Milkweed Butterflies by Mary Lu Perham

Pleasant Valley Township, where I spent my childhood, produced tremendous crops of milkweeds, which loved the sandy loam soil. From springtime on, pastures and ditches were dotted with their soft, downy leaves and purple crowns. On a hot day, a blindfolded person would know the flowers by their musky, unpleasant smell. I’d break off a leaf or stem, and watch a sticky milky substance bubble up from the wound. I avoided getting it on my hands because that bitter smelling white stuff stuck to skin like glue.

The curious shape of the seedpods fascinated me. They looked like medieval shoes, with their pointed toes turned up. The pods, soft and springy when I squeezed them, were stuffed with bundles of white silky filaments. These filaments were attached to hundreds of flat brown seeds that overlapped one another like fish scales.

One day while touching the fuzzy leaves of a milkweed plant, I spotted a long fat worm with yellow, white and black stripes crawling under a leaf, an inch from my finger. I cringed. What was this ugly thing chewing away at the leaves? Learning it was merely a caterpillar that would become a monarch butterfly didn’t remove my fear of touching it. From then on, around milkweeds I kept my hands to myself.

Eventually the leaf-eating worm became a jade green chrysalis hanging suspended from the underside of a leaf. I wasn’t lucky enough to be on hand when the monarch butterfly finally emerged from its protective casing. The caterpillar-to-butterfly cycle went around three or four times during the course of the summer. In the fall, with the reproduction cycle complete, the last crop of butterflies departed for their winter in Mexico. I was free to collect seedpods, pop those that were still unopened, releasing hundreds of white filament parachutes. The oldest pods had already dried and split, emptying their seeds naturally, leaving the two halves dangling from their stems like pendants.

As the town dweller I later became, I recalled those childhood wanderings through the countryside. Reflecting on my appreciation for the milkweed plant, from the first fuzzy shoots popping out of the ground until it stood brown and dry when its life was over, I wondered why I feared the monarch caterpillar in the full bloom of its youth. There had seemed to be something foreign and dangerous about that creature with the vibrant color and rippling movements, even though I knew it to be nothing more than a butterfly in costume.

Today, as one who has lived too long away from wild things, I wonder how it would be to once again run my hand over the fuzzy leaves of a milkweed plant, only to discover a monarch caterpillar resting near my finger. Advancing years and varied experience bring to us the gift of a greater appreciation for diversity, if we are willing to accept it. I would like to think I could now view the caterpillar with the eye an artist, recognizing the soul of a butterfly within its multi-colored skin. I would like to think I could bend down to see it more closely, to know it as another of the beautiful creatures of the land.

Perhaps it’s time to leave behind my familiar and comfortable, yet constrained life, to roam the fields of my youth and find the milkweed plant. If I’m lucky, a fat striped worm will be sitting on a leaf, eating lunch. I’ll sit down, make my peace with this quiet little creature.

Mary Lu Perham has worked as a security officer, welder, carpenter, horse-drawn carriage driver, has taught university classes and coordinated programs for non-profit organizations. Now retired, her writing draws upon past experiences and her enthusiasm for exploring possibilities.

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