Random Thoughts of Crows, Butterflies and Transformation

Crow, Magnolia, and Moon by Julianna Paradisi 2019 pastel on tea-stained paper

Last Fall I watched a murder of crows scavenge through a city park, mingling with a flock of pigeons. One crow ambled closely behind a singular pigeon, comically mimicking its head-jiving gait.

It was molting season for the crows. Their normally sleek, iridescent black chests were marred by bare patches evoking the image of clowns dressed in rags. The indignity of their molting got me thinking about enduring molting as a process of transformation. Birds molt their feathers. Snakes shed their skins. These are transformations of self- renewal.

Some creatures undergo complete metamorphosis, however. Water-bound Tadpoles transform into amphibians, growing legs while their tails wear away to nothing along their journey towards becoming frogs.

Then the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies came to mind, and it occurred to me I had no idea how a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly within its shroud of chrysalis.

When I was going through cancer treatment, the image of a butterfly was often suggested to me by others as something to consider. In fact, butterfly imagery is popular among survivors for its message of transformation from lowly caterpillar into a beautiful winged creature with the ability to fly.

While I liked this imagery, the truth is, with my bald head and surgery scars, I identified more with the imagery of an egg: something smooth, round, and hairless holding within it the dramatic creation of a transformed life.

After watching the crows for some time, I went home and looked up on the Internet the process of how a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. It was startling to learn it isn’t like some quick-change artist act on America’s Got Talent.

It’s a pretty gruesome process. Caterpillars don’t spin a cocoon around themselves like silkworms do. They molt their outer skins and the chrysalis bursts forth containing their innards. Until recently, scientists believed the caterpillar was then digested by enzymes within the chrysalis into a soup-like yolk, with cells programmed to become the legs, eyes, wings, etc developing into their assigned organs.

Chrysalis (sketch book) by Julianna Paradisi 2018 Ink on paper

It was difficult for scientists to accurately study the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies because they had to cut open a chrysalis or x-ray it to see what was happening inside, thereby killing the embryonic butterfly and preempting further development.

The advent of micro-CT enables scientists to see inside a chrysalis without killing the caterpillar/butterfly, and study the metamorphosis without destroying it. It turns out the caterpillar does not actually self-digest into a soupy yolk, but its parts shift in size and form within the chrysalis, molding into a butterfly. At maturation, the butterfly takes breaths into its thorax, until its wings swell with air and the chrysalis bursts open, releasing it.

Last Fall, I began drawing and painting crows, attracted to the idea of transformation and how it applies to my life. I’ve completed a twenty-year cycle, a mini-lifetime within my lifetime since cancer treatment. It’s time to begin something new. I’m not quite sure what. I sense a shedding of old ideas and roles like the molted feathers of a raven, and an internal metamorphosis like the shape-shifting of a butterfly. I’m developing a stronger sense of self, a lighter heart, and healthier boundaries.

There is evidence butterflies retain the same aversions to noxious stimuli they were exposed to as caterpillars right before the metamorphosis, implying sentient awareness. I wonder if caterpillars have awareness of the end of life they as they knew it while molting their final skin, and the chrysalis envelops them like a grave?  Do caterpillars understand what’s happening to them, or do they “die” like we humans do, without concrete evidence of what happens when we no longer inhabit our bodies?

Does a caterpillar in its chrysalis dream of an afterlife with wings?

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