And Now We Wait

My friend Annie planted fennel in her garden this year with hopes of attracting Eastern Black Swallowtails to lay their eggs there. Fennel is one of their many host plants (things that their caterpillars can eat when they hatch), along with carrots, celery, parsley, dill and others.

And sure enough, she got a bumper crop of swallowtail caterpillars on her fennel, and offered to let me take some of them to raise. I was hesitant at first because I had my hands full with monarchs and a few new moth species, but eventually I couldn’t resist any longer and accepted four of them in various stages of growth.

Here’s one of the smaller ones, with its white saddle of uric acid deposits that are thought to help protect them from harmful chemicals in the diet.

Black swallowtail caterpillar - early instar - w sig - blog

They look very different as they molt into larger instars, as shown here:

Black swallowtail caterpillar and molted skin w sig - blog

You can see the shed skin behind this one; he’ll turn around and eat that skin. Yum.

So we were off and running on this new adventure. I kept them supplied with celery, parsley, and dill, and they continued the work of eating, pooping, and molting. Caterpillars generate a lot of frass (poo) as they get larger, and it’s a challenge to do the daily cleanings of their container without disturbing them too much, but I make my best effort.

Black swallowtail caterpillar - middle instar - w sig - blog

Black swallowtail caterpillar on 9-3-18 w sig - blog

Finally, on September 10, one of them crawled up on a stick I’d provided and assumed the pre-pupa posture, hanging below the stick. I got excited and kept checking it throughout the day, but nothing happened other than a slight scrunching up, like a Slinky toy being pressed together.

Things started happening the next day though. This is how he looked at 3:30 in the afternoon:

Black swallowtail caterpillar beginning to pupate - w sig - blog

You can see he’s anchored the end of his abdomen to the stick and is spinning a loop of silk that will wrap around his upper body to support it. By 9:30 that night he’d completed his silk harness and looked like this:

Black swallowtail caterpillar chrysalis almost done - w sig - blog

In case you’re wondering, he didn’t change positions on the stick; I just took some of the photos from the other side.  I thought this stage was beautiful, with the subtle greens and browns, and the varying surface textures of the chrysalis.

And then the next day the chrysalis was in its final form, with gorgeous brown and white marbling.

Black swallowtail chrysalis - final form w sig - blog

The black swallowtail chrysalis can be green or brown, and all four of mine are brown like this one. I’ve read some suggestions that the color is determined by the surroundings, perhaps to blend in with foliage or something. But these guys were in a room with green walls, and they made brown chrysalises, so that theory doesn’t hold water in this case. Or I suppose it would be more likely that he’s brown because the stick is brown, in which case the theory holds. Ah, so many questions!

And now comes the big mystery: Will these guys emerge in a couple weeks, or will they stay in their chrysalises all winter long? I haven’t found any information that would tell me how to know what to expect, so my plan is to watch them closely for the next couple of weeks. I would love to see them emerge so I can release them before the weather gets too cold. But if they turn out to be the overwintering types, I’ll put them outside in a semi-sheltered spot and wait for the “big reveal” next spring. Either way, I’m looking forward to watching this amazing process unfold.

I was just talking to a friend today about the process of metamorphosis. It’s something we all learn as children. We grow up knowing that caterpillars turn into butterflies, but I’d guess that most of us don’t really and truly think about it too much. I know I never appreciated what an incredible thing it is, until I became intimately involved in their lives as I shared my home with them.

Since I’ve been raising butterflies over the past few years, I’ve had days where I just sit and watch them in utter amazement as I think about their lives. A butterfly lays a microscopic egg on a plant. The miniscule caterpillar hatches and begins feeding on the leaves. If she lives long enough, there comes a day when she turns into an unrecognizable mass of goo that hardens into a beautiful shell-like structure. Then, inside that structure her body somehow liquifies and gets reassembled into an animal with big, soft wings. My mind can’t even comprehend it, really, but it brings me so much joy every single time I see it happen.

I don’t like to use the word “miracle,” but sometimes I feel like that’s the word I need to describe a butterfly’s metamorphosis.

