• The Low Down

Caterpillar soup for the soul

We often refer to difficult times in terms of dissolution. We go to pieces, fall apart, dissolve into tears, have a meltdown. Yet a drastic rearrangement of the self we once knew can help us achieve our fullest potential. In my experience this is always hard, and not something we choose. Other species undergo radical and involuntary self-improvement ordeals too.


At this time of year, monarch caterpillars make the leap from glorified maggot to graceful flying machine — a process which requires them to have a complete meltdown. Some caterpillars produce silken cocoons, but our monarch makes a chrysalis with a translucent membranous skin. Ensconced in its regal gold-flecked chamber, the stripey chub of a caterpillar releases enzymes that dissolve its entire body. For a time, that elegant chrysalis, which children love finding on milkweeds, is full of green caterpillar soup that would drain out if you poked a hole in the bottom.


As the caterpillar liquefies, most of its cells burst. It’s like hammering a Lego car to dust, which you then press into new blocks to create a Lego plane. A few cells, however, make it through the enzymatic blender. Analogous to stem cells, biologists have dubbed them “imaginal cells,” a wonderfully poetic term, as if the caterpillar had always imagined its future flying self.


In a sense, imaginal cells do foresee the future winged form, as they contain the butterfly blueprint, the DNA flying-machine instructions. As far as I can ascertain, no one understands quite how imaginal cells take pulverized Lego, as it were, and fashion new kinds of cells. It’s better than magic.


By the time the pupal chamber unzips and an adult monarch emerges to rub its bleary eyes and stretch its wings, not a drop of caterpillar soup remains. All of it was supped up to serve its new life as a butterfly. If said butterfly is a member of the fourth and last monarch generation of the summer, it might want a cup of coffee before its 4,800 kilometre trip south. In spring, several generations of monarchs ‘relay-race’ to get north, but the final brood flies to Mexico in one marathon shot.


Few of us will come through this pandemic without having been changed in ways we wouldn’t have chosen. In these challenging times, we all know (or may be) someone in meltdown. We need to be supportive and to take heart in the knowledge they (we) will come out stronger in some respect: a greater facility for compassion perhaps, a more fulfilling career path, or the realization that toxic relationships aren’t worth saving. These and other potential gifts of dissolution can be wings for us.


In comforting friends, best not to mention their misery will do them good. Invite them over for a bowl of soup as you ponder meltdowns and transformations.


Paul Hetzler is a former Cornell extension educator who embraces change if someone else goes first. He lives in Vals-des-Monts.