I had no idea what milkweed looked like because I'd never seen it, but I'd always wanted it to grow in my yard so I could see the monarch butterflies.
For the longest time, I've hoped the patch of wonderfully fragrant plants with pale purple flowers growing at the intersection next to my yard would spread into mine. Once in a great while, one plant would start but never bloom, but this year, four planted themselves in my front yard, and three blossomed. One evening this past August while I was watering those and the wildflowers, I noticed the largest caterpillar I'd ever seen hanging onto the top leaf of that plant, a pale green one with dark rings. I wondered if it was perhaps a monarch caterpillar, but as far as I knew, I didn't have milkweed.
I looked it up, but I still wasn't sure. Two days later, it had turned into a pale-jade chrysalis that hung on the post of my new front railing. I mentioned it to my writer's group, and yes, those were milkweed, and yes, that was a monarch chrysalis. Twelve days later, it emerged as a butterfly.
More caterpillars, sometimes three munching on the same leaf, ate, and grew, and two of those made their way to my front porch. Another six found any one of the thousands of available spots in my woodsy front yard, and I didn't see them again.
One chrysalis dropped off its silk hitch, and the other hung tightly to its. That one was due to emerge ten to fourteen days later, but it waited until the nineteenth day. When the chrysalis turns from jade-green to the black of its wings, a process that takes about thirty hours, I check on it every hour during daylight, but I have yet to see the monarch butterfly actually emerge from its chrysalis. Thereafter, the new monarch hangs onto the chrysalis for another five to six hours, sometimes flinging itself back and forth, other times just barely opening its wings.
This last monarch emerged around nine a.m. on a rainy day. I looked out for about the tenth time in midafternoon, and it was gone. Then, I saw that it had flown just over the edge of the front stoop, and was struggling over the hose, balancing itself with its wings. It was aware that I was watching it, and seemed frightened by that, so I went back indoors. An hour later, it was still raining, and I went out to see how it was doing. It had gotten itself up on the stoop and over to fold itself tightly against a post where it was somewhat out of the rain. When I looked again an hour later, it must have felt it was now ready to fly for it was gone.
I have yet to see one take its first flight, but I hope that the single seedpod still left on the bedraggled milkweed will spread seeds through my front flower garden, and grow, and that I will see more monarch caterpillars, and that some of those will find their way to the front railing to hang their chrysalises.
For the ones I watched grow and leave, I don't know whether they were the third generation that will end up living for another two to six weeks, or the fourth generation that will make its way to Mexico. I wish all of them have safe travels.
I've never realized what a process it is to develop from a tiny caterpillar no thicker than a pin into a butterfly, or how much time each step of its metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly requires. They have no guides to point the way, no chances for do-overs, and yet they proceed, following the instinctual knowledge imprinted within them. Maybe I need to be more patient with myself whenever I attempt something new.
The photograph is of a newly emerged monarch butterfly, 9/2/19.
Bio: Brigitte Whiting lives in Maine, where she keeps bird feeders filled for the birds and squirrels, sets out a heated birdbath during the long winters, and sometimes finds stories in her yard. She has completed certificates in fiction and nonfiction writing, and is working toward her WVU Fiction MFA. She attends two local writers’ groups.
Her short stories, nonfiction narratives, poems, and the occasional photograph of her yard, have appeared in Village Square.