Down the road the other day, walking, I looked down. Bright green, moving. I knelt. I found a caterpillar. It waved its way across the gravel. It seemed a tough environment for a caterpillar–soft and squishy on hard and rough. I found a dried leaf. I held it in front of the caterpillar. It climbed aboard. I carried it to the other side of the road.
I kept looking down. There was a mottled leaf, still green but dried in spots. Why was it like that? It looked burned. I admired it. I left it where it had fallen.
And now I was looking closely at small things. I noticed the seeds of the grass backlit by sun. I noticed all the tiny yellow flowers of the Goldenrod, green and brown that look like one big cluster of gold. I noticed the mud. In the sun the mud was almost dry, hardened into deer tracks. In the shade, tire tracks firmed up, damp. In the deep shade, goo and puddles.
And more flowers–Chickory and Asters. Several kinds of asters–pink and light purple and the purple of almost night. One Aster matched the color of the sky as the sun sank low. Monarch Butterflies found the flowers. They like the Asters the best. Moths flitted. I watched a mosquito on my shoulder.
Then I looked up enough to walk back home. A breeze picked up. Some sparrows peeped in the brush. A car passed and raised a cloud of dust. Then it was quiet again. Buttercups bobbed. A goose honked its way south. And then I was back, and as I wrapped myself n the world of my house, those small things of the world sank back into the afternoon.
We typically have some milkweed growing in our field. For the past couple of years I have made a point to try to leave some standing when I mow. Since Monarch butterflies only lay their eggs on milkweed I wanted to make sure they can keep doing their thing. For the past couple of years we have had no Monarch caterpillars on that milkweed.
This year I wanted to just mow everything. Saving the milkweed means saving some of the wild parsnip, and I want that stuff gone. So I just cut it all. The milkweed, however, perhaps because I mowed early enough, came back. And now we have Monarchs.
We found a caterpillar in a neighboring field recently and that made us more vigilant in searching our own. We found one caterpillar, then another, then another. Yesterday my spouse and I took a walk down the road. On the way out we found half a dozen on milkweed plants along our driveway. On our way back we looked again. We found eleven.
I am not sure if they are just doing better this year, or maybe cutting the milkweed actually helped. Maybe the younger plants are more appealing to them. In any case, those critters are thriving in our field. And they are cool-looking–wiggly and fat and striped with those waving antennae. Looking through the milkweed now is like searching for treasure. Plump, squishy, pre-butterfly treasure.
Before long those caterpillars will hole up for a bit and pop out of cocoons as butterflies. Then they will haul their fragile little selves down to Mexico for the winter. That is amazing, and don’t you even think it isn’t. The milkweed will go to seed after the butterflies depart. The seed pops will burst with floating white seed parachutes. I will crack open the pods and toss those seeds to the wind. All of us in the house do this every year. We try to spread the milkweed to help the Monarchs. Apparently it helped last time.
Today it has been raining. I am sure the caterpillars are tucked under leaves, chewing their way through their own roofs. We have mostly stayed inside–reading, doing Algebra homework, paying bills, cobbling together lunch. Tomorrow we will look again for those yellow and white and black wrigglers. Finding eleven of them at once was a household record. I am hoping we can break it.