When we walk to the edge of all the light we have and take that step into the darkness of the unknown we must believe that one of two things will happen: There will be something solid for us to stand on or we will be taught to fly. –Patric Overton
Ever since I began teaching kindergarten, my husband and I have made a tradition of searching milkweed plants for monarch caterpillars over Labor Day weekend, right before the school year starts. The goal is to collect a few caterpillars so my students can observe the dramatic and colorful transformation from caterpillar to butterfly; however, it is an activity we truly enjoy doing together each year. My husband has fond memories of his mother packing him a picnic lunch before he headed out to look for monarch caterpillars as a child, and he cherishes the opportunity to continue this tradition with me. Observing the monarch life cycle is a magical way to begin kindergarten and a powerful reminder of the potential for transformation and transcendence. There are so many metaphors to be found in the monarch life cycle, and it is interesting to notice which ones resonate most strongly each year.
Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed leaves, and when the caterpillars hatch they begin eating the leaves, which is their entire diet. During August, we note the locations of the most promising milkweed patches. Some years, despite a great deal of effort, we come up empty handed. Last year was such a year. We didn’t find any monarch caterpillars but returned home with a great story. After combing all of the known milkweed patches, we expanded our search along the country roads near our home and noticed an impressive field of milkweed across the street from a farmhouse. Feeling both desperate and adventurous, we decided to knock on the door and ask permission to look for monarch caterpillars in the field. The old man who came to the door obliged our request; however, the grass was so tall that we gave up soon after beginning. On our way back to the car, the man came back outside to ask us if we had any luck, and we ended up having a lovely heart-to-heart conversation with him about life in this day and age. I wish we could have filmed him talking. He was a retired dairy farmer and spoke about how much better farming is in Canada because farmers get paid better and can afford to maintain their property and equipment, which is not the case here. He really opened up to us and talked about his perception that too much damage has been done to this country by greed, and said he is not sure we can fix it at this point. It was such a joy to interact with this kindhearted man and to hear an old farmer share his wisdom. A couple times during the conversation, I actually found myself choking back tears because I felt my grandmother’s spirit coming through him quite powerfully. (Her urn is decorated with a pastoral farm scene, paying tribute to her Vermont roots and her love of Vermont farm life, which was an important chapter of her life.) Without ever mentioning this to my husband, as we were driving home he remarked that he felt my grandmother’s presence during that conversation. That is one caterpillar mission I always will remember.
This year, however, we saw several monarch caterpillars and butterflies the week prior to Labor Day and knew we would be successful in fulfilling our goal of collecting caterpillars.
Sure enough, when it was time, we ended up collecting seven caterpillars. We begin by looking for tender, green milkweed leaves that have some holes eaten through them. We also look for droppings. Often, the caterpillars munch on the underside of milkweed leaves and thus are cleverly hidden, so we need to look for clues suggesting their presence. We squat down low to the ground to see the underside of the leaves.
This year, we found three large, plump caterpillars that looked like they were nearly ready to turn into chrysalises and were likely to do so before school started. We also collected four very small caterpillars so the children would be able to observe the active larva (caterpillar) stage.
We put the caterpillars and some milkweed into a butterfly tent with mesh sides and a transparent top that zips open. The very hungry caterpillars munch their way through leaves until they have had their fill and somehow know it is time to enter the next stage of their life cycle. I am amazed and inspired by this part of the process and how the caterpillars know when it is time to change. I wonder how often the human capacity to think suppresses an inner knowing that it is time for us to change. How often do we convince ourselves to resist doing something different that would result in living a more authentic life because we are so used to a particular way of being – and it feels too risky to do otherwise?
Each in his or her own time, the caterpillars climb up the walls of the tent to the top, and eventually begin making a silk button from which to hang. The caterpillar hangs in a “J” shape for a large portion of a day before turning into an emerald-jade green chrysalis by molting its skin. The skin, which has become too tight, begins to split around the bend of the “J,” and the caterpillar wraps itself into a chrysalis. It wiggles and jiggles its way into the chrysalis stage.
This year, all of my caterpillars managed to turn into chrysalises when I wasn’t looking. The link below will bring you to a wonderful, real time video of a caterpillar turning into a chrysalis. My students have asked to watch it over and over again:
The monarch chrysalis is an elegant sight – an emerald green case embellished with numerous, patterned golden dots, like a jeweled crown.
For about ten days, the green chrysalises hang, quiet and still. The children check the butterfly tent every day when they enter the classroom to see if a butterfly has appeared. Throughout the week, the chrysalis fades gradually in color until it becomes transparent, like a window. Although this is the time when the least activity appears to be taking place, it is a powerful time of metamorphosis. It reminds me of the human potential for great transformation to take place during periods of stillness.
In time, the chrysalis splits open, and the butterfly emerges. This was just beginning to happen when I entered my classroom this morning, and I grabbed my camera quickly!
The butterfly lowers itself out of the pupal case, extends its legs, and clings to the pupal case.
The abdomen is swollen with fluid that needs to be pumped into the tiny wings to help them expand.
Eventually, the wing tips will fill with fluid.
And then the butterfly will wait for its wings to stiffen and dry.
After several hours, the adult butterfly will be ready to fly. The monarch butterflies born in our area at this time of year will migrate to Florida, Eastern Texas, or Mexico and gather on trees that are literally covered with monarch butterflies. It is amazing to think that such small, delicate wings will carry them thousands of miles on a rigorous journey and that each butterfly somehow is able to find his or her way!
When it is time to release a butterfly from our butterfly tent, I gather the children on the playground outside our classroom and let the butterfly perch on their fingers if it is not in too much of a hurry to try out its wings for the first time. The expressions of wonder and joy on the children’s faces are priceless, as is the gentleness with which they pass the butterfly along to the next classmate and the sincerity and hope with which they wave and exclaim, “Fly, butterfly, fly!” This is an authentic learning experience that leaves an impression on the soul that no assessment tool could ever measure.
It is a truly magical way to begin the year, and I continue to be inspired and fascinated by the process every year.
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