Milkweed is an invasive plant, one that can grow to five feet tall and then releases its seeds in a snowstorm of burst pods in late summer. They proliferate and their roots grow deep. I know this because I used to pull them out every growing season, the milky white poison splattering and running down my arms, until I learned to look for Monarch butterfly eggs. The tiny pencil-tip sized pearl of an egg is laid on the underside of milkweed leaves, and nowhere else in the world.
Writing grows in me like milkweed; large and persistent, deeply rooted. I’ve learned to let it grow and blossom as much as I’ve learned to let the milkweed take over our flower bed. It is wild and it is beautiful, beckoning for the wondrous and singular Monarch butterfly.
Every summer I search my milkweed for Monarch eggs. When I find one, I carefully snip off the leaf and carry it inside to a big glass jar for safekeeping. After a few days, the egg will hatch an eyelash-sized caterpillar that embarks on a voracious eating expedition. It is so tiny that often I am unsure if there is anything in the jar, until I spot the poppy seed-sized “caterpillar droppings.” I keep adding fresh milkweed for several days until the caterpillar, now growing at an alarming rate, is quite visible and going through three or four milkweed leaves a day. Once these green, black and yellow striped creatures reach the length and girth of my pinky finger, I know that they will soon seek out the top of the jar and enter their next phase.
With woven silk, they attach themselves upside down and wait for their insides to transform. They then shake and wiggle until something amazing happens: their skin splits down their back and they slowly shrug it off, revealing an alien “pupae” that will smooth out into a jade pod with gold accents. Inside this jewelry-like chrysalis, it sleeps for about a week, shifting and changing, a goo of the stuff that is creation.
Late last year I blogged here about a story that I wrote many years ago, titled Word Stampede. At Christmastime I was editing, and shortly after proclaimed that I was preparing to submit it for publication to a magazine. Then, a friend from church, an editor, offered to take a look. We spent several weeks going back and forth, my story shifting and transforming into an entirely better version of itself. Before that process, it was really no more ready to go out into the world than a transforming caterpillar is ready to fly; had I sent it, it would have likely crashed and oozed as if I had tossed a chrysalis into the air.
Right now I have four jade and gold chrysalises in my jar. Soon, they will darken as the dye that paints the Monarch’s markings appears inside. Emergence is imminent. The newborn monarch will force its way out head-first and wait for its wrinkled wings to dry and smooth to a feathery magnificence.
Each season there are four generations of Monarchs; the first three generations live 2-6 weeks, long enough to create the next generation. The fourth generation lives up to 8 months, during which it migrates on a 2,500 mile journey to winter in Mexico, then migrates back. I’m not sure which generation I have slumbering in my jar, but I suspect second or third. It is these butterflies’ grandchildren that will migrate to Mexico this Autumn, then back again in the Spring.
I finally finished my story early this year. Conceived in 1995, dormant until 2010, busy transforming for one more season, I finally sent it off in May. Word Stampede has transformed completely since my first draft a decade and a half ago; it is nearly unrecognizable, as is the fluttering Monarch is from the 1/10 of an inch caterpillar. The final draft was always deep inside, waiting for metamorphosis.
It is always a magical experience to release a Monarch butterfly, to have it sit in my palm, seemingly unsure of what to make of the world, then to suddenly take off as if it has always known how to fly. Millions make the migratory journey, and many return to continue the cycle. I am patient, waiting for the seasons to pass, waiting to see if Word Stampede migrates back to me.