Black swallowtail female
Eastern black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)

Standing in a Cloud of Monarchs

On the weekend of September 8 and 9, we got lucky here on the Ohio shore of Lake Erie. I’d thought it was going to be a good weekend to hunker down indoors with coffee and a good book, and maybe even build the first fire of the season as a big storm dumped endless buckets of rain and whipped the lake into a frenzy.

I was so wrong!

Monarch on butterfly weed in my yard - blogOn Saturday afternoon I saw a few Facebook posts about big numbers of monarch butterflies roosting at places along the south shore of the lake.  I figured that they would move on before I could get over there, so I didn’t get too excited about it. And besides, I’d always heard that THE place to see the massive monarch migration was at Point Pelee, on the Canadian side of Lake Erie. I figured I’d get over there one of these years to see it; for some reason I didn’t feel any urgency about it.

But on Sunday morning I read on social media that there were tens of thousands of the iconic orange and black butterflies roosting at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge (ONWR), and that was all it took. The moment I read that I jumped in the car and began the 40-minute drive over there.

Monarch chrysalis ready to eclose - blog
Monarch in chrysalis ready to emerge

ONWR has a wildlife drive, a road that winds through the immense refuge allowing you to see more of it from your car than you can generally see from the hiking trails. They open it on weekends from spring to fall, with the route varying depending on conditions within the various marshes. It’s very popular with local birders, and I’ve driven it many times.

But on Sunday they had opened parts of the wildlife drive that I’d never been able to drive on before, the farthest northern parts, closest to the lake shore. Why? Because that’s where tens — or maybe hundreds — of thousands of monarch butterflies had been forced from the skies by the storm.  I was so awestruck by the sight that I didn’t take nearly enough photos, which I greatly regret.

monarch migration at ONWR (4)

This was one of the first clusters I found, and it was just a taste of what was to come as I got closer to the lake shore. I stopped periodically and got out in the wind and rain to take a few photos, but these photos don’t begin to convey what it was like to see this phenomenon in real life. A couple times I found myself driving verrrry slowly below massive clusters of butterflies with my jaw hanging open and tears forming in my eyes.

monarch migration at ONWR (13)At one point I stepped out of the car and was enveloped in a cloud of wind-tossed monarchs; I’ll never forget what that felt like. It reminded me of a time when I had a similar experience standing beneath an enormous flock of swallows as they swooped all around my head. It almost feels like time stops for a brief moment as you’re swept into the world of these amazing animals.

I took some video to try to give you a better idea of what it was like:

Here’s another one that I took just to show how they can hold on even in very strong winds:

I’ve always thought of butterfly wings as being so delicate and fragile, but they’re obviously stronger than they appear.

Most monarchs only live for a few weeks, but this last generation of the year will live until next spring. They’re on their way to Mexico, where they’ll hibernate for the winter before returning here to lay their eggs in the early spring. There will be three generations hatched next year, until the process repeats itself next fall.

I released a new monarch into my garden just last week, and he’s probably joined this massive migration already. It’s inspiring to think of these paper-winged insects flying thousands of miles, isn’t it?

Male monarch released in my garden on 9-7-18 - blog

This is the male monarch I raised and released last week. I’ve got three more in chrysalises yet to emerge, and I can’t wait to send them on their way to join the rest of their “family.”

Monarch chrysalises 9-11-18 - blog

Oh, and since I don’t have enough good photos of this amazing experience, I suggest you go see my friend Jackie’s photos on Facebook — here’s the link to that. She was there on the same day I was, and her photos will really blow your mind!

Lepidoptera Life Lessons

I’ve written here about raising monarch butterfly caterpillars in the past couple of years. It’s even more exciting now that I have my very own milkweed plants and can watch the butterflies laying eggs in my yard and then bring the eggs inside to raise. It’s very satisfying to take them from egg to caterpillar to adult butterfly and then release them back onto the same plant where their lives began only a few weeks earlier.

Recently I’ve begun trying to raise butterflies of the night (moths) as well. This wasn’t planned at all and I’m still learning on the fly, so to speak. It all began a couple weeks ago when a friend posted a photo of dozens of milkweed tussock moth caterpillars in her yard. I asked if I could take a few of them to raise and she was more than happy to oblige.

