Sunday, 6 November 2011

The Wandering Monarchs

Life in Newtown,  No. 1 

I lived with my small son in a little two-storey Newtown terrace house with a cheerful yellow kitchen where the low winter sun poured in through the window and across the table on frosty mornings.  I had a little yard where roses and lavender and white daisies grew, as well as an enormous pumpkin vine that fed us all the winter.
Into my garden fell a little seed, blown on the wind.  It grew into a scraggy ugly plant.  But somehow I did not have the heart to pull it out, with the other weeds.  At last, at the ends of its stems formed some little red buds. In the Spring they grew into clusters of little red and yellow flowers. Not large, not decorative. It was not a very attractive garden plant. 

Then one day, when I was hanging out the washing, I noticed a butterfly hovering over that plant. It was a black and orange Monarch, some of which flew across the Pacific from California in about 1870 and now breed prolifically in Australia.  As I watched, it flew and sat, flew and sat over my scraggy little bush.  It was laying eggs.  Now, I didn't care about that bush very much.  I had no interest in protecting it from insects and soon it was covered with twenty-five munching, crawling, black and yellow striped caterpillars.  They did not spread to the other plants.  They only ate the bush they were born on.  As they chewed and munched from leaf to leaf the plant bled white sap like milk. They stripped the leaves off one by one and made piles of green droppings.  They ate the flowers for dessert and made piles of red droppings. Then they started eating the smaller branches. The plant  looked so ugly and untidy.  But the greedy caterpillars were fat and as ravenous as wolves.
One day I went out and found only twenty-two fat caterpillars.  The others had turned into chrysalides and were hanging in a row under the bar of the fence.  The chrysalides were so beautiful!  I was afraid that a bird might eat them.  I found a little branch which I put into a blue bottle on my table, in the morning sun.  I carefully pulled away the white silk that held the chrysalides onto the fence and wound it onto the twigs of the branch.  Soon there were twenty-five chrysalides hanging from the branch. It looked like a rare tree with the most exquisite buds or decorations hanging from it! 

Each chrysalis was the colour and transparency of pale green jade and was shaped like an exotic helmet.  Around the edge of each tiny helmet was a band of purest gold decorated with raised knobs like shiny black lacquer.  They were like magic things, like birds in eggs and babies in the womb.  How did those fat waddling hungry caterpillars turn into these beautiful things, and how would the developing creature inside break out?
With joy and agony we watched these two things happen.  If you have never seen a caterpillar turn into a chrysalis, you cannot imagine the process or the struggle.  The grub must pull itself up, contract its body and burst out of its stripy, caterpillar skin.  This can take hours of pain like birth.  What at last comes forth is a helpless soft pale green wriggling thing which must go on contracting and changing its shape, pulling itself slowly together until at last it hardens into the beautiful jade helmet.
There on the twig they hung for days and weeks.  When we looked against the light we could see the dark shapes of the creatures that were growing inside.  Then one day, when I came home with the shopping, I saw that three of the chrysalides were empty dry plastic shells, no longer beautiful. And there, on the curtain, on the cupboard and on the tea canister were three Monarch butterflies.  When I opened the door they flew out into the sunlight! 

           But how did they turn into butterflies? My son and I watched the process of transformation.  Through the transparent shells we could see the green interior becoming dark and growing folded bits.  As with the splitting of the skin to bring out the chrysalis, so did each butterfly have to break from the beautiful case that sheltered it and in which it could find its new being.  Once it had emerged from its case the butterfly was once again a vulnerable thing.   It could not fly; it could only crawl slowly away from its shell.  Its wings were crumpled and its body was swollen like an ugly grub.   Bit by bit the wings unfolded as the nourishment taken from the milk weed and preserved through all those weeks in the shell was slowly pumped into them from the swollen abdomen.  At last the butterfly attained its true proportions and its full beauty.
Suddenly the transformation ceased. The change was complete. The butterfly walked strongly forward and sat, gently fanning its wings until they were completely dry. At last it flew joyfully out the door and onwards to its life of fulfilment .  

There is another part to this story. Butterflies have a very strong sense of smell. They are guided by this sense to other butterflies and to flowers full of nectar and the plants that they need for survival.
           Now, some of these butterflies crept out of the chrysalis and onto my finger.  They hung there while they made their transformation.  I did not know it, but these beautiful creatures were becoming mysteriously imprinted with my scent.  For these butterflies, I became the life-giving milk-weed bush.
All that long summer, when I walked out into my little garden at night to look up at the stars, I would suddenly find myself in the company of butterflies.  They would flutter out of the night sky and sit on my hair, my hands and my shoulders and cling to my face, fanning their wings. It was a most strange and mystic sensation, my butterflies in the starlight. 

Copyright: Tamsyn Taylor, 2002
Pictures from Wikipedia Commons. LIcenses shown at links.  Acknowledgements: Korall, 2009; Antilived, 2006;  Greyson Orlando, 2007
Captain Tucker, 2008; Louise Docker, 2008.  Louise Docker's photo has been colour adjusted. 

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