Friday, October 4, 2013

meta · mor · pho · sis

Pronunciation: met--mr-f-ss
Function: noun
1 : a change of form, structure, or substance especially by witchcraft or magic
2 : an extraordinary change in appearance, character, or circumstances
3 : the process of basic and usually rather sudden change in the form and habits of some animals during transformation from an immature stage (as a tadpole or a caterpillar) to an adult stage (as a frog or a butterfly) 
Merriam-Webster Student Dictionary 

I have heard people speak of their hopes for their grandchildren to be raised in a world that still has polar bears.  That we need to hope for this still shocks me when I hear it, though I know it is a reality.  

But even more shocking?  Is the idea of my youngest child being a world without monarch butterflies.  Because I have never met a polar bear, except to see one in an artificially cooled climate tank at a zoo.  But I have held a monarch caterpillar in my hand, felt it tickle and crawl across my hand, crawling off my palm and around to the back of my hand.  And I have released a butterfly into a flower garden.  And I have watched my children do this as well.

As the child of an elementary school teacher, I spent many a fall day out in a field searching for the eggs of monarchs, on the underside of a milkweed leaf.  And then, if we were lucky enough to find the eggs, we also returned to the field many times during the next few weeks, to collect fresh milkweed leaves to feed the fast growing and ragingly hungry caterpillar until it J hooks and attaches itself to a branch, or the top of a preschool terrarium, spinning itself into a cocoon.

I think everyone remembers watching monarch caterpillars eat, poop, hook, spin, turn green, then start to darken and emerge, as an amazingly brilliant, fragile, orange hued butterfly.

Each fall, with my own children, I have watched excited children skip down the sidewalk toward school, carrying their precious cargo, a caterpillar.  Getting to place it in their classroom's terrarium.  And watch it do its magic.

My children learned to tap out the word entomologist, a tap for each of its syllables, starting on their left wrist, then their forearm, upper arm, shoulder, and finally their head.  Five syllables, tapped out, making the syllables visible and kinesthetic.


They have come home singing songs they have written about the monarch's journey with their preschool class.

I gotta go.  
I gotta go.  
I gotta go to Mexico.

They hook their fingers in the shape of the caterpillar just before it spins its cocoon, and at the same time will never forget what the letter J looks like.

They take me over to the school's flower garden to show me a butterfly, wings still glistening and wet, where the class carefully placed it during the day, getting it ready to fly free and away.

And the journey these creatures take.  I am filled with as much amazement as my children are by the ability to fly from all over our country and all emerge in a valley in Mexico.  All using that tiny little brain.

They are a thing of wonder.

And they are not here this year.

I myself have searched the milkweed patches we know and have found none.  And no classroom in our school's elementary building has any cocoons, with children's noses pressed to the glass, waiting.

I am trying not to be shocked by this.  Or saddened.  Or worried.  Is this another sign of climate change?  Are we losing our monarchs, as described by Barbara Kingsolver in her book Flight Behavior, fiction but based on possible reality?  Or is it just a fluke, a wet summer, a blip in the monarch population and we will observe the same parade of Ball jars down the sidewalk just next year?

Nature adaptively and powerfully finds a way around something.  Around a break in its normal process, a roadblock, a pesticide.  So mimicking nature, in that way that children and their crafty teachers do so very well, a classroom adaptation has emerged.

Children are still carrying Ball jars with cheesecloth elastic-ed around the top, down the street, proudly showing their contents to their teachers, to reveal...brown fuzzy curled up circular balls. They look, in their terrified by the bouncing and jouncing and oops I dropped it and I poked it with a toothpick for 5 minutes during breakfast state, like a furry brown pillow.  For a snail, or for a fur loving fairy.

The Wooly Bear Caterpillar, apparently the neanderthal cousin of the monarch.

They are everywhere this fall.  In the orchard where we went apple picking.  On the sidewalk as we walk about town.  In the shade of our mailbox.

And the other day, as I pulled out weeds and an overgrown mint patch in order to put in flowering perennial plants to strengthen our bee friendly landscape, I found six.  And Elliott collected them all, placing them into a basket.  These cute little beasts appeal to him.  Soft, fuzzy, slow moving, and patient.

Elliott called to me in the garden from the kitchen where he had left his basket unattended for a few minutes.  While he and Julia googled what woolly bears eat.  Because we knew it was not milkweed.

Mommy!  They eat clover, grass, birch, and aster.  The door slams as he and Julia run off toward the woods.

Oh, he stops short, and calls over his shoulder.  And Mommy?  I had six caterpillars.  And now I only have three.  The others must be in the kitchen somewhere.

Not so slow moving it turns out.

Fast or slow, is there anything more fun to craft than fuzz?

Well, maybe it's just as fun to craft the Woolly Bear caterpillar catcher.  With a boingy Woolly Bear caterpillar on top...

And is there a better story character than this little guy?

Translation: Once there was a woolly bear caterpillar.

And his teacher's note back to him?

So, these are the new elementary classroom stars across the country.  Well, at least here in Maine.

And like the magical metamorphosis and long journey that the monarch acted out for us and for two of my three children?  These woolly bears have their own brand of magic, shared with Elliott by his amazing teacher/farmer (what a perfect combination this is).  As legend has it, the width of their brown stripe predicts the length of the upcoming winter.  The wider the brown stripe, the milder the coming winter.

With my mind on a changing climate, I am hoping for narrow brown stripes.

Their journey is shorter, less colorful, and it results in a rather less awe inspiring -- moth -- but the story is still good.

And, as nature is doing, our children are wrapping their minds around these changes, with a lot of wonder and a bit of thoughtful acceptance, and adapting and moving on.  A metamorphosis, within their own lifetime.  Optimistically.  It is an attitude that we all should follow.

Elliott's self portrait, wearing his favorite t-shirt, of Eartha

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