Milkweed tussock moth caterpillar 8-12-18
Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillar (Euchaetes egle)

I really only knew two basic facts about the moth life cycle: the metamorphosis of a moth takes place in a cocoon instead of the butterfly’s chrysalis, and they can stay in their cocoon for months rather than mere days. So when I arrived home with three fuzzy wuzzy caterpillars, I knew I had to quickly find out whatever I could about the needs of these guys so I could keep them alive.

It turns out there’s not a whole lot of information available about the life cycle of this species. Or at least I couldn’t find much. I wanted to know how many instars they would go through so I would be able to predict the time when they would form cocoons. I couldn’t find that information, so I resigned myself to just keeping a close watch on them.

I was thrilled to capture this video of one cat as he had just molted into a new instar one day. The black piece at the bottom of the screen is his discarded head capsule, and the fuzzy piece at the top is his old discarded “skin” that he has wriggled out of. I love seeing him writhing around getting used to his new larger body. It reminds me of how we stretch our arms and legs upon awakening in the morning to get the blood flowing. Or, in this case, the hemolymph (caterpillars don’t have blood). In this video, the action starts about 27 seconds in.

I kept them fed with fresh leaves of common milkweed each day, and then one day I could only find two caterpillars in my enclosure. Hmmm, that was weird. I’ve had monarch caterpillars escape their enclosure before, but I couldn’t see how these big fuzzy cats could have possibly gotten through the tiny slits in the lid of the new container. Just in case, I searched and searched around the room but couldn’t find the missing caterpillar. I wondered, could the others have eaten it?

I read somewhere that caterpillars will sometimes resort to cannibalism when they don’t have an adequate food supply. I’d fed them plenty of milkweed though. Just in case they didn’t like the common milkweed, I put two other kinds of milkweed in the enclosure. And the next day there was only ONE caterpillar! I think they must have been eating each other, although I can’t understand why.

So now I had only one caterpillar left and I was worried. Would he starve for some reason because he wouldn’t eat the plant food? And what if he was ready to make his cocoon but I hadn’t provided him with the right conditions? I’d put sticks inside in case they needed to crawl up and hang from them. I’d also tried putting a couple inches of soil in the bottom of the container in case he needed to burrow under, but after a few days I noticed mold growing on the soil, so that had to go. I was screwing this up and felt awful about it.

I finally made the decision to release the remaining caterpillar into my garden rather than keep him contained and maybe be responsible for his death too. It’s frustrating not knowing what happened, and I had hoped to be able to publish some information about raising this species to help other people who might want to do it. I guess this might at least serve as an example of what not to do.

Speyer's cucullia as of Aug 22 2018 (4)
Speyer’s cucullia moth caterpillar (Cucullia speyeri)

I’ve got some other moth caterpillars now, and I sure hope I get better results with these guys. About a week ago I was volunteering with our local metropark system, helping them remove large amounts of marestail (Conyza canadensis) from their native seed propagation field. While doing that work I found quite a few interesting caterpillars feeding on that invasive weedy plant (which also grows in my own yard, by the way). After asking permission, I brought one of them home, identified it as a Speyer’s cucullia moth (Cucullia speyeri), and began feeding it fresh marestail each day.

Yellow-striped armyworm moth caterpillar Aug 22 2018
Yellow-striped armyworm moth caterpillar (Spodoptera ornithogalli)

A few days later I went back to volunteer again and got a couple more of the same species, as well as a couple yellow-striped armyworm cats (Spodoptera ornithogalli) that were also feeding on the same plant. I thought I had four total, and then one day I found another tiny one in the enclosure. It’s so easy to overlook the smallest ones; he probably hitched a ride on one of the plants I brought in as food for the other guys.

And then I got another surprise yesterday as I was cleaning out the container, preparing to put in fresh marestail. This guy was also in there!

Cabbage Looper moth caterpillar v2
Cabbage Looper Moth caterpillar (Trichoplusia ni))

This is a cabbage looper moth caterpillar, the first of these I’ve ever seen. It’s easier to understand how I missed him because he’s so well camouflaged against the green vegetation.

I still worry that these guys won’t survive to make their cocoons though. And to be honest, someone in a mothing group online pointed out (rather snarkily) that the cabbage looper moth cats are considered agricultural pests and I shouldn’t be caring for this guy. Fair point, but I’m only going to raise this one as a self-education project; I’m not planning to raise hundreds of them. And with my moth track record so far, his chances of surviving with me are probably not much better than his chances if left outdoors.

