“If you want a butterfly world, don’t step on the caterpillar…” ~Elisabet Sahtouris

In grade school, I learned that before a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, it becomes a chrysalis. This was presented as a dry fact. An answer for some future test. A dust mote of knowledge to put into the drawer in my head called “science.”

And then, about ten years ago, I learned what actually happens inside the chrysalis and I was invited to think about this as a metaphor for our times. Today, I need to remember how caterpillars become butterflies. I’ll tell you in my next post why I need to remember it, but for now, I’ll just share what I learned a decade ago.

Caterpillar-EatingWhen a butterfly’s egg hatches, the caterpillar it becomes consumes hundreds of times its body weight every day. Caterpillars are ravenous. This constant eating, growing, molting and pooping leads to a “crisis of overeating, fatigue and breakdown.”*  When that happens, the caterpillar suspends itself on a leaf or branch and the outside of its body hardens.

Inside the chrysalis, a war is waged between those bits that are trying to remain a caterpillar and those bits that seek to become a butterfly. As the “imaginal discs” within the caterpillar find each other and begin arranging a butterfly, the caterpillar’s immune system kills them. This happens repeatedly. Yet, the discs continue to join and create cells – over and over until the caterpillar’s immune system is worn out and what is left of the its body turns into a nutritious soup to feed the emergent butterfly.

I learned this from Elisabet Sahtouris, an evolutionary biologist. She has applied this knowledge as a metaphor for our time. Collectively, we are a caterpillar consuming hundreds of times our body weight daily – a way of life that is unsustainable. Within this body, however, parts of us are already looking to grow a butterfly. Imaginal discs are forming everywhere. Many of those have been, are being or will be smashed by an immune system that wants to preserve the old, unsustainable way. Despite the consequences, however, the butterfly bits keep looking for each other and banding together. The impetus to transform into a butterfly persists.

Top image: “Nymphalidae – Danaus plexippus Chrysalis-1” by Hectonichus