How much do you know about this whole “caterpillar into butterfly” process? I’m talking about what happens inside the cocoon, where we can’t watch. I walked into the bathroom one night last week to find a large and glorious Luna Moth on the wall. I’d been thinking all winter about something I heard at a Nields’ concert (years back before we could just google any wayward whim of curiosity), how inside the cocoon the caterpillar dissolves into amorphous goo before reassembling as a butterfly. I’ve clung to that image over the years – a comfort and a morbid fascination – but was it true?
Turns out – yes! At a certain stage of development, if you cut open the cocoon (or chrysalis, in the case of a butterfly), you’ll find nothing but goo. The butterfly isn’t a caterpillar who joined weight watchers and sprouted wings – it’s an entirely different sort of creature formed from the same cells. And even more fascinating (in my world at least) is the fact that in that goo are groups of cells called “imaginal discs” which contain the blueprints for the butterfly eyes, wings, antennae, etc. that sort of summon and organize the rest of the cells to manifest the butterfly. And, while we’re on the topic of cool butterfly words (this is the blog post where you find out what a total dork I really am), caterpillars molt and the stages are called “instars” – the Luna Moth, for instance, goes through five instars before holing up in its cocoon to dissolve itself with digestive enzymes. The caterpillars are really big on digestive enzymes because pretty much all they do is walk around and eat – and eating themselves is their last act as a caterpillar! Luna Moths, on the other hand, have no need of digestive enzymes at all – they only live a week and don’t eat that entire time – they don’t even have a mouth! They have 7 days to fly around and mate and lay eggs on the undersides of choice leaves, a few at a time (and then they leave a beautiful corpus!)
Monarch butterflies, on the other hand, DO have a digestive system. When they’re ready to emerge from their chrysalis they take big gulps of air in through tiny holes in the chrysalis, send it into their digestive tract (when horses do this they call it cribbing and it’s an awful habit, when people do it they’re usually trying for a really big burp – mea culpa.) The Monarch’s digestive tract expands and expands until their body gets so big it breaks free of the cage and voila’ – out comes a butterfly! (Which still has to sit around breathing and pumping its wings up with fluids for hours until it can actually fly anywhere – nothing like a little anti-climax to remind us to rest.)
Allow me to add one more fascinating factoid to the metaphorical stew I’m simmering in: the Luna, once it crosses the threshold into “mothness”, if it feels threatened inside its cocoon, will squirm about and “produce a noise”. As I crossed the two month mark without a blog post I got several loving nudges reminding me that I still exist and asking how things are going. For most of the winter I’ve felt (and acted) like the human form of protoplasmic goo – wallowing in my cocoon (and incredibly grateful to have one!) and digesting. Now it is May and the deep breaths seem to have worked their magic and I’m clinging here with nascent wings wondering what the imaginal discs have wrought and how to use them.
My point with all of the above is that I’m simply not the same person who rode out from the Apple Farm in Northern California in pouring rain on 10.October, 2011. I’m not even the same person who rode into Minot, Maine for the Mesannie Wilkins parade on 9.November, 2013. There is no way to do something as Crazy and soul-bending as spending two+ years crossing a country with a pair of beautiful, brave, opinionated, misfit, loyal, outlaw ponies, having conversations with thousands of people, bearing witness to the State of Our Nation, not via the TV and internet, but literally On The Ground, in the homes and farms and ranches and schools of America, the forests and mountains and deserts and drought, hearing about the struggles of my fellow citizens and being embraced and humbled by the most amazing compassion and hospitality and grace all along the way – there is No Way to experience such a thing and not be Changed. Deeply. The roots of the grass.
As the ride drew to a close I was warned by several Long Rider authors that I’d need time before I was ready to write the book. That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. When I was growing up Grandma wouldn’t let us go swimming right after eating a meal. (That wasn’t what I wanted to hear either!) Digestion takes time. I have greatly appreciated your patience over this past winter as I’ve taken the time to crawl into a cocoon and digest. Occasionally squirming and “producing a noise” when prodded, I’ve been mostly incommunicado since shortly after I arrived in Big Creek. If it’s any consolation it’s been right across the board. I can count the times I’ve voluntarily picked up the ‘phone to call somebody this year and not run out of fingers. (Most of those have been to Mom and Dad.) And now it’s May. Half a year gone by. Whew! Time to come out of the cave.
Which brings me back to writing – and the blog and the book and probably communication in general. I’ve been bumping into three interrelated issues. Courage, Finding “The” Story – and a Scarcity Mentality. By the latter I mean a worry over writing about something on the blog (or in an article for a magazine, perhaps) that I ought to be “saving” for the book. Which brings us back to: What is the book About, really? And, for that matter, what do I do with a Long Ride blog now that I’m not riding any more? These all dovetail into the deeper issue of Courage (and Good Manners, believe it or not) because I’ve been seriously stressing about losing readers by either offending or boring you! (And yes, I do recognize the idiocy of making Sure nobody reads me – by simply not writing anything.)
April was National Poetry Month. (Honestly I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean!?) What it meant in my world was that Orion Magazine, with their powerful spirit of generosity and bridge building, instigated a “poetry exchange” – offering to connect random pairs of poets via either e-mail or snail mail. I sent in my name and contact information and was given the name and address of a woman in Middletown, California. Of course I now had to write a poem and put it in an envelope and send it to a stranger. Which I did – in pencil on several pages of a yellow legal pad. That poem was my most recent post – and sure enough – I lost a follower! Ouch! Then, later the same day, somebody new found my blog and clicked on the “follow” button – which helped me to realize that it’ll all balance out (and I need to stop worrying about that end of things so much). The poem I received from California was a piece of art with pictures as well as words and real parsnip seeds on page two. I’m not much of an artist, but that poem encouraged me to up my game a bit and I’ll share the results with my next blog post.
A friend recently sent me a copy of On Writing Well by William Zinsser. The sentences that I’ve been chewing on for the last week are these: “Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep you going.” So – wish me Courage! While I continue to wrestle with the larger issue of “the book” I’m going to attempt to use the blog to perform an end run around the writer’s block. I’m going to remember that this is my blog – and use this space to explore and share what I’ve learned and who I’ve become since the Long Ride. I’m also going to use this space to hone my skills as a writer (and maybe even a photographer) – because all of those are ways of giving back. Beyond that I have no idea how the blog is going to evolve. I hope you’ll stick around for the adventure/experiment. More soon – meanwhile it’s time to go outside and play in the dirt for awhile.