At the end of the monarch training, I went home with three green milkweed leaves speckled with eggs. In fact, as we humans were still learning our duties and responsibilities as monarch foster parents, two bitty baby larvae (AKA caterpillars) emerged, hatched into their first Instar, already zooming forward in their infant life cycle.
In the low light of the classroom, they looked like tiny curved bits of black thread. By the time I got home 2 hours later, I was pleased to see that a third had hatched and all were busily munching holes in their leaves.
My first mission: to lay in a supply of milkweed to feed the young caterpillars. Of roughly 2,000 different species of milkweed in the world, the monarch's preferred food is the Common Milkweed, which often grows in sunny ditches along Minnesota roadsides and around the edges of farm fields. As you'll recall, Butterfly Weed is growing nicely in my pollinator garden, and it is one type of milkweed (asclepias tuberosa); but only the best for my larvae, so off I went to hunt down some of the good stuff.
I hopped in the car, powered down all the windows, and let my hair swirl around my face in the mix of warm August air and car exhaust as I wheeled down the highway a couple of miles. Then I wound my way back along a highway frontage road and pulled onto the shoulder,, tires crunching over gravel. I grabbed my camera, because I usually regret it when I don't.
Under the flight path, next to the whooshing traffic of Cedar Avenue and the Crosstown Highway, there is a wetland near a small lake. Jets occasionally thunder overhead and truck engines whine as they downshift around the exits.
But the cattails wave in the wind like velvety wands, casting their spells. Nature's signature magic is to breathe in flurry and noise, transmute it, and breathe out waves of peace and timelessness.
|And finally...Common Milkweed|
At home, I hosed it down and plucked off the leaves, which bleed a milky sap that is toxic to vertebrates but not to insects (though it renders monarchs toxic to birds). Then I placed the leaves between layers of damp paper towels, covered them in plastic and put them in the fridge on top of Lee's bottles of Lift Bridge Crosscut.
(Lee is unexpectedly squeamish about me keeping the larvae in the house, where they must be so that they do not get eaten in the usual way of nature. I explained the reason for hand-raising them; because there is a severe shortage of monarchs, we are trying to help more of them make it. He was still squicked out. I get it. "Larva" is a slightly disturbing word in an indoor context, which is why I prefer think of them as caterpillars, a much cuter word.)
|Two caterpillars and a scattering of eggs in container #1...see the crescents they eat out of the leaves?|
|A third, larger caterpillar in container #2.|
It's just occurred to me that, if you don't count Lee, all the creatures I am currently taking care of--two tabby cats and three monarch caterpillars--have very handsome stripes. I also like this band. And Lee wears a lot of striped shirts. There are no coincidences.
|Monarch housing on my altar|
I will do my best to help these little chewers make it to chrysalis, where they completely break down into "bug soup" and then transmogrify into winged wonders in just a few short weeks. And this, the fourth generation of butterflies this year, is always different than the previous three: "The fourth generation of monarch butterflies does not die after two to six weeks. Instead, this generation of monarch butterflies migrates to warmer climates like Mexico and California and will live for six to eight months until it is time to start the whole process over again." (From this page.)
These caterpillars living at my house, if they stay healthy, will be butterflies; and the butterflies, if they find nectar sources along the way, dodge predators and don't run into any insecticides, will fly all the way to Mexico, and overwinter with a colony of their brethren on oyamel firs ("sacred fir") in the mountains of Michoacan.
The chrysalis is a marvel of nature and a common because apt metaphor; a blueprint for anyone going through a transformation, rebirthing into a new aspect of themselves.
At least, I hope that is what is trying to happen inside myself. Because it is certainly uncomfortable, not consciously knowing what the long journey in front of me is and whether or not I am on the true road. I believe I know somewhere; but alas, getting at that voice, listening to it, understanding its messages is a slightly iffier proposition than simply following a directive encoded in my butterfly cells....
I have a sneaking suspicion that when it comes to venturing out of my comfort zone, I have much to learn from a migrating butterfly.