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August 18, 2012

Summer and the wonderment of caterpillars, butterflies


---- — And so another summer comes to an end.

I’m good with that. Summer is my least favorite season. I feel that after living in Texas and Tennessee for five years each, I’ve done my time in mind-meltingly hot weather and oppressive humidity.

Wouldn’t it be nice if reality actually worked like that? But, no.

Lest you think it’s all curmudgeon all the time around here, there are things about summer that I like.

It’s nice to have no particular schedule to adhere to. If the kids make it to swimming lessons, great! If I call an audible and decide to spent the morning in my jammies, no big deal. We can go to the library _ or not. It’s all loosey-goosey.

Granted, after a few weeks of this, my innate scheduler is sighing loudly and looking at her watch _ but I shan’t dwell on that. This is about the good parts of summer.

I love that we have more freedom to pack up and go away. During the school year, our academic jobs and the kids’ school schedules make it nearly impossible to get out of town without Normandy Beach level logistics.

When the kids were younger, we would simply pull them out of school to satisfy our wanderlust. Now we’re in the meat of their academic lives. Yes, they can miss a day or two here and there _ but it’s really best not to.

Which isn’t to say that if some kind, benevolent soul gave us an all-expenses paid trip to Europe that had to be taken in October, I wouldn’t find a way to make it work. Because I’m not a total fool.

Now that the kids are older, we’ve developed a few traditions that I’d miss if summer suddenly dropped out of the year.

I would feel bereft without several hours spent reading while waiting for the end of swimming lessons or T-ball games.

It’s fun to mosey around the park while talking about nothing more important than the probability of rain. Also, I can kick both kids and the dog outside without fear that they’ll freeze.

I can plan whole menus around foods that can be grilled, which is, perhaps, my favorite method of cooking because I’m not responsible for doing it.

What I will miss the most, however, will be the caterpillars.

I’m not sure how this started. Perhaps it was suggested by my father-in-law, a retired second-grade teacher. Perhaps my husband is responsible because he saw a milkweed plant on a golf course. Or maybe the idea simply coalesced out of the heavy July air.

The origin matters not.

Every summer since the Diva was a toddler, we’ve collected monarch caterpillar eggs, which we nurture through their hatching and eating and chrysalising and emerging stages. It is one of the world’s easiest biology demonstrations and one that only requires minimal diligence.

Valuable kitchen counter space is eaten up by every last glass vase, jar or storage container that can be repurposed as a rookery. Extra milkweed leaves stack up on our deck, should there be a dining emergency. For the caterpillars, of course.

And every dang summer, I swear it will be the last one for this mess and madness. It’s enough to keep the dog and the cats and the kids alive. Why ask for more trouble?

And every dang summer, the same moment changes my mind.

I get how caterpillars work. They are, essentially, digestive systems with eyes whose sole directive is to eat as much milkweed as possible. They go from sesame-seed-sized to nearly thumb-length in a matter of weeks. They eat and eat and eat and eat until they just can’t eat no more.

What I don’t get is how the transformation works. This munching machine hangs itself upside down, splits its skin, reveals the green chrysalis that was underneath, and ... what?

My sense of wonder, long dulled by years of being an adult, is reawakened each time this happens. I would be less astounded if a bear came out of hibernation as a house cat or a gerbil. Each still has four legs and fur; the biggest change is one of scale.

The same can’t be said for caterpillars and butterflies. They don’t share that many components, really. Which says nothing about the wings.

Part of me wants to know what goes on behind the green curtain _ do the insect’s innards completely dissolve? are there bits that remain? where does it all go? _ but most of me enjoys the mystery too much to spoil it.

No matter how many times we do it, I am perennially astounded when I discover an actual butterfly hanging from the top of the jar. Every. Time.

I’m sure there’s some great analogy that can be made between this and parenting, about how kids are nothing but eating machines whose transformations are also mysteries, etc. There is truth in that.

But without my kids, I wouldn’t have had the chance to experience the simple wonder that takes place on my kitchen counter every summer. It almost makes the rest of the season worthwhile.

Adrienne Martini is a freelance writer, instructor at the State University College at Oneonta, mom to Maddy and Cory, wife to Scott, and author of “Sweater Quest.” Her columns can be found at