Caterpillar Weirdness by Julia Brougham The Very Hungry Caterpillar, VHC, has been eating its way through an improbable menu and counting game with children since 1969. Compared with real caterpillars - shape shifting cryptic tricksters hiding their multiple personas in plain sight - VHC is as exciting as a used paper clip. Common Crow Caterpillar, CCC, is a jazzy black and white striped slinky spring, russet-orange and white dots for horizontal interest, eight sinuous black arabesques behind its shiny black button face to hook your attention if it hasn’t been grabbed by the sight of its tiny black boots tripping along in erratic syncopation. For a finale, CCC rearranges its soup of DNA inside a chrome-silver shining jewel chrysalis that turns darker and darker until it unzips slowly and drops an old silk veil to the ground, while black and white CCC butterfly stretches its crumpled wings. A cruisy, not in a hurry butterfly. Stick a camera centimetre from its face and CCC butterfly sits nonchalant on its twig. Large Orange Swallowtail Caterpillar, LOSC, takes shape shifting and trickstering seriously. Stage one, the half millimetre white pearl egg, splits open to stage two, a brown and white blob looking like a streak of bird poop. Three and four, the blobs are larger and larger versions with a surprise bonus - a pair of brown horns that jack-in-the box from its head and spread a big stink. Fifth stage of LOSC is a green dragon with bright red horns. In between each stage LOSC grinds, munches and rasps holes in citrus leaves, eating fit to burst. Its insides expand, stretch and reach the limit of its skin to spread then boof! like an over-blown balloon it splits. LOSC’s next persona looks like a different species. For its Big Sleep chrysalis LOSC slings a knobbly brown hammock under an umbrella leaf. The LOSC butterfly that wriggles out ten days later is a half-moon of black, swathed white across the middle, chains of red, orange and blue crescents frill the edge. Jalneus evagoras caterpillar, JEC, sings to deaf ants. The ants don’t know they are deaf and JEC songs are sweet airs but grunts, hisses or drums depending on which “different intersegmental regions of the caterpillar” scrape together. Science using drily exact words in the face of two screaming questions. Ants have no ears, so, how does that work? Vibration, pressure waves? Who knows – yet. Ants will butcher a fallen butterfly or caterpillar, eating it to death chunk by chunk. JEC avoids that by making sweet gifts for ants but doesn’t know it. Poke JEC and sugary drops with a smell other insect don’t like, pop out on its skin. Ants, deaf and with no sense of smell, hang around JEC, giving it pats or strokes and get a hit of sugar. The sweet drops are high in an amino acid being studied as a potential treatment for schizophrenia. Ant gets drug food, JEC is protected from other insects by fierce ants with big jaws. JEC and ants in a delicately balanced convenient association. Which side gets the most out of it? Ten years ago, I was one of three collaborators in a book Butterflies and Bushland. One designed the book. Another painted the gorgeous water colours and I researched the butterflies and the food plants their larvae (caterpillars) needed. We had grant funds for a two-hectare project on Ash Island to create a place that butterflies would use and where caterpillars were necessary and welcome. The book was the other half of the project. The three of us were, like most people, intrigued and entranced by butterflies. At first we thought about larvae as just transitions on the way to the flying butterfly? As if being a butterfly is a finale, the endpoint of some mysterious destiny. Butterfly, symbol of escape, lightness, dancing, beginning, purification, transcendence, freedom. Butterflies are flying colours. Colour from pigments held in the wings, conjured from light’s elemental natures of wave and photon, scattered, reflected, multiplied and bounced from the layer and lattice structure of butterfly wings to decorate our summers. All true, but those flying colours are in a hurry. They might have as little as one day, a week or two, of life in the sunshine to keep the business of finding mating partners, hiding their pearly eggs on the only plants the larvae can eat, and the cycle of weirdness rolling on.
About Julia: Born in Bunbury WA, lived for six years in South Africa, moved to South Australia and with husband John lived in the Far West, the mid-North, Eyre Peninsula and Adelaide. Since 2002 we have become forever Novocastrians. In childhood my fascination with native plants and animals was heavily influenced by a Dad who had an affinity with animals of all shapes and size, and a Grandfather who took us on bush outings at weekends. Love of the natural world and volunteering as a landcarer on Ash Island are ways of connecting with people who combine ecological knowledge with scientific rigour and impassioned care of our natural environment. Books and reading began early too. My reading habits are wayward and well supplied. We have shelves and cupboards full of books, sometimes in double rows. Becoming a member of Hunter Writers Centre has added to my book stacks as I became involved in the marvellous workshops leading me to new reading places like oriental poetry forms, modern American fiction, grammar and who knows where.
The words I write daily as the current coordinator of a landcare group are, whether necessary administration or a creative writing piece, an act of advocacy for care of nature. Now more than ever the environment needs advocates who can speak for it and do it well. To help this along I am hosting a new Meetup group "Nature Writing In Company" which will begin in August on Ash Island. Who knows where that will lead and who will find their voice.