Story happens in my own backyard

By Regina Villiers.  Originally published September 10, 2003 in The Suburban Life, added September 14, 2017.

A newly-hatched Monarch butterfly readies himself for his first flight away from his over-turned incubator jar. He will fly all the way to Mexico this winter.

Two Monarch larvae feed on butterfly weed, the only plant they will eat except for milkweed.

Back at the beginning of summer when managing editor Gary Presley asked readers to write about “What I Did This Summer,” for possible publication, my imagination ran amok.  My upcoming summer was jammed with planned experiences.

But fate reared its unwelcome face and put me an unwell mode in early summer.  My doctor told me I’d be homebound for a while.  Not bedfast but homebound.  I wouldn’t be flying off to Rio, or even to downtown Madeira.

Nor would I be going to my writer’s conference, barely three weeks away, and always the highlight of my year.  But I’d be having so much pain, he said, that I wouldn’t even want to go.  Wrong, I told him.  I would want to go. And I would go.

I willed myself toward recovery by struggling out to my backyard.

My backyard is the place for me to be, whatever my mood.  It’s my refuge, my “Walden Pond.”  I’ve spent years planting it in “wildflowers” and attempting to turn it into a bird and butterfly sanctuary.

That morning as I walked past my lone clump of butterfly weed, something bright yellow, black and white caught my eye.  Even before bending to look at it, I knew what it was.  A fat, gorgeous Monarch butterfly larva.  And then I saw another one.  And another.  Altogether, a total of six within inches of each other on a clump of vegetation about 1 foot in diameter.

Temporarily forgetting my pains, which had been dominating my life, I ran to the house for my camera and some of my cache of butterfly and gardening books.  All morning, all day, I sat in the grass snapping pictures, reading, taking notes, and learning about Monarch butterflies.

I learned more than I ever thought I could know.  In between, I made calls to my nature-gifted, youngest son to share the experience and for his advice.

As the day sped on, I started to fret over these little marvels of nature like a mother hen, wanting them to survive and wanting to know exactly how they did it.  I made glass jar incubators (the book told me how) for two fat ones and took them inside, so that I could watch them develop and change in to beautiful Monarchs.  Four of them, I decided to leave outside to nature’s fates.  I would note and compare the progress of both.  I felt consumed by all my new knowledge, soaking it up like a Spongebob Squarepants.  I read the encyclopedia, and every book I had.  One thought, one reference, would lead to another.  The books gave conditions for survival and for stages of development, but I had no idea of the age of my caterpillars or what to expect.  I just watched and noted.

Three days after I found them, I walked past the jars and noticed one caterpillar looked sick.   Actually, he looked dead, and I started to mourn.  He hung upside down from a leaf, just dangling.  His color had changed, and he had shrunk.  Then a soft mass started forming at one end.  That afternoon, right before my eyes, I saw him change from a fat, hungry caterpillar to a pupa.  Then the pupa hardened to a pale green chrysalis.  Around its girdle was a line of tiny yellow dots that looked like a gleaming gold chain.

About 24 hours later, the other caterpillar went through the same amazing cycle.  Meanwhile, outside, the others got restless.  I’d go out and find them leaving their plant. I’d put them back.  Then I read that when they pupate, they hide their cases so well that they’re hardly ever found.  I realized they were ready to move on, that I should let go.  I never saw them again. I only hope they made it.

The two inside hatched 15 days later, early one morning and just in the nick of time.  I was to leave town in four days for my writer’s conference.

The hatching process, from their emergence to the hardening of their wigs and their signal to move out into the world, took about two hours.  A fascinating two hours.  I sat mesmerized, jotting notes and taking pictures.

The first flight of both was up to a dogwood tree.  One left in an hour. The other hung around for most of the day, taking short flights, then back to the tree.  The he, too, disappeared.  By now, I hope they’re headed south, on their long flight to Mexico to spend the winter, a long way from their glass jars on my refrigerator.  Next summer, I will look for some of their descendants in my yard.

Worlds of clichés exist out there about making lemonade if handed lemons and finding happiness wherever you are.  An old song sings about “a bird with feathers of blue is waiting for you, right in your own backyard.”

Right in my own backyard, I found caterpillars and watched them become Monarchs.  I did go to my writer’s conference, a test of survival, but I spent wonderful hours with good friends.  Then my kids came home for a great vacation.  But in an up-and-down summer, one of my best stories happened in my own backyard, helping me through a bump in the road.