words by willow defebaugh
photograph by gareth mCconnell
Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an expansive look at the latest events in climate and culture—and how it all fits together.
“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” —Maya Angelou
Roughly 800,000 species of insects undergo complete metamorphosis in transforming from larva to adult form, equating to 80% of all insects and 70% of all known animal species. In order for a larva to transform, it must dissolve almost entirely to then be transformed by its own juices.
Consider the case of the caterpillar, which shares almost no physical traits with its final form, save for dormant “imaginal discs” that eventually become its wings and other body parts. These disks are suppressed by a hormone whose levels do not drop until the caterpillar has ingested enough food and has shed its skin multiple times, at which point it stops eating and moving. Another hormone surge and molting instructs the caterpillar’s cells to self-destruct, liquifying all of its muscles, fats, and tissues—everything but its vital organs and the imaginal discs within its newly-formed chrysalis. The liquified goo of the caterpillar fuels the growth of eyes, antenna, legs, genitalia, and wings from these disks. One final shedding, and a butterfly emerges.
If this sounds like a gruesome process, that’s because it is. And if it sounds familiar to you, it should. We are in the proverbial, primordial goo right now: the messy moors of metamorphosis, so common to the animal kingdom and yet so resisted by humankind. In the chrysalis of quarantine, we have become intimate with the unknown (does a caterpillar know what it is becoming?). At times we have felt our insides turn to mush. At others, we have hardened. And yet there is much more that the caterpillar’s transformation has to teach us.
The first lesson of metamorphosis is perhaps the most imperative: IT TAKES TIME. Most butterflies and moths stay within their cocoons for 5-21 days. In certain harsh climates, like deserts, some species may even wait for up to three years for the right conditions to emerge. Meanwhile, in America, some people cannot seem to handle more than three months—and the results are ravaging us. We have officially unflattened the curve, with new coronavirus cases at an all-time high. Cocoons do not only provide the conditions for transformation, they also protect what’s inside—and as top health officials are continuing to warn us, we have shed ours too soon.
If the first lesson is the most important, the second lesson of metamorphosis may be the most difficult to accept: ALMOST NOTHING IS SPARED. Imagine if the caterpillar talked of things “going back to normal.” Our “normal” was a system of oppression, overproduction, and pollution—and in order to dismantle that system, we need to liquify it. There is no getting rid of white supremacy and keeping toxic capitalism. There is no solving the climate crisis while continuing to shop only on Amazon. As author Sonya Renee Taylor pointed out in one of her recent talks, we don’t get to pick and choose which parts of a corrupt complex we get to keep.
The third and final lesson cannot be overlooked: THERE IS A BLUEPRINT. Like the caterpillar’s imaginal discs, our potential is imprinted in us. In the case of the United States, our problem was never our founding principles—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—but that we never actually embodied them. We defile life through police brutality and climate change, we deny equal liberties to Black and brown Americans, and we evade happiness in chasing highs. But as our country reforms in revolution and returns to purpose in protest, perhaps we will find that the DNA of a new nation is already within us. Perhaps we will find our wings.