "He wasn't a tiny caterpillar anymore. He was a big, fat caterpillar." There was also a change in Eric's behavior. He didn't seem quite so voracious. He was slowing down. I began to worry a little and wondered if our home was not a good place for him. Was he ok? An internet search led me to believe my worries were in vain. Actually, we had found Eric at just the right time, a wonderful time! Based on his coloring and behavior, he would likely be changing from the final stage of his caterpillar life to the pupa stage very soon. Only time would tell...

The next day was Thursday. When I check on him on my way to the coffee maker, I saw that only some, not all, of the parsley had been eaten. Eric was hanging by a self-made thread on one of the sticks of parsley. He had turned himself upside down and no longer sat on the branches, but rather hung there in the silver loop he had spun. It looked precarious. He didn't eat. He didn't move. That string bound him to the branch. It was as if he he knew something was coming and he was waiting. We watched.

By Friday morning, our family was busy packing up and getting ready for a weekend away. In between the hustle and bustle to get on the road, I would occasionally peek into Eric's jar and watch the transformation taking place. A chrysalis was forming on his beautiful fat green body! A self-burial of sorts was taking place. I did another quick online search to learn that there would likely be no activity with him during the weekend. So, I left him in his glass house on our kitchen counter and said good-bye.

When we returned Monday evening, the chrysalis was fully formed. We learned that Eric was in the caterpillar stage of the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly, and they usually form a brown chrysalis. However, they will rarely form a green one, and we got a rare one! According to one source, "The color of the chrysalis is determined by a local genetic balance that ensures the majority of pupae will blend in." Any ideas on Who designed that amazing caterpillar superpower?

We also learned that Eric would likely stay in this pupa form, hidden in the chrysalis for 9-11 days. In the next several days, as our family scooted through the kitchen, preparing coffee or graham crackers and milk, carrying full and then empty plates back and forth, we saw Eric. Even our little 2 year old regularly checked in on him.

By the following Sunday, Eric had been in our household for 2 weeks. He had been in the chrysalis for at least 8 days. I began to anticipate his grand re-entrance into the world, while secretly fearing he would never come out. I actually prayed he would not die in there. That chrysalis was so still. So lifeless. If it was in the garden, it would have been unnoticeable, for it blended right in, like a strangely formed twig or leaf. I questioned that a butterfly would really emerge from that paper-ish sleeve, but I hoped. So, I moved the fading parsley stalk on which the chrysalis was firmly strapped into a larger container, thinking that if Eric did come out, he would need some room to stretch his wings.

We also had terrific thundershowers on Sunday, so I felt inclined to give a few misty squirt-bottle sprays into the tiny habitat. Would the water soften the chrysalis "shell?" I don't know. It just felt right. The thundershowers continued for the next day, so a few more "showers" fell on Eric, too.

Day 10 in the chrysalis and still nothing. Well, let's just keep on waiting, I said aloud, as several sets of blue eyes peered into the clear, lid-less, plastic container.

Day 11 took my 2 year old and me outside first thing in the morning. It was my distraction for him, since he wanted to watch TV as soon as he woke up, but everyone else was still sleeping. As we played in our yard in the early morning sunlight, he noticed the garden in the corner and said, "Any more cata-pers in da parsey?" Gasp. "Eric!" so we ran inside to check on him in the kitchen. And he did not disappoint. There, out of the chrysalis, in the sun-filled kitchen, was a beautiful ebony-black butterfly with wings unfurled in all its glorious splendor. I ran upstairs, woke everyone up, and ran back to Eric to make sure he didn't fly away into our house. We took him and the container outside to coax him out. He came out, but he would not fly. I began to wonder if he was ok, so my sons looked up some more information. It turns out butterflies must wait till their wings are dry in order to fly (which in this case, took several hours.) And we also learned, by the markings on the wings, that Eric was indeed an Erica!

We set Erica in the parsley from which she first came. Occasionally she would stretch her wings and beat them, but mostly she sat with front legs folded, waiting for her time. We gave her a paper towel dipped in a mixture of honey and water, as one website directed us to do. I never saw her drink it, but I like to think it gave her a little strength for that first flight. For the next few hours, we would take glances out the window to see if she was still there. I didn't get to see it, but my middle son saw Erica take off. I was out running errands and he called me to tell me. He saw her flutter over the stone wall and into the neighbor's garden, then away. So began her journey into the world to be all that God created her to be.

There are so many meanings one could glean from watching this unique unfolding. A caterpillar's metamorphosis into a butterfly is the iconic symbol for change and new beginnings. There is the transformational idea of life being born from death. There are the themes of patient waiting, hope, and second chances. But the one thing I carry away from this privilege (and I do feel it to be such) of watching Erica is the idea that God is not finished with us. I could never have imagined that chunky, green-striped, parsley-eating-machine to become what she became. What change! The contrast is stunning. But God saw it clearly and planned for it perfectly. Although one of the glorious things about God is that He our rock who does NOT change, one of the blessings of man is that we CAN change. And with a Creator and Redeemer who can purpose, plan, and perform the incredible change I witness these past 3 weeks, I have reason to hope deeply.


  1. What a lovely sequence of events you got to experience & have captured here! There is something truly magical about the way God created the butterfly's life cycle. I still remember "Monty" the Monarch butterfly from my 1st grade class. Thanks for sharing, Linda!

  2. Oh, I just loved reading this. What a gift Eric(a) was to your family. It just made me well up with wonder at God's creation. And like you said, I'm so glad that God transforms and is not finished with us yet.

  3. Beautifully written! Thanks for sharing this!

  4. This is such a lovely story! Nature Study at its best!