Friday, August 13, 2010


These little guys devoured my fennel plant down to a nub. Truth be told, I bought the fennel accidentally – I was in a fluster and grabbed it thinking it was dill. When I got it home and realized my mistake I wondered what I would even use the fennel for.

Still, a pest is a pest and has to go.

The first time I tried to pick one of these off the fennel, though, it shot out a long yellow antennae-like thing from behind its head and tried to fight me off. I’m sure the neighbors appreciated my scream.

This made it even worse. Instead of just a funky, harmless caterpillar, this thing became something to fear. The yellow thing was obviously a weapon of some sort -- what if it could sting?

I then enlisted Todd, who, using some chopsticks he found in the kitchen drawer, picked them off the plant and dropped them onto a nearby bush.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until after we did this that I was talking to a friend and, sitting there, she typed the description into Google. Duh. Why hadn’t I thought of that?

Turns out these funky looking things that we’d judged to be pests are the caterpillar of the Eastern Swallowtail butterfly. That weird yellow thing is called an osmeterium. It releases a bad smell that’s meant to run off predators. But it doesn’t sting. And it’s harmless to people.

The caterpillars like to feed on fennel, dill and parsley. Apparently fennel is their favorite, since they left my parsley untouched.

We’d already spotted several of the butterflies around the yard. It's hard to tell from the photo, but this guy was at least 6 or 7 inches across. Spectacular. When we saw them, we’d stop what we were doing just to watch and to appreciate how incredible they were.

Once I realized what we’d done by picking them off their food source and tossing them away, I felt sick to my stomach. And sad. Regret is the worst feeling of all, I think. Had I known what they were, I would have nurtured and encouraged the caterpillars – and seen them as the gift they were. But in my ignorance, I judged wrong, and maybe even killed the little guys. Because I acted out of fear and ignorance, I cost the world – and myself – something truly wondrous.

It never even occurred to me that they were something special.

I try so hard not to make prejudgments, particularly about people – and I think I do pretty well at not judging based on the BIG things – skin color, religion, sexual preference. But this made me wonder how often I make erroneous judgments based on smaller details without even realizing what I’m doing.

We have a temp at work -- a pretty, intelligent young woman who does a great job. But she walks around with a sour expression on her face much of the time and rarely meets anyone’s eyes. After seeing her expression day in and day out, I began to think of her as just a surly person, not friendly, not particularly worth getting to know. But then the other day her supervisor mentioned to me that the girl has been facing some hard times.She doesn't smile because she's miserable.

So she’s not a surly person unworthy of friendship; she’s an unhappy one who probably desperately needs kindness.

Maybe underneath she’s actually a butterfly.

This weekