Caterpillars, Compost, and Natural Cycles

Recently our parsley patch hosted some black swallowtail caterpillars. At least two were observed over several days. A family member suggested that we remove them and display them in Jody’s first grade classroom. The expectation was that they would soon enter the chrysalis stage, and would subsequently emerge as adult butterflies.

Eastern Black Swallowtail Caterpillar

Not knowing the life cycle and not having the means of housing the caterpillars along with a supply of food, I decided to leave them be, hoping that I would be able to find and protect the chrysalis when the garden was put to bed for the winter. Just before daybreak the next day the scent of Pepe Le Pew filled the yard, as it has occasionally through the summer. An inspection of the parsley patch then revealed no sign of the caterpillars. Apparently they had become a meal for the skunk, although it’s also possible that a bird got them.

Skunks do what they need to do to survive, and the death of two caterpillars won’t necessarily doom the local swallowtail butterfly population. But the incident brought to mind a number of notions and recent exchanges about death, decay, and what will happen to these things in the coming restoration of all things.

I had been reading Michael Pollan’s Second Nature, which has a wonderful chapter on compost. Poet and friend Sandra Duguid Gerstman also shared with me an article in Christian Century that describes how Princeton Seminary students are learning to deal with the subjects of death, decay, and even the hope of resurrection by working on a farm. Finally, Andy Walsh and I had a discussion via Facebook and other electronic media some time ago about the place of such concepts as parasitism and the relationship between predator and prey in a restored creation.

This blog has included comments on that restored creation in several past posts. You can search for “restored” or “restoration” to find them. Recent family events have made us long for that restoration even more than in the past. My go-to passage for appreciating its significance is Romans 8: 18-25.

Meanwhile signs of decline and decay are all around as the cold months approach. Many of them, such as the falling leaves, are really signs that the natural world is preparing itself, as it was created to do, for the next step in the cycle of life. In due time Spring will come again. Green leaves will fill the trees. A black swallowtail butterfly will emerge from a chrysalis somewhere in the neighborhood and, we hope, lay some of its tiny blue eggs on our parsley. Life will continue. It will be a different life than this year, to be sure, but it will continue.

In late-breaking news, another caterpillar was spotted in the parsley patch. Many stalks have been completely stripped of leaves, but that’s OK. We have enough.

I wish you moments of reflection and appreciation as the seasons change, as the natural world appears to go to sleep. Thank you as always for stopping by.

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