Monarch butterflies, self-care and transformation
This week, as I was walking out to get the mail a flash of orange caught my eye on the ground. I walked over to inspect it and when I realized what it was, I sighed. One of the late autumn monarch butterflies had emerged from its chrysalis and didn’t dry its wings correctly. The tip of its right wing was crumpled, and it couldn’t fly.
There are a few reasons this happens. One is that monarch caterpillars can become infected with Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE), a parasite that steals nutrients and takes up space in the chrysalis. OE has become a larger problem for the diminishing populations of the monarch only in recent years. Loss of native milkweed habitat combined with the introduction of tropical milkweeds are thought to be exacerbating the problem. Native milkweeds die back in the winter, taking OE with them. Tropical milkweed does not die back and becomes an OE farm.
This butterfly, though, looked to me as if it had not pumped out its wings correctly. It had likely chosen a poor spot for its transformation into a chrysalis and hadn’t been able to fully hang upside down when it eclosed. From what I’ve seen, it only takes 15 or 20 minutes for them to fully pump out their wings. Within an hour or two their wings are hardened enough for flight. Any hinderance to this sequence can result in a crumpled wing.
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When we talk about caterpillars transforming into butterflies it is usually in metaphors and exclamations of beauty. We speak of it as instant magic, but a chrysalis holds a long brewing potion. I never realized until recently that we choose to ignore this time in between. You are a caterpillar. You bundle up and take a nap. You wake up a butterfly. Except that transformation is gruesome, long, and fraught with danger.
This was the first year I planted native milkweed in my yard and watching the monarch’s cycle was more shocking than I imagined. When the fat caterpillars have found a place to secure themselves to become a chrysalis, their skin turns vaguely green. If you happen to be watching at the peak of their greening, you can observe them spilt their skin down the center and shrug it off… along with their head.
I raised silkworms in elementary school. I am familiar with cocoons spun with silk. For some reason I always imagined that caterpillars that turned into chrysalises just, well, slowly turned into one. I wasn’t expecting something from the skin-walker playbook. And it didn’t just strip off its skin suit to become another animal. It turned it into goo.
Okay, maybe it’s not all goo, but a lot of it turned into goo. I know because I accidentally knocked a freshly skin-shrugged chrysalis a short distance to the ground and it oozed. I felt terrible, but I also was in awe. Nothing I imagined in the transformation from caterpillar to butterfly was quite correct. When we talk about transformation, why don’t we talk about it like it really is?
We all go through periods of great transformation in our lives whether it’s from youth to puberty, fertile to menopausal, or shrugging off our current life to become something new. Right now, I think many of my friends are transforming into someone ready to face the changes and difficulties of an unsteady world. Some of them are about to change into someone who could help save the world. So many of us are feeling an itch under our skins to become something new. Yet, we don’t acknowledge the difficulties and the needs of this change. Or at least, I haven’t.
Caring for yourself while your mind and body shifts and you remain in stasis is hard. I want to transform now. I want to be what I am going to become posthaste and want to ignore that my mind is foggy, and my body is tired. I don’t want to make time for myself. Yet, if I push past my body’s quiet request for more rest and more peace, I might make myself sick and never transform. If I rush it, I may not choose the right place to unfurl my wings. I want wings that are full and hardened. I want the strength and sharpness to follow the migratory map that will appear in my head. And the world needs more monarch butterflies whether they are metaphorical and literal.
The migratory monarch is slated to be listed under the Federal Endangered Species Act in 2024 and is already protected in California. So, a permit is required in California to handle wild monarchs and it precludes captive rearing. I didn’t realize this, and I don’t think others do either. It’s a recent change and I understand, but it makes me sad that school children won’t be raising monarch caterpillars in California. We should all learn what true transformation looks like along with its struggles and failures.
The bottom-line is that no one goes to bed one night and wakes up a butterfly in the morning. (Although there was that one guy that woke up as cockroach but that story didn’t end well.) So, I’m going to embrace the long transformation and try to be kinder to myself and more patient. I hope you will do the same for yourself.