Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Forward and back

On my way home from my great-grandmother's funeral, I turned off the radio and drove in silence, so I could enjoy the late summer drive through Minnesota and unwind. Through the open window, I felt the late September heat as a warm wind buzzed in my ears and kissed my face. It was that time of afternoon when the sun is low enough in the sky that the car visor no longer shielded my eyes. Dust, insects and birds were backlit in a dreamlike vision.

Following the burial service at a cemetery a small town away, I came to visit another cemetery where my infant brother and great-grandparents were buried. As I stepped out of the car, holding my hand as a visor above my eyes, the sun illuminated a rabble of butterflies. I recognized them as Danaus plexippus, the monarch butterfly and remembered a time when they were more than just a rabble—they were my special project.

Throughout my childhood, my dad worked at a wildlife research center in central North Dakota. My older sister and I grew up accompanying him on various wildlife adventures. My earliest memory took place at the center when, at age 3, I followed my dad along a weed-lined path. Near the edge of the path, a fence encased a group of animals the center was studying. “Don’t touch the fence,” my dad warned, as we got closer. As most curious three year olds would, I grabbed the fence. A bolt of electricity traveled through my body.

The summer before I started sixth grade, I grew particularly interested in research the center was doing on monarch butterflies. The biologists and statisticians spent countless hours recording and calculating mating, reproduction, and metamorphosis cycles. I was most interested in the metamorphosis stage.

My research began without the intention of it really being research. My dad and I wandered along the gravel road near our house and came upon milkweed—the only plant in which monarch caterpillars will feast. As I examined the weed, I began to find caterpillars of nearly the same bright color green, devouring the leaves. I could actually see the leaves shrinking before my eyes. I broke off a branch of the plant, careful not to disturb the caterpillar's noshing and carried it home.

I found a Mason jar my mom used for canning our yearly apple harvest. I slipped the branch into the jar, covered the top with paper towel and screwed on the gold ring used to hold the lid in place. The jar sat on the windowsill in the basement for a couple of days. I replaced the milkweed daily, keeping my caterpillar happy.

One day, I couldn't find my caterpillar on the milkweed. I was almost convinced he had mysteriously escaped from the jar when I spotted his white, fuzzy cocoon hanging from the paper towel. Over the next couple of days, I checked on him every chance I got. On the third day, I began to see the orange and black tips of his new wings. Soon he emerged a beautiful butterfly, and I released him where I found him and began to search for a new caterpillar that I could watch transform.

It wasn't hard to find a new one. In fact, I wasn't sure I'd be able to find enough jars for all the new caterpillars I had found. My mom probably wondered what I was doing running up and down the stairs and in and out the back door. I don’t think she ever noticed her canning jars disappearing one by one.

I named each caterpillar and gave it a number and recorded its measurements and length of the metamorphosis cycle. Some caterpillars took three days to transform, others emerged only a day after I found them. One caterpillar remained in its cocoon for nearly a week. My anxiety heightened each day as I wondered when it would emerge. One morning, the cocoon disappeared. I looked for a flash of orange and black. Instead, the lifeless cocoon lay at the bottom of the jar. Tears welled in my eyes, and I left my caterpillars unattended for the rest of the day.

It probably wasn’t my fault he didn’t make it, and I knew there were many more caterpillars to take care of in my basement. My work continued. With each release, I gained a deeper understanding of its life cycle.

By the end of the summer, I had caught and released several dozen butterflies. I also had the makings of a pretty good science project for school the next year. Most importantly though, I learned about how fragile a life can be.

I stood in the cemetery and looked at the gravestone carved with my brother’s name and a date that reveals he didn’t even live a day. Next to it, stood the large gravestone of my great-grandparents, who both lived into their 80s to see their grandchildren’s’ families grow. I thought of my butterflies. Some caterpillars never made it into their cocoons, while others never made it out. Some made it through the summer, the long fall migration and rough winter, back up north in the spring to lay eggs of new caterpillars.

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