When I was young,
I LOVED caterpillars. The fuzzy little guys were so cute and funny to watch, and they tickled my fingers when they walked over my hand. I loved to watch how they moved, how they ate and how they interacted with each other.
Fast forward a few decades.
I’m considered to be a grown up, albeit more chronologically than behaviorally at times. I have become a ‘tries-hard’ rather than ‘avid’ gardener, and have even begun growing some of our fresh veggies and berries that we enjoy in the summer. Caterpillars no longer seem so cute. Really, I find that I am no longer fond (at all) of the little buggers. Worse, I’m not particularly nice about them when I find them in my garden that I raised from seed. Tent caterpillars have been particularly bad this year and I continually find them in my strawberry plants and summer squash.
Flash back about eight years.
Our now ten year old twins were only two, and they were just starting to really identify with a few colors, items, words, etc. Our daughter fell deeply in love with the color Pink. I’ve never known any person so very pink. She was pink from her button nose to her tiny toes, and most of her wardrobe followed suit. If she veered away from pink, it was to purple, since she noticed that I had more purple in my wardrobe than any other color with the exception of black, and, eight years ago, there weren’t many black toddler clothes being produced for the West Coast.
Between the ages of two and four, Taylor often asked me why I didn’t wear pink. I would answer honestly that it wasn’t my favorite color, but I loved it on her and appreciated how much she loved it. I am not a girly-girl, and am more apt to wear earth tones or black than pink or even purple. To my little daughter, it made no sense. Pink was pretty. Pink was perfect. Around this time, the book Pinkalicious was released, and it furthered the defense of Pink, but suggested it was possible to over-do it.
By the time our kids turned four, Taylor no longer loved pink. When asked, she’d boldly proclaim that purple was her favorite color, and even suggest that it was far better than pink because it was her Mommy’s favorite color too. No amount of my coaxing her to keep pink as one of her favorites worked. I’d over-influenced her and in the process, helped her to lose a little piece of her identity.
Back to the caterpillars…
When the kids were five, we went to Kindergarten orientation at the elementary school near our home. On our way in, we noted a fuzzy caterpillar walking up the sidewalk alongside us. It was the first one I ever remember seeing with them. Taylor picked it up and let it walk over her hand while Hunter gently checked it out. I asked them to put it down so we could get inside and see their new school and we hustled off down the walk and into the building. About 15 minutes after sitting down among the other families in the cafeteria, Taylor started crying. Her hand and thigh were stinging badly. I took her to the bathroom to wash her hands and to check out her leg. She had huge welts forming over her left thigh right around the pocket of her shorts. She started crying harder and shoved her stinging hand into her pocket and pulled out the remains of her squashed fuzzy caterpillar. She didn’t mean to kill it. She thought it would be safe in her pocket until she got home where she and Fuzzy could live happily ever after.
Interesting fact about fuzzy caterpillars that we didn’t know before: Their hair follicles contain a toxin that can cause a severe allergic reaction or even death. http://www.wikihow.com/Treat-a-Caterpillar-Sting
Taylor was eventually fine and developed a healthy respect for giving caterpillars their distance, but her curiosity over insects only amplified. For Christmas that year, her brother bought her a butterfly habitat/kit for raising Painted Butterflies from caterpillars. We released the butterflies in the spring after witnessing their transformation. She kept the mesh enclosure and, wearing gloves, still puts fuzzy caterpillars she finds into the enclosure in the hopes of witnessing the transformation into moth or butterfly. With Tent Caterpillars making a record appearance this year, she had amassed quite a collection and was dedicated to their care, feeding and cleaning.
For the first week the caterpillars were appearing, I encouraged Taylor to catch them and put them in her habitat. She was so excited every time she caught another one, and I was so happy to have it out of my garden.
Four weeks into this infestation, I was ready to spray chemicals on all of my plants in the garden to try and salvage the crops. I suggested we all wear boots as they were better for stomping the fuzzies. I even made up a song about it.
I should have noted her reactions to my responses when I found caterpillars in my garden. I should have been more sympathetic when she quietly cried after discovering one of her pet caterpillars had died in the habitat. I should have been more in tune with her need to save them than with my need to grow foods we can buy at the produce stand. I am the grown-up. This is HER childhood.
This morning, Taylor was unusually quiet and laying on the couch instead of jumping into her morning routine of unloading the dishwasher and making her lunch for school. I asked her if everything was o.k. and she quietly said ‘Yup- just tired’.
After the kids left for school, I went out into the garden to water and check for unwanted creatures. I found none. Not anywhere. Not even in Taylor’s butterfly habitat. Without saying a word, she’d taken her habitat out to the street and let all of the caterpillars go.
I felt sick. Had I done it again? Had I killed off another piece of her still-forming identity? I know there are a million reasons to discourage kids from playing with bugs, but in the big scheme of things, who the hell am I to be such a brat about something she obviously felt passion over?
Zane and I got a late start on our walk today. By the time we completed our nearly 3 mile trek, Taylor’s butterfly habitat had more than 15 new Tent Caterpillars residing inside along with some freshly cut blueberry branches straight from my garden.