A few weeks ago – one of those glorious May days in which the weather and the sun and the wind is sitting just on the cusp of spring turning into summer…
One of those glorious May days, one of those unusual mornings where the schedules of breakfast, showers, dressing, toddler nap and a generally pleasant mood upon waking all occur as planned – or anyway as hoped! – and we are ready to walk Alistair the Chihuahua by 10:30 in the morning.
He’s ready too, straining expectantly against the harness, as my child, strapped in her stroller for a long walk through the park and around the pond, chatters to herself contented. I love the sound of those young words spilling off a tongue building its dexterity, voicing endless observations about the wonder of the world.
We opened the garage door and walked out, spirits buoyed by the wind and sun and greenness blooming all around. Looking down to remove the parking brake on the stroller we see a fat brownish caterpillar rolling around in an unusual flopping way. “Look Squiggles,” I say. She does. As it flops I think, “It’s dying.” And then I wonder why is it flopping that way?
Squatting down I see a silver thread trailing from its tiny head – a bit of spider web, just broken lose. Looking up, I see the other remnants of the web now hang from the bottom of the garage door caught in the wind. Someone had been hunting this morning, when we came along and opened the garage door disrupting the trap.
The caterpillar is flopping terrified, it clearly has not yet been injected with venom. I wonder why it doesn’t crawl away and start to become concerned that perhaps I should move it – so as to not step on it or roll over it when we return from our walk. Gently I pick it up and lay it in the palm of my hand, I talk to it telling it not to worry – I talk to just about everything, even myself, I’ve started to see this trait developing in Siggy too. At first when I pick up the caterpillar it begins to struggle ever more frantically, but as I walk to a grassy shady spot where I plan to put it down in the grass, I think to bring my palm closer to my face so that I can look at it more closely. In that moment it stops struggling and lifts what is anatomically the equivalence of its face to look up into my face …
A few years ago I heard an interview conducted by Krista Tippet of On Being (although at that time the show was called Speaking of Faith) in which she was speaking to a Quaker zoologist who studied elephants. The zoologist recounted the amazing rituals elephants have in remembering and honoring their dead, the graveyards of bones of their matriarchs they revisit, the mourning wails that begin anew when a recording of an old grandmother, dead for a decade or more, is played for her surviving daughter and granddaughters. This zoologist reflected on the mystery of these rituals and that human beings are not the only animals who have meaning-making rituals, and perhaps myths, visions of Gods, ideas about salvation…
The caterpillar’s face looked up into my face, I could see now as it became still that it was searching to look at me, to see as best as a caterpillar might see what huge creature now held it – a massive being much larger than a spider. Was this strange looking mammoth friend or foe – I wonder now if this little one thought it was staring into the face of its death or do caterpillars have some concept of love or benevolence or mercy? In it’s stillness was there some small moment of hope for deliverance – a sort of shadowy understanding that mercy and good-will do exist, just as the genetic-evolutionary promise of transformation/escape/rebirth that defines its life exists, compelling it to eat and morph into a new winged being?
I could see that the caterpillar could not see me very well, the sun glinted on that silver string of spider web, a dawning understanding came over me that this silver thread was connected to a subtle but horrific mask covering its face – I suppose the spider had been starting to wrap up it’s catch when we by some rare chance went out for our walk – earlier than usual that morning – opening the door just at the last moment the caterpillar would be able to still wiggle away from a broken web. Is it indulgent to see this mundane thing as mystery? Yeah, probably.
I very gently pulled the silver string and the translucent sticky mask popped off of a little face still looking up at me as if I was a mythical God come to life, a terrifying enormous angel visiting miraculously at that moment of great need.
I felt giddy setting the captive free into the blades of spring-green grass. I thought this must be in a small way what it feels like to be a God, to have the power to restore life just from treating something smaller than yourself with attention and care and gentleness.
And I smiled wondering what meaning-making rituals caterpillars might have, what stories they might whisper to each other in passing – the being came to me as I struggled to escape my enemy, it was huge and terrifying and I shook with fear, but it spoke gently to me proclaiming, “Fear not! Do not be afraid! I bring you news of great joy!”
Then we went for our walk.