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Magic Moments at the End of Summer

by Julia Sneden

For my family (and I suspect for many others), summers end seems to be fraught with ambivalent feelings about the seasonal changes. We say a lingering, regretful farewell to quiet days, but because we are a family of teachers, we also feel a surge of energy and excitement in anticipation of the new school term. We swelter in the dog days, but then a hint of cooler weather brings the first stirrings of anxiety over what winter will bring. We say sad farewells to visiting family members, but as soon as they are out the door, we begin looking forward to the holiday visits that are not too far away. Its not exactly a sad time, this folding in of summers story, but any change is unsettling, and change is definitely in the air.
       There are a number of small ceremonies we perform as we see summer out. We put away hot weather clothing and dig out sweaters. We fold up the light blankets for storage, and hang the quilts out to air. After a summer of serving simple salads, we try to recall recipes for warm and warming suppers. We clean and put away the lawn mower, and pull up plants that have already shriveled in the garden
       These little observances are fairly universal, but most of us also have a few small, idiosyncratic gestures to mark the end of summer. One of my children, for instance, always jumped back into the lake at the end of his last vacation swim, and took one small pebble from the bottom to carry home for remembrance, his souvenir of the trail, we called it. 
       My own favorite activity to mark summers end is one that I discovered during my years as a classroom teacher: finding the caterpillars of Monarch butterflies, bringing them indoors to observe their metamorphoses, and seeing them off on their annual trip south to Mexico for the winter. Its not an expensive or complicated enterprise. Anyone who can identify milkweed growing in a nearby field will probably be able to find Monarch caterpillars in late August or early September. All you need is a jar of  water, a pair of scissors, and a bit of patience. This is a great activity to share with your favorite child, but its also a rewarding experience if the only person involved in it is yourself. 
       The butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed, because after they hatch, milkweed is the only food the caterpillars will eat. The caterpillars are striped yellow, white and black, and can be as small as a quarter-inch piece of thin string. They will quickly grow to more than two inches long and a quarter inch wide. 
       Once youve located a monarch caterpillar (large or small) on a leaf, cut the stem of the milkweed down low, so that you have a stalk with many leaves (and the caterpillar on one of them). Be sure to plunge the cut end into water at once, or it will seal off. If youve forgotten to bring a jar with water, re-cut the stem at home and put it into water at once. You may be able to keep the leaves green that way (but its not a sure thing). The caterpillar holds on very stoutly, so you dont have to worry about its falling off, but be careful not to brush it against anything.
       At home, set the jar on a newspaper (to catch droppings) and then just watch the critter grow. Dont worry; it wont leave the plant until it is ready to form its chrysalis. (A word of warning: if you find a similar caterpillar on something other than milkweed, it is not a monarch. The caterpillar of the swallowtail butterfly, for example, is similarly striped, only with green instead of yellow. It will definitely crawl off its plant if you put it indoors).
       The caterpillar will be voracious, so be sure you know where to find more milkweed. If it eats all the leaves, find another stalk of milkweed, and transfer the caterpillar to it by cutting off the leaf it is eating, and placing the cut leaf on top of a leaf on the new stem, pinning it with a straight pin (careful: dont touch Mr. Caterpillar!) 
       Dont worry if the creature fasts for a day or two at a time, because when it grows too big for its skin, it stops eating and sheds, and may shed its skin two or three times before it goes into its chrysalis. In my classroom, we used a magnifying glass to look at the shriveled skin that had dropped onto the newspaper, and likened it to the sweaters that children sometimes toss aside when they come indoors. 
       When the caterpillar is about two or two and a half inches long, it will start to wander. At this point, you must cage it or youll lose it. I make a cage out of a box with sides cut out and screened with plastic screening, and then I place the jar, milkweed and all, inside. It would be wise to put the box over it at night after the critter gets really big, even if it hasnt started to wander, because it will keep on eating no matter what the hour, and you dont want it to wander off while youre asleep.
       Once it starts to wander, the caterpillar will crawl to the top of the cage (or possibly up to the upper end of the stem of milkweed), hang itself upside down in a J shape, and shed its skin. The chrysalis will be lumpy at first, but very quickly it will become a thing of wonder, smooth, lantern-shaped, and jade green, with glittering gold dots on it. In about 12 days, its surface will suddenly become clear, and youll be able to see the butterfly wadded up inside. When this happens, keep close watch birth is imminent. When the butterfly emerges, it is damp and crumpled, and will hang upside down for quite awhile, gradually pumping its wings until they are strong and sleek. 
 Once the wings are spread out, you will be able to tell whether the butterfly is male or female by the presence of two black dots or swellings on two of the lines on the lower part of the wings. Do not rush to let the butterfly go. It can stay safely in its cage for at least twenty-four hours without food, and will need time to gather strength in its wings. When you are ready to let it go, take the cage outside, open it, and put your finger gently under the butterflys feet. It will probably hop onto your finger. If you are patient and hold your hand up, the butterfly will take off, circling to get its bearings, and sail away, usually to the south toward the warmth of the sun as it starts off for its winter home in Mexico. This ritual setting-free is, for me, a quintessential magic moment, and my own quiet farewell to summer.
        If you are enjoying this process with a child, here are some books that you may find in the childrens section of your local library, to help you explain and follow along as the monarch does its thing.

  • Monarch Butterfly by Bill Ivy; part of the Getting to Know Nature's   Children series; Grolier Educational Corporation.
  • Gotta Go! Gotta Go! by Sam Swope; Farrar, Straus & Giroux 
  • Discovering Butterflies by Douglas Florian; Chas. Scribner & Sons, NY
  • The Travels of Monarch X  by Ross E. Hutchins; Rand McNally & Co.
  • Monarch Butterfly by Gail Gibbons; Holiday House
  • Monarch Butterflies Mysterious Travelers; Dutton Childrens Books


Some sites relating to the endangerment of the Monarch:
 World Wildlife Federation (Canadian branch)
 Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary Foundation
 Monarch Migration
The Ardent Collector (Vladimir Nabokov)

 

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