Here’s one more thing I have to worry about while raising these guys…cat vs. cat!

That’s why I keep the caterpillars in their own room. I let Sam go in with me one day so he could satisfy his curiosity by sniffing around the enclosure, but quickly realized he could do some real damage by pawing at them. Out he went!

And just this morning, as I was finishing up this post, I got a text from a friend asking if I’d like some Polyphemus moth caterpillars to raise. Um, that would be a YES! Click that link to see what a beautiful Polyphemus moth looks like. These other moths I’m raising are mostly rather drab after they emerge, but a Polyphemus…now THAT will be exciting. And luckily those guys can eat maple leaves, which I have an endless supply of. That will make my life much easier as I try to keep them fed until they make their cocoons. Stay tuned!

Clarity

panorama-at-los-quetzales-lodge
Typical scenery in Costa Rica – gorgeous mountain views

Do you find that you go through phases in life where your interests change suddenly? I  do, and I’m moving into another one of those now. I think my recent trip to Costa Rica helped clarify things for me — traveling always helps to get my brain out of a rut. More about the trip below, but first a bit about those changing passions of life.

resplendent-quetzal-800x409
Resplendent Quetzal

I spent the first decade of this century immersed in the knitting world, spending hours each day creating sweaters, socks, and hats. I went to knitting conventions, took classes, and bought lots of yarn.  I loved it so much I started a knitting design business. I sold my patterns nationwide and had a blast doing the marketing and all the other facets of running a business. And then one day I just lost interest in it all.  I think it was because I’d made my hobby into my job, and that sucked the joy out of it.

boat-billed-heron-800x768
Boat-billed Herons

After the knitting phase, I developed an intense interest in birdwatching, and left my knitting needles to gather dust as I ran around the woods and meadows looking for new species to add to my growing bird list. I joined my local Audubon chapter, attended birding events, and made lots of nature-loving friends. And then I took a job in the birding world. And very quickly after that I discovered that my passion for birding was waning. (More confirmation that it’s often not a good idea to turn a hobby into a job.)

So as I mentioned, I just spent a week at a birding lodge in Costa Rica and was surprised to realize that my enthusiasm for finding new birds had evaporated. I’m sure part of the reason was that it was very humid and muddy, and as much as I like to tell myself that I’m okay with that, I’m not. (I hate to sweat so much that I’ve often wished I could do my workouts in the shower so the sweat would wash off immediately. You think I’m joking about that? Nope.) I think I’m suddenly at a point in my life where I’m no longer willing to traipse around on muddy mountain roads getting attacked by mosquitoes while trying to get a brief glimpse of a bird I won’t even remember in two months.

golden-olive-woodpecker-715x800
Golden-olive Woodpecker

It’s hard for me to believe I’ve just written that, actually, but I think it’s true. I still love birds, but I can’t see myself traveling internationally again for the sole purpose of adding new species to my list. I’d rather spend quality time with birds closer to home. Two years ago, when I went to Panama, I was totally geeked about the birds. But it’s different now. I just didn’t feel it on this trip.

Even when I stood on the balcony at the lodge watching dozens of hummingbirds swarming around a half dozen feeders, I couldn’t summon the interest to try and identify the various species. It’s not that I didn’t get enjoyment from sitting there watching them, but I had no desire to identify every one of them just in case it was a new name to add to a list. I was content to know the names of a half dozen species, and after that I didn’t really care. I know the hardcore birders out there will revoke my “real birder” badge now, but that’s okay. I willingly surrender it.

fiery-throated-hummingbird-with-red-showing-800x756
Fiery-throated Hummingbird
fiery-throated-hummingbird-and-lesser-violetears-800x398
One Fiery-throated Hummer and two Lesser Violetears

trio-of-brahma-cows-on-a-hillI do still enjoy trying to get a nice photo of a bird though, and that’s why I’m sharing a few in this post. But you’ll also notice some non-bird photos from this trip. I really loved those Brahma cows standing on the steep hillsides. Talk about picturesque…. (Here’s my Flickr album from the Costa Rica trip, with more pics being added in the next few days.)

