Friday, September 04, 2009

The light at the center of every cell

It's that time of the year, rather earlier here in Ireland than in New England.

The caterpillars are out and about. We see them on the road, in pinstripe suits or fur coats, making their way from one side of the road to the other. (Who is this creature with its long "snout" and phony eye-spots? Who is it trying to fool?) Looking for an appropriate place to pupate, I suppose, although why one side of the road is better than the other we'll never know. When they find the perfect spot -- a plant, a rock, the rail of a fence -- they'll attach themselves, build a chrysalis, and...and then happens one of the most amazing tricks in the world of nature. A many-legged caterpillar goes into the box -- a wave of the wand -- a butterfly or moth emerges. Somehow, the creature will manage to remake itself, rearranging its molecules, from earthbound devil to airborne angel. A crawling, insatiable leaf-eating machine is transformed into a winged, sex-obsessed nectar-sipper. Shape, color, internal organs, mode of transport -- all utterly changed. It's as if an elephant became a swan, or an armadillo became a parakeet.

I'm plagiarizing myself (from Natural Prayers), but it's worth repeating. Inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar dissolves into a kind of soup. Previously dormant adult cells begin to multiply. They take their nutrients from superseded larval cells. The caterpillar's six stumpy front feet are turned into the butterfly or moth's slender legs. Four wings develop, as do reproductive organs. Chewing mouth parts become adapted for sucking. The chrysalis breaks.

It's one thing to understand the biology, at least that part of it that we know something about: DNA, hormones, gene expression, and all that. But knowing the biology only makes the metamorphosis all the more breathtaking. Not magic, but what the poet Mary Oliver calls "the light at the center of every cell," permeating every atom of matter, soaking nature the way water soaks a sponge.

Now, in early September, the caterpillars are on the move, humping across the road in their headlong dash for who-knows-where, many-footed distillations of the Heraclitean fire that animates the world. We'll see them next summer, utterly transformed, with something besides chewing on their minds -- and gorgeous wings to help them find it.