The Mess of Transformation

by Starla J. King on August 6, 2014

Turns out the whole butterfly metamorphosis thing is actually quite…well…disgusting.

And this is coming from someone who pets mangy stray cats with goopy eyes (yes, against my better judgment), secretly wishes she could have inspected the 15cm tumor removed from her gut, and still remembers her horrified delight at seeing the innards of that formaldehyde-soaked frog during 7th grade science class dissection.

transformation messIn the years since my last butterfly farming experience, I had forgotten just how messy the egg-to-butterfly transformation is, remembering only the addictive thrill of soft little butterfly paws on my finger at the end of the process.

It was that memory that made me purchase 4 parsley plants to put in the teeny planter defiantly clinging to our urban patio fence.  Maybe I can grow butterflies again, I told my wife.  She smiled (wearily?), nodded, and went looking for cilantro — a plant we would actually use in our kitchen.

tiny caterpillarWeeks went by, and the plants flourished, untouched by our culinary needs, and just when I decided this whole idea was a bunch of hooey,  I saw it: that little brownish-black thing that looked, quite frankly, like a tiny turd.  Oh. Eww. Right.  I’d forgotten that.  (Note to self: wash wash wash any parsley you pick for garnish use).

Further inspection showed 5…6…SEVEN little tur caterpillars, and, perched on a leaf ruffle, the emerald green, pin-head-sized sphere of an absolutely perfect work of miniature art — an egg.  Ohthankgod, beauty, as it should be, because for heaven’s sake we’re talking about butterflies.

It didn’t take long for the turdlets to grow into dapper caterpillars sporting orangeish then lemony and black stripes against their sleek parsley-colored (coincidence?  I think not) bodies.  More beauty.  So I re-planted the parsley in two small pots, put them (with egg and caterpillars) in an aquarium with a mesh lid, and prepared to watch the miracle of transformation.

But then those cute little buggers got bigger.  Squishy looking.  A little too shiny.  With creepy little feet thingies and openings on both ends of their bodies which I discovered when I looked too closely.  Oh.  Eww. Right. I’d forgotten that too.

Oh, and those things that look like scorched leaves? Discarded caterpillar skins, making way for bigger bodies. Oh. Eww. Right. Forgot.

I was so fascinated, however, that I perservered through the disturbing stuff, checking on “my little guys” approximately 4,292 times per day to make sure they were ok, to see how they had grown, to check their food supply, to … I admit … spend time with them.

I had fallen in love.

You can imagine, then, my concern when a couple days ago I saw the finest, hugest caterpillar of the bunch lying on his (her?) side at the bottom of the aquarium, writhing a little, and showing his (her?) orange antennae-like glands that stay hidden unless provoked or disturbed, then come out with a nasty smell.

I was pretty sure s/he was dying, so I braced myself for the carcass stage, my heart aching as I wondered if I’d killed the little guy/girl by putting him in captivity (which to this point I’d been viewing as protection).
Then I saw one end of this little guy open, and memory came flooding back along with the… well, let’s just say this is the phase that most turns my stomach.  Caterpillar purge in preparation for the next stage.   Oh. Eww. Right. Forgot.

But the good news?  This little one would be ok, which s/he proved to me a few hours later by scampering around the aquarium searching for the ultimate place to hunker down into butterflyhood.

tucked inIn fact, as I write this post, s/he and one of his brother/sisters are happily attached to twigs, each sporting two shiny threads of silk as if they’re preparing to do aerial performances a la P!nk.  Instead, they rest, and their outer bodies will soon harden into protective metamorphosis chambers.

Thank God we can’t see what goes on in there, because it involves enzymes digesting (yes, digesting) all the caterpillar tissue to turn stuff into thick fluid, or “an organised broth full of chunky bits,” as Ed Yong notes in this fascinating article.

Fortunately those “chunky bits” form into recognizable parts and the components together form into the exquisite miracle we call a butterfly… the holder of those precious precious paws that pad along my finger for a brief minute or two as wings dry and the little guy/girl chooses his flight path.

Not the story we usually hear about the butterfly life cycle, is it?

We mostly talk about this metamorphosis in sanitized terms of eggs, caterpillars, shedding exoskeletons, silk strands, chrysalises (chrysali? chrysaleeseses?), and finally, an effortless, pristine transformation to the exquisite flying flowers we call butterflies.

But in reality? Transformation is messy. Disturbing.  And often excruciating (have you ever birthed a child or read a new mother’s birth story? or birthed a creative project from the core of your soul? or birthed a new you after illness, or trauma, or any other extensive life change? Yeah. Excruciating).

Because changing from one thing to another — or one way of life to another, one understanding of yourself to another — is a huge freakin’ complicated messy deal.

Let it be that way.

butterfly pawsI’ll be waiting to feel your heart-meltingly soft paws on my finger when you come out on the other side.

Fascinating articles about the hidden stuff of transformation:

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary August 6, 2014 at 1:36 pm

I just love this! We too learned that it’s a messy process (primarily eating and pooping) but like you the butterfly paws are so rewarding. Do you know what kind of butterflies you have?


Starla J. King August 6, 2014 at 1:55 pm

Mary, that’s exactly it! I’m growing Eastern Black Swallowtails (you’re welcome, Philadelphia 🙂 )

What are YOU growing??


Mary August 6, 2014 at 4:25 pm

Lovely! We’re growing Monarchs, it’s a fleeting encounter. 🙂


Angel August 6, 2014 at 8:28 pm

Well. I’m actually not even sure what to say (well done! ;-)). I only know that in reading this I feel…. Hmmm… Well, relief to start… Yes, and acknowledged. And just, I think, ok. Yes. And thank you <3


Starla J. King August 7, 2014 at 11:21 am

Angel, that just might be one of the best comments ever! Thank you right back to you, and here’s a pair of those wading overalls that flyfishers use. Wear them through the mess. 🙂


Robert August 16, 2014 at 10:16 am

Great post, poetic sister Starla! I like your seamless and enlightening inter-weaving of psychic and scientific insights. Pondering your theme of transformation, guess we could say these caterpillars are essentially recycled parsley?! So, if I were parsley, would I opt to die so I could fly?


Starla J. King August 21, 2014 at 3:04 pm

Holy smokes, Robert, I think you’re right about the recycled parsley notion!!


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