Of butterflies and caterpillars…

25 Dec

It is December in South Africa. It is hot, with incredibly blue skies and long sunny days. Every now and again a violent thunderstorm occurs. With summer comes the teeming of life in our garden. At this moment we have a garden full of orange and black butterflies (Acraea Horta). These butterflies feast on the leaves of the Wild Peach tree. They are not individually spectacular, but when they flit in and out trees and shrubs en masse, or sit on every available flower, it is a wondrous, truly African experience.

The Wild Peach tree (Kiggelaria Africana) is a very ordinary tree-like shrub that hosts the caterpillars of the Acraea Horta butterfly. By the end of December the tree is usually stripped of every leaf by the Acraea Horta caterpillars. The pupae of the butterflies attach to any rough surface, especially in nooks and corners. There are birds, notably the summer-visiting Diederik Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx caprius), that feast on the butterflies. In our family we call the Diederik Cuckoo Great-grandmother’s bird, because my mother used to say that this bird announces that Christmas is near. My next door neighbour secretly wishes that the tree would die, because it offends his neat soul to see the pupae all over the walls of his house. Yet, it is but a short time before the butterflies, caterpillars and pupae have all departed from our walls and our gardens.

When my children were small they used to watch the pupae and the emerging butterflies. Many times they tried to help a struggling butterfly come out of its shell. They were always sorrowful to see that the butterflies they tried to assist, emerged with broken or misshapen wings. Fit only as food for the birds…

I started out writing this blog with the sole intention of sharing my early morning experience in nature with all of you. However, it is almost impossible not to see the analogy to raising children. Luckily our children are humans, with the incredible ability to learn from experience – particularly from difficult experiences and mistakes. There is a lesson we can learn from the Acraea Horta: If we as parents interfere in the developmental process, we take away the opportunity to learn from experience. The butterfly cannot learn from experience, it only has the ability to hide amongst a crowd. We can learn from experience. This learning, overcoming of problems and adapting to new circumstances are what help us to adjust and to become strong and resilient. To survive we need to be resourceful; we need to look at life as a wonderful adventure; and we need to see the world as a place to explore and learn. The butterflies do not have these remarkable options. Their strength is in the sheer number of butterflies: to ensure survival, they have to be so abundant that the birds will simply overlook some of them.

In December we traditionally take stock of our lives. For most of us, all over the world, 2011 has been a difficult year. Many of us had to face financial difficulties. Some had to lower their expectations for themselves and their families. But, because we are human, we can get up in the morning and look at the world and expect a better 2012.

The inexorable clock of nature dictates that life will go on. The metamorphosis of the Acreaea Horta will once again take place in 2012. Metamorphosis is in itself such an elegant metaphor for one of the fundamental truths of life, namely nothing is constant except change. My wish to all our readers in 2012 is to keep changing by learning and growing through life’s opportunities and challenges.


6 Responses to “Of butterflies and caterpillars…”

  1. Mari Cajada January 2, 2012 at 10:22 am #

    It is also very interesting to note that the Wild peach tree grows better after being stripped bare by the caterpillars. A friend of mine told me that she had two of these trees in her newly planted garden a couple of years ago. She was horrified to find all these caterpillars on her small trees. Not knowing better she started removing these caterpillars by hand from the one tree (she did not want to use poison). Because this was such a tedious process she never got around to the second tree.

    She was so surprised to see that the tree she “rescued” didn’t grow even half as much in the following season as the one left to be eaten by the caterpillars. Sometimes in our attempts to make things easier on our children or ourselves we miss out on the most growth.

    • elsie January 2, 2012 at 11:16 am #

      How true. It is often years after our “kind” intervention that we find out it was not such a good idea. I heard a heartbreaking story of a mother who forced her learning disabled son to stop his university studies because she felt sorry for him that he had to work so hard. Now, many years after he listened to her he is still in limbo, doing a work that is no challenge to him. If there is one thing I have learned it is that if we give a child or young person time and space, they often find a solution on their own. Most of the times a better one than the one we would have given!

  2. Elzana December 27, 2011 at 1:47 am #

    Thank Elsie, speaking of challenges, I am leaving Bana’s safe environment to teach English First Language to a Gr. 1 class who speaks it as a third language. A lot of learning and growing to look forward to.

    • elsie December 31, 2011 at 7:48 am #

      Challenges is a way of keeping yourself vibrantly alive. I know you will be one fantastic Grade 1 teacher and I look out for your comments and insights. May 2012 be a wonderful year for all of us,

  3. elmahrie gouws December 26, 2011 at 1:17 am #

    Dr Elsie, what a beautiful and o so true analogy! I have grown so much
    this year by just letting my pupils teach me! May our classrooms always be a place where flutterbies become butterflies. Kind regards Elmahrie Gouws

    • elsie December 31, 2011 at 7:52 am #

      Like you, I learn so much from people like you but also from the children in our care. How wise we will be if we just listened and observe. So many teachers (and parents) do not know that children have wisdom beyond their years because they look at the world with unfiltered eyes. May your new year, with all the challenges be a wonderful year of growth!

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