Despite this waning passion for the sporting aspect of birding, I did have enthusiasm for some of the birds on this trip. Along with the beautiful Resplendent Quetzal and the Fiery-throated Hummingbird, I was hoping to see some more woodpecker species on this trip. There’s something about woodpeckers that I find irresistible. In fact, if given a choice to watch hummingbirds or woodies, I believe I would choose the woodpeckers. I’ve written a bit about woodpeckers here before.

Cinnamon Woodpecker male
Cinnamon Woodpecker (Panama)

Here at home we have quite a few beautiful species of woodpeckers: Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied, Red-headed, Pileated, Northern Flickers, and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. (Here’s a link to my Flickr photos of woodpeckers in Michigan and Ohio.) And when I was in Panama a couple  years ago, I saw the beautiful Cinnamon Woodpecker, the Crimson-crested, the Black-cheeked, Red-crowned,  and the Lineated Woodpecker.

In Costa Rica I saw a few more types, including the Golden-olive Woodpecker and my favorite, the Acorn Woodpecker. We stopped at a feeding station on one of our day trips, and as we walked toward it we saw a small group of Acorn Woodpeckers (aka clown-faced woodpeckers) fly up into the trees.  I didn’t  recall ever seeing woodpeckers in groups before, but I was so busy trying to get photos of them and all the other birds that day that I didn’t think too much about that interesting tidbit. So imagine my delight when I sorted my mail once I returned home and found that the new issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest has an article about Acorn Woodpeckers! (“The Clown-faced Woodpecker with an Obsession,” by Steve Shunk.)

acorn-woodpecker-800x559
Acorn Woodpecker (female)

In this article I learned some fascinating facts about these birds. They often live in small family groups consisting of a mated pair and their offspring from past years. Hmm, that could explain why there were so many together that day in Costa Rica. And in addition to the obvious acorns, which they prefer to eat when they’re fresh in the last summer and fall, these woodpeckers actually catch insects on the wing in much the same way as the typical flycatchers do.

I wish we’d had time to stay and watch them for a while longer, but that’s not how things work on these group birding trips, so it was back into the van and on to the next stop….

I’ve been feeling rather unsettled these past couple months. I thought it was mostly because I’d quit my job and wasn’t sure what I would do next. But writing this has helped me clarify what’s actually going on, and now I know that I’m moving into another stage of my life with exciting new interests. And leaving that job was what enabled me to get some much-needed distance from the intensity of the birding world. I’m sure birds will still be an important part of the way I connect with nature, but now I’m free to explore some of the other things I’ve been keeping on the back burner in recent years. I’m suddenly feeling quite optimistic and purposeful, and I think that’s a very good way to enter the new year.

Here’s hoping you have something to look forward to in 2017 as well.

cow-and-cattle-egret-800x533
Cattle Egret on a cow…match made in heaven, lol

 

 

 

 

Witness to First Flight

Monarch chrysalis on butterfly weed
Monarch chrysalis on butterfly weed

Today is the continuation of the story I began in my last post, about raising my first Monarch butterfly.  On the evening of August 18, I noticed that I could see the butterfly’s wings through the chrysalis, so I knew it would probably emerge, or eclose, in the next 24 hours. I woke up early the next morning ready to watch the big moment when the adult butterfly would break free of the pupal case and spread its wings.

Female Monarch ready to emerge - MY FIRST ONE (1024x683)
Monarch on the night before it would emerge. The wings are now visible inside!

As soon as I got out of bed I rushed straight to the kitchen table…where the monarch was already out of the chrysalis. I was disappointed that I’d apparently just missed the moment of emergence, but also thrilled to see a moist, fresh butterfly just stretching its wings for the very first time.

When they emerge from the chrysalis their wings are all crumpled up and they have to hang motionless for a while to pump blood through the veins to inflate the wings. You can actually see them slowly straightening over the first few minutes until finally the butterfly looks fully “inflated.”

I watched in awe for a while after that. Even though she wasn’t moving at all, I just couldn’t get over the transformation I’d witnessed. I’d watched her evolve from a little microscopic egg on a milkweed leaf to a tiny little caterpillar, and then to a larger and larger caterpillar. And then she hung upside down and shed her skin, exposing the exquisite jade green chrysalis. And eventually–through some magic of biology that I can only comprehend very vaguely–out popped a butterfly so beautiful that I was speechless.

Victoria just after emerging from chrysalis (932x1024)After about three hours she began to flutter her wings, and not long afterward she let go of the remains of the chrysalis and dropped to the bottom of the aquarium. I’d been concerned about having to release her into a rainy day, and was considering keeping her overnight to give her a better chance the next morning. But she was suddenly getting very active, fluttering around on the floor and trying to climb up the sides. I put a slice of watermelon down for her so she could feed if she needed to. I placed her on the watermelon but she crawled off of it and kept crawling around the edges of the aquarium trying to get out.

First time she spread her wings
On the floor of the aquarium — isn’t she gorgeous?!

I worried that she’d injure herself if I kept her in there much longer. I consulted with a friend who has much more experience with butterflies, and she advised me to go ahead and release her. And since it looked like we had a good break in between rain showers, I decided it would be okay to let her go.

Monarch newly emerged, ready for flight
Monarch preparing to take flight for the first time!

So I took her aquarium out on my patio and tried to figure out how I could get some photos of this big moment. I got a stem of butterfly weed from my garden and gently placed her on the flowers. Then I held the stem out with my left hand while trying to snap photos with my call phone as fast as I could, knowing that she could fly away at any moment.

As I stood there watching this delicate creature feel the wind for the very first time, I marveled at the idea that she was capable of flying all the way to Mexico on those paper-thin wings. After about two minutes I noticed her little head turn to the left and then to the right, as if she’d just noticed her surroundings. And a second or two after that she took flight! She flew about 15 feet straight up into the nearest tree.

Monarch after her first flight, in a tree beside my patio
Monarch after her first brief flight, to a tree beside my patio

And I stood there and wept like a baby. I was surprised at how emotional the moment was. I was exhilarated by the joy of watching her fly for the first time, but I was also sad to see her leave. I know her life will be full of danger, and it’s very possible that she might not survive the journey and make it back next spring. But I’d done all I could for her, keeping her safe from predators in her larval stage (the caterpillar, remember?), so I had to accept that nature would take its course at this point.

I watched her as she sat in the tree for probably 20 minutes or so. There was a fairly brisk breeze knocking her around up there, but she had a good grip and hung on through it all. Then I was distracted for a few minutes by a phone call, and when I turned back to look at her she was gone. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t see which way she went, because I might have felt compelled to chase her around like some sort of lunatic, reluctant to let her out of my sight. #MonarchMama

Monarch number 4 preparing for her first flight
Monarch number 4 preparing for her first flight, September 7, 2015

Since that day I’ve released four more monarchs into the beautiful blue skies of Ohio. And today I still have a few more chrysalises in my aquarium. (Yes, I know that the plural of chrysalis is really “chrysalides” but I find that word awkward so I just use “chrysalises.”) A couple of the big caterpillars have managed to escape the aquarium when they’re ready to pupate. I’ve spent some panicked moments searching my sunroom for missing caterpillars, only to find them hanging under the table or on the bottom edge of the aquarium. The first thing I do each morning and each evening when I return from work is do a head count to make sure nobody is running loose where I might step on them. I guess I should get a better lid on the aquarium, huh?

I’ll end with a couple more pictures from the past few weeks. I hope you enjoy learning this stuff as much as I do. And don’t forget to plant milkweed in your yard — it’s the only plant these beauties can eat.

Monarch caterpillar escapee, searching for a spot to pupate into chrysalis form
Monarch caterpillar escapee, searching for a spot to pupate into chrysalis form
Caterpillar in "hanging J" preparation for pupating into chrysalis form.
Caterpillar in “hanging J” preparation for pupating into chrysalis form.
A very fresh chrysalis. I only missed the transformation by moments!
A very fresh chrysalis. I only missed the transformation by moments!

Becoming

Monarch caterpillar on his hatch day! One-eighth of an inch long.
Monarch caterpillar on his hatch day! One-eighth of an inch long.

Did you miss me? I didn’t intend to be away from the blog for this long, but my big move to Ohio has been all-consuming for the past couple of months. I’m happy to say that I am settled in my new home now–more or less–and have already finished the first two weeks at my new job.

Although my house is all unpacked and functional, my brain hasn’t quite made the transition. I’m still struggling to adjust to my new environment. I had been referring to this move as a sort of homecoming, a return to the state where I grew up and lived most of my adult life before moving to Michigan 15 years ago. But my childhood “home” part of Ohio was in the southeastern part of the state, in the Appalachian foothills. My adult life was spent in Columbus. And the area of Michigan I lived in was highly-populated and also very hilly. Now I live in northwestern Ohio, smack dab in the middle of farm country, and I have to say that it is sort of freaking me out.

Monarch caterpillar - also in my kitchen
Same Monarch caterpillar getting bigger

I’m surprised at how much I feel almost like I’ve moved to another country, or at least thousands of miles away. I’m a “big city” person. But now I live in a small town surrounded by fields of corn and soybeans and lots (I mean lots) of freight train activity. It might sound silly to someone who has lived in this environment their whole life, but for me it’s so strange to hear train whistles in the middle of the night, and to have to stop for trains on a regular basis as I drive to work. For the first few days I thought it was sort of cool. But the novelty of it wore off fast on the first night I was kept awake by train whistles every thirty minutes. (One night I was up at 3 am using Google to read about why trains are allowed to blow those *#^! horns so much while people are sleeping.) But I’ve adapted to the trains now and only occasionally get woken up by them.

But aside from the trains, it’s hard not to dwell on what I’m missing, those conveniences of city life like choice in restaurants and shopping. I’m starting to accept that I’ll have to drive 45 minutes to Sandusky or Toledo for my favorite stores. Locally I have no choice other than WalMart. I’ll get used to it but this is a major adjustment for me. Maybe it sounds like whining but I don’t care. I’ve done more than my share of major life adjustments in the past year and it’s all been emotionally exhausting — my painful divorce, leaving my beautiful home on 2 acres of woods, losing both of my cats, and my kayak, not to mention leaving all of my Michigan friends and my favorite parks. And I’m not done yet. Now I’m going back to work after 15 years out of the work force. It makes me tired just thinking about all I’ve been through lately.

I don’t think anything other than my amazing new job could have convinced me to make yet another major transition at this point in my life. There’s so much that is “foreign” to me here, from the vast flatness of the land to the rural lifestyle. Almost daily I find myself having a moment where I feel a little bit panicked about whether I’ll be happy here. I just have to have confidence that those feelings will go away as I start finding my way around better and integrating into the community, but it’s very disconcerting at this point.

Fear and anxiety many times indicates that we are moving in a positive direction, out of the safe confines of our comfort zone, and in the direction of our true purpose.  ~Charles Glassman

I should mention that the pictures in this post are from my new adventure of raising Monarch butterflies in my home. (See, it’s not all doom and gloom, LOL.) I’ve learned a lot about the life cycle of these fascinating insects. I’ve learned to identify the various types of milkweed they need to survive. I’ve planted milkweed in my yard. I’ve watched them go from tiny little egg to tiny little caterpillar, to slightly bigger caterpillar, to big fat caterpillar, and then to chrysalis. I have an aquarium on my kitchen table that is home to two chrysalises and one tiny caterpillar right now. Later this week I expect that both of the Monarchs will emerge from their beautiful green pods and spread their fresh and untested wings for the first time.

Monarch chrysalis day 2
Monarch butterfly in its chrysalis — in my kitchen

I’ll take each one outside and release it into the sky. These butterflies, who were eggs just a couple weeks ago, will fly to Mexico for the winter. Nobody gives them a user manual or a map, they just have to figure it all out on their own. I wonder what it’s like to be a caterpillar, crawling around eating milkweed leaves one day, and then to wake up a few weeks later with wings. Can you imagine how cool that must be?

In a way, I can see my own journey as a metamorphosis too. The nine months I spent in my transitional apartment were my caterpillar stage, where I was focused on “feeding,” taking care of myself so I would have the strength for what was to come. My big move for this job has been the chrysalis stage, where major changes are taking place inside, hidden from view by anyone else but intensely felt by me.

What’s to come is the most exciting and amazing part of all, where the beautiful butterfly emerges with the courage and strength to go to unfamiliar places. That part is supposed to be the reward for all the hard work and sacrifice of the other stages. I can’t wait for that part! Stay tuned….