Well, despite overcast seaside days having their own ever-shifting misty-blue-grey entertainment value, they don’t put them solar shillings into that there solar lecky meter. So, here I am, down The Anchor on the seafront, all available rechargeable devices plugged into the spare socket next to the armless one-armed bandit, pint of Guinness and a packet of ready salted by my side, Saturday afternoon pen, paper and keyboard at the ready, walking stick by my side. Rock and roll...
On my way down the hill, short-cutting it through some self-wilded no man’s land I’ve nicknamed Troll Lane, I bumped into old Michael, aka the Bard of Beer, shuffling in the same downhill direction. Such a fey character, shock of white hair, long white beard, otherworldly trill voice and all – I swear he hails from a parallel non-digital England, which split off from this one about the time of William Morris and co. Hadn’t seen Michael in ages and was beginning to get a little concerned. Always good to greet and honour the older poets.
This week a friend posted on her Facebook feed a marvellous three-minute-long video of the life cycle of a Chinese luna moth. Hatching out of its egg, the tiny hairy creature – smaller than the pine needles upon which it feeds – nibbles and grows, sloughs its skin several times, changes colour (from black to red-brown to orange-brown to bright green), even at one point shedding its face, before spinning its own cocoon, from which it emerges four weeks later, swelling and pumping up its new – gloriously beautiful – Chinese luna moth wings. Oh my!
Hopefully I can embed the video at the end of this blog. It’s such a joy to watch.
OK, moths and butterflies are a bit different – for example, moths spin silken cocoons, whereas butterflies form hard chrysalises – but, as a analogy for human transformation, the journey from caterpillar through pupal stage into moth or butterfly sure takes the bio-poetic biscuit.
And watching this mesmerising video reminded me of one of the more mysterious events of my life.
Four years ago, when I first realised that I was not just dealing with grief and depression, I was dealing with old, unhealed boarding school trauma, I was signposted to a trauma-informed therapist. Alas, I never really trusted them – maybe I wouldn’t have trusted anyone at that time – and as soon as there was a reprieve in my symptoms, I beat a hasty retreat into the hills of self-isolation. However, one therapy session in particular stood out, and still stands out. It involved us exploring this caterpillar-to-butterfly analogy in some detail – especially the unsung process within the chrysalis, when the old caterpillar is broken down, and imaginal cells begin to divide and grow into the new body of the emergent butterfly. It seemed quite an optimistic process – and maybe, I thought, this unhealed trauma business was going to be over and done with quite quickly, a little bit of therapy here, a little bit of EMDR there, maybe with a few cups of ayahuasca thrown in for good shamanic measure, and then, voila!, butterfly me emerges back into the world. Plus: the butterfly was one of my mum’s favourite symbols – her being a priest and all that.
At the end of the session, when I left the practice room, I was hit with the strangest of sensations – it felt slightly eerie, and my body hairs bristled in response. It was as if an intelligence outside of myself was trying to communicate with me. I tried to interpret it. Don’t cycle home. Instead, cycle to the river and you will be given a sign. I was perplexed, as this kind of thing was not a regular occurence – in fact, I considered myself quite thick-skinned and slightly allergic to such metaphysical malarkey. For, whilst I am a balding hippie perfectly capable of believing half a dozen implausible things before breakfast, I also spent nine of my adult years in the utterly convinced materialistic-atheistic-realist world, and am aware that it’s probably a good evolutionary human trait to see too many tigers in the grass than too few. Obeying a message to cycle along to the river and await a sign – this could well be a sign of incipient madness. Still, what was there to lose? It was a beautiful autumnal day, and time spent by a river is rarely wasted.
So, instead of cycling back to suburban Florence Park, I headed down to the Thames – or, more precisely, to that stretch in Oxford they call the Isis. And I started cycling towards Sandford lock. Maybe I was going to see a kingfisher? That would be a delightful enough sign for me, and acceptable to both my inner mystic and my inner scientist. At a particular bend in the river, I was “led” off the beaten track and to a grassy curve, where I sat down – so it seemed, waiting for the aforementioned promised sign. I was quite excited about seeing a kingfisher. But, in my poetic experience thus far in life, kingfishers are a bit like rainbows – and rarely come bidden.
Hmmmmm. Maybe I am going a bit mad. Still, this ain’t a bad place to sit and ponder. Maybe I should wait until a kingfisher appears?
I waited five minutes, ten minutes, scanning the river bank for a kingfisher’s iridescent presence. Maybe this waiting for a sign is actually a message? To slow down and be patient...
And then I heard the prosaic chug-chug-chug-chug of a narrow boat, idling round the river bend. I looked up as it approached, and there on its prow was its name: Caterpillar.
