Butterfly (3/4, Lifecycle)

There is nothing so magical as the moment when a butterfly emerges from its chrysalis. I never get tired of it, and it never fails to bring a smile to my lips. With monarchs, the species of which I’ve hatched around two hundred in the five years I’ve been butterfly gardening, you know when a chrysalis is ready to hatch because it turns from jade green to black with dark orange streaks. Actually, when you look closely, you realize that the outer layer of the chrysalis is clear, and what you’re looking at are the adult monarch’s wings.

*** One of my butterfly rescue missions ***

You might think, that, after all the effort and time I’ve put into caring for the caterpillars, they should show a little gratitude.

There are different ways to be a butterfly gardener, but mine is to fill my garden with host plants for various local varieties, as well as nectar plants that they love. During butterfly season, which in Texas where I live is late spring through late fall, I keep an eye out for caterpillars on the host plants. I could leave them there to do their thing, but my garden has lots of predators: lizards, frogs, spiders, and especially wasps. So I prefer to gather up any caterpillars that I find and bring them inside to finish developing. I have two or three appropriate habitats, and I keep them fed with fresh milkweed or other host plant for the other varieties, and their habitats clean. I call it my butterfly rescue mission.

*** a monarch emerging. And yes, all the photos in this post (and the painting, too) are mine –except the sand mandala. ***

But even when I know to expect a butterfly to emerge on a certain morning, catching them in the act is tricky. First, it’s a totally silent event, at least to our human ears. You have to be right there, looking right at them, in order to catch it from the beginning, that first crack in the shell, down towards the bottom. From then, it takes only 10-20 seconds for the crack to widen as the butterfly struggles to wiggle out, to free its delicate wings from the chrysalis. Finally, out pops the fat, black body, followed by the wings, and the new butterfly hangs by its feet from the empty shell.

Butterfly gardening is an exercise in cultivating
the spiritual discipline of nonattachment.

*** Gulf fritillary on its host plant, the passionflower vine ***

Like a newborn baby, a newly hatched butterfly is not at its most attractive. Its body seems bloated, while its wings are wet, crumpled, and disappointingly undersized! But now comes another phase of magic. Watch for about 10 minutes as the butterfly pumps fluid from its body into its wings! The body shrinks as the wings grow and straighten out into the beautiful shape we expect. But don’t attempt to handle it yet! It will need to hang there, drying out, for about half a day.

When it starts to crawl around the roof of the enclosure and fan its wings, perhaps trying a short flight now and then, I know that it’s time to set it free. I gently pick up the butterfly, holding it fast till I can release it in the backyard. It may wish to continue resting on some foliage where I gently place it, soaking up energy from the sun, or it may fly away directly from my finger when I release its wings.

*** The very image of spiritual freedom — and not just for the butterfly! ***

So what do I learn from this stage of the butterfly lifecycle? Well, first, I learn not to be possessive or to put expectations on this beautiful, delicate creature. You might think that, after all the effort and time I’ve put into caring for the caterpillars, they would show a little gratitude or preference for my carefully curated backyard garden. Well, sometimes they do, but at least as often, I may get the pleasure of witnessing only a brief flutter over the fence, and that’s it, they’re gone!

*** a Tibetan sand mandala ***

Butterfly gardening is an exercise in cultivating the spiritual discipline of nonattachment. Sort of like the Buddhist monks who spend weeks creating those elaborately beautiful mandalas out of colored sand. You would think that when they’re done, they would spray shellac over the whole thing, figure out a way to frame it, and use it to decorate their buildings, or sell it to tourists. But what do they do? They sweep it up, then pour the sand into a stream or river to be carried away into the world.

It’s human nature to want to hold onto and enjoy the fruits of our labors, or to the people and places we love. But true freedom comes when we have learned to keep a loose grasp on things, even on people like our grown children. Stubbornly resisting change, clinging to the past, and refusing to let go of people, places and things is the cause of a lot of misery in the world. We will have a lot more peace if we can learn to accept the impermanence of life, to love and let go, knowing that the beauty we helped to nurture is out in the world, multiplying on its own.

*** Giant Swallowtail ***
*** Black Swallowtail ***

We will have a lot more peace if we can learn to accept the impermanence of life, to love and let go.

But that’s from the gardener’s point of view. Throughout this series, I’ve used the lifecycle of the butterfly as an analogy for transformation in our lives. The caterpillar is earthbound and focused on the task at hand, which is basically one of work, consumption, and growth in size. Then comes the bewildering call to the chrysalis, to leave its old life behind and go inward, waaay inward. In the secret place of darkness and silence, a profound metamorphosis takes place, until the day arrives when the mystery is revealed!

Then what had been a plodding, myopic, wormlike creature of the leaf emerges as a miraculous, fluttering and floating creature of the skies, its colorful wings like flower petals, like tiny paper kites. From consuming leaves, it now sips sweet nectar from flowers as bright as its new self. From caring for itself, it now goes out into the world to reproduce. The two words that I associate with the adult butterfly are beauty and freedom. This my aspiration. To be transformed into a being who has shed all her fears, pretenses and self-defensiveness, who can dance, weightless, on the breeze and plant tiny, yellow eggs in a backyard garden.

Next post: More (4/4, Lifecycle)

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