Monday, July 21, 2008

Inner Children will be Children

I woke up the other morning to caterpillar acrobatics and bluebird feeding lessons. Groggy with sleep, I muddled through making the morning coffee then took my mug onto the porch to finish waking up. The sleep began to leave my eyes with every sip of espresso, like the mists that rise gently from the valleys in the meadow and waft away with the sun’s heat.

What in the world is that? There were one, two, three comma shapes hanging in mid-air in the front yard. Are those caterpillars? I picked up the binoculars and looked. Sure enough, they were the fuzzy white caterpillars I often see scooting along the porch furniture. They were hanging from threads of their own making, like spider webbing, from the walnut tree. Were they climbing up or lowering themselves down? In the twenty or so minutes I watched them, I couldn’t tell. I got off the porch and walked over to where they were gliding in the breeze. From what I could see, they were working hard at climbing back up the thread. I watched a caterpillar shed its skin for the final time once, before turning into a chrysalis, and I can tell you that it looks like hard work. This was no different. Little guy was doing ab-crunches over and over again like some version of Pilates torture, and didn’t seem to be getting anywhere.

Tired just watching, I went back to my soft chair on the porch and sat down. Now my eye caught sight of two more caterpillars swaying in the breeze a little more to the right. Five caterpillars in all, moving up and down their invisible threads in an early morning dance. The wrens were chattering and bringing insects to their babies, and didn’t seem at all interested in the bait hanging from the tree where they nest. It was a peaceful, routine morning with the added fascination of a caterpillar trapeze act.

And then the squad arrived. Three bluebirds, two juveniles with a parent, flew up and landed, one at a time, on the branch of the walnut tree with a view of the caterpillars. I heard them as they landed, flump, flump, flump. Uh oh. This was looking like a Marty Stouffer moment in the making. And I hadn’t even finished my first cup of coffee. Two of the bluebirds swooped from the branch. I turned my head part way, squinted my eyes—I didn’t want to look, but wanted to see what would happen—and Hey! The bluebirds flew right past the caterpillars towards the front porch and hovered about a foot above the ground. They wanted some insects that were in the grass there, but Clarabelle the cat was sitting two feet away on the front step watching the whole thing with me. The birds flew back up to the tree branch, made a few more passes at the grass until Clare got up and left, unnerved by the spectacle.

Soon there was another parent and another juvenile bluebird and all five of them hunted for food in the front yard. I watched them through the binoculars and marveled at how big the babies were. Their brown speckled breasts were giving way to pretty blue wing feathers. They were doing a good job of hunting. No more sitting squat on a branch and shaking their feathers till mom and dad brought them a snack. These guys were showing their stuff.

With the threat of imminent carnage past, I began to think about the caterpillars again. What kind of butterfly would they turn into? Could I find out what their rappelling act was all about? Why didn’t the birds eat them? Were they poisonous? Questions that would make an inquiry-based classroom teacher get all tingly with excitement. Like a good student, I decided to catch one and raise it. I’d see for myself what kind of butterfly (or moth) it would transform into.

I searched through the kitchen and decided that the Red Vines container would make a good caterpillar home. It was clear plastic and large enough to let a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis. I had to throw away the remaining licorice (sorry, Dad) and throw the lid out. I cut some window screen off a roll in John’s workshop and attached it with a rubber band around the top of the container. Assuming that their host plant is walnut, I snapped a branch off the tree and put it in there. We’ll see what happens next.

Now, I know that there are people who could tell me right now what kind of caterpillar this is. And what their dangling act is all about, and why the birds weren’t eating it. But, I want to find out for myself, preferably through observation. When I was a kid, I used to rearrange my bedroom on a regular basis. Sometimes, I would set it up so that I could be a scientist. I devoted space on the dresser for lab experiments and put a clipboard and paper on my desk for note taking. I loved the sense of order and purpose it gave to my life. Of course the “experiments” I concocted—potions made with the toiletries on hand in the bathroom along with food coloring—would get moldy within a week. I was not, nor have I ever been, a scientist. But I still have a love of what science finds out about the world and a great admiration, I suppose, for the patience it takes to get an answer. I think I can be patient enough to observe this caterpillar for a week or more and fulfill my urge to perform citizen science.

Or maybe the attraction of this latest experiment is simply that I get to be a kid again. Living here with the meadows and woods right out my front door lets me be childlike, exploring the nooks and crannies of the world, dragging home caterpillars and egg sacks and interesting rocks, setting them on the front porch for further investigation. It is exciting to play like this again. The world seems to hold endless miracles and fascination and every day is yet another chance to discover something cool or gross or beautiful or mysterious. Who knows what will present itself tomorrow morning while the coffee pot gurgles to life and I bring my forty-something body with the nine year old inside out onto the porch?

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