I was gobsmacked. And tears began rolling down my cheeks – oh, I didn’t realise how utterly lonely I felt and how hungry I was to know that I was in safe hands, that all this pain and madness would pass. But how the fuck has Life arranged this?
And then another boat came chugging along. And upon its prow: Imagine. Imagine! Quiet laughter now mingled with my tears. I couldn’t make rational sense of it at all, but the bones of my soul sang with some sort of recognition. The Universe, I felt, was simultaneously reassuring me and playing with me.
And then I heard a third boat approaching from the rear: chug-chug-chug-chugging into view... If this one’s called Butterfly, I’ll eat my hat and retire on the spot.
But it wasn’t called Butterfly. It was called Dragonfly.
I sat there shaking my head. Caterpillar Imagine Dragonfly. Of course, as any self-respecting materialist-atheist-realist would enthusiastically point out, caterpillars don’t actually turn into dragonflies. But if that was the best the river sprites of the Isis could do with their available Scrabble-boat letters, it was plenty good enough for this landlubber of a doubting Thomas.
I cycled home in a wondrous daze, swinging by the Iffley yew to tell her my news and my woes and my readiness and eagerness to become a butterfly.
Oh, I’m feeling quite shaky now, having remembered all this. The hell of the intervening four years suddenly feels quite real, and my apparent progress quite vulnerable. Hmmmmm.
A problem with analogies and metaphors and similes and aphorisms is that, as well as enlightening us, they can also lead us astray. Or, rather, when I’m struggling, I’m more than happy to be led astray. The number of times I’ve desperately declared myself to be out of the woods, or emerging from my chrysalis or cocoon – well, I shudder to think.
Still, that post-therapeutic riverside message has remained with me throughout these self-disintegrating years. Maybe it was one of the secret things that actually kept me alive?
And, I’ve been researching the teleonomy and poetry of the caterpillar’s metamorphosis ever since.
What follows is what I have thus far gleaned – and I hope that any biologist friends will gently point out any errors in my understanding.
It seems that a certain caterpillar hormone – called ecdysone – is what causes the wee beastie to moult several times, but so-called juvenile hormones stop this process from prematurely proceeding to full pupation. A caterpillar moults perhaps four or five times in its leaf-munching life before it finally spins its own lepidopteral cocoon or encases itself in a snugly-fitting chrysalis shell. It appears that it is a diminishing of juvenile hormones that allows this irreversible journey into profound metamorphosis.
And this is where the action really begins. The bulk of the old caterpillar is forthwith broken down into proteins by a specialist enzyme called caspases, but a few of its old structures remain and are adapted – for example, its tracheal tubes and large parts of its gut system. But the bulk of the caterpillar’s muscles are broken down, forming a chunky broth of proteins. Meanwhile, imaginal cells - from the Latin imago, imagine – clustered together in imaginal discs begin to use this protein broth to grow and divide and multiply, dozens of cells becoming scores becoming thousands, becoming eyes and legs and mouth parts and genitals and wings. Scientists still don’t fully understand this process – tricky it is to observe objectively without affecting the subject in question, but it’s an outstanding example of fiendishly efficient biological upcycling.
At some point, when only it knows when, the former caterpillar emerges, eyes blinking, wings pulsing, readying for first flight – and nectar! Because butterflies don’t eat what caterpillars eat.
“Within the chrysalis, an inching, cylindrical eating machine remakes itself into a beautiful flying creature that drinks through a straw.”
Oh my, I’m suddenly really knackered. Time to head back up to the Cabin. Word count’s about 1600, computer’s on 96%, and phone’s on 88%, so it’s been an acceptably productive Saturday afternoon. Laters.
So then, vicar, do you think you’ve got enough material for tomorrow morning’s sermon?
You rude little churchwarden!
Going to say something profound, are we, vicar? About sloughing skin, and juvenile hormones, and breaking down old identities and old habits, and feeding those imaginal cells with the fuel of this disintegration, and trying not to resist the process, and leaving old food stuffs behind, and having faith and having patience and not rushing towards butterflyhood, but honouring the wisdom of the chrysalis stage...
That’s quite enough, churchwarden. My parishioners might be reading this, I'll have you know.
I'm not convinced they all come just for your sermons, vicar.
You’ve made your point, you cynical little low church caterpillar.
At least this cynical little low church caterpillar knows whether or not it’s going to become a beautiful butterfly or a hairy moth on the Day of Judgement.
How exactly does one know that, churchwarden?
I’ll see you in church in the morning, vicar.
No, churchwarden, come back! Come back! It’s a very serious question!
Am I going to emerge from all of this malarkey a beautifully blooming butterfly or a bloomin' hairy moth?
Saturday 25th January
dreams of things beyond its ken
all aflutter, wakes