Monday, November 03, 2014

caterpillar wrangler

I have not posted the past couple of weeks because I have a new obsession, and I think you all are going to be as fascinated by it as I am. My new obsession is caterpillars. Specifically, monarch butterfly caterpillars.

I've been into the Monarch migration for a long time, and I'm extra immersed in the Monarchs this year. The Monarch migration is on right now, and if you follow me at all, you know I did a paper cut Monarch butterfly installation in the window of Marion and Rose's Workshop a month ago.  I've been fixated on translating the peculiar overwintering habits of Monarchs into art for years. The overwintering habitat is an art installation in itself, and trying to express it in art has been an ongoing challenge for me. Butterflies have a certain quality that can be read superficially as merely decorative, the most extreme feminine side of nature. When I see butterflies used in art or craft, it often comes off as cute, pretty. It's rare to fine interesting art created with butterflies. It's a problem that I perhaps created in my own mind, and have been trying to puzzle out for years.

Recently, I was visiting a popular destination for overwintering West Coast Monarchs at Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz. I've visited many times, especially back when I actually lived about 5 minutes away. For the first time, I went into the educational center there, and as I was looking at different breeds of milkweed flower (the ONLY food Monarch caterpillars eat), shitty t-shirts and baseball caps with Monarchs on them (I get that people buy this stuff and the money goes to supporting Monarch habitat and education, but could someone please create something that is actually wearable?) and little books and pamphlets on Monarchs, I was drawn to a live milkweed plant that was in the Center, and to my surprise, I saw a live Monarch chrysalis hanging on branch, along with a live caterpillar.

The feeling I had in that moment was both a feeling of recognition-- I knew immediately what I was looking at-- along with shock at how beautiful it was. The Monarch chrysalis looks like plastic. It's smooth, with a sheen that you don't often see in nature. And the most amazing part is that it HAS GOLD ON IT. A line of golden beads, and then flecks of gold around the base, just to totally blow your mind.

After that visit, it took a couple of days to sink in, but one day as I was walking to my studio, I realized that the milkweed plants that are scattered all over my neighborhood-- thanks to one neighbor on our street who planted a butterfly friendly native habitat in their front yard-- may have some Monarch caterpillars on them.

Let's just say that my morning was hijacked by caterpillar collecting, and I now have a full indoor habitat for Monarch caterpillars. I am currently hosting 15 caterpillars in various stages of development, from just hatched babies to big fatties ready to pupate to chrysalis pods that will be hatching butterflies in a few days. I hunt them everyday on my block and it's rare that I don't find at least one.

You may ask why I have this going on in my house. Because I can. It's safe and easy to raise butterflies indoors. Going from a caterpillar to a butterfly is a dangerous and tenuous business, and in an urban environment like mine with lots of predators raising them inside can help with their survival rate. I'm doing my part to make sure the butterflies survive. Mind you, I can't be bothered with a human baby or anything. But the butterflies, I can get behind that.

Watching the caterpillars go about their daily business is better than any TV or facebook feed. I find myself standing around in the kitchen, just watching them for 20 straight minutes. There are times when they all seem to be sleeping, and other times when they are all eating. Keeping them supplied with fresh milkweed leaves is a twice a day chore, it's like trying to supply a Roman banquet.

If you want to keep up with my 'pillars, I've been posting images on Twitter with the hash tag #MonarchCircus. If you live in coastal California,  you may want to think about looking around your own neighborhood for caterpillars and hosting a few of your own. Just don't go on vacation without hiring someone to bring them daily batches of fresh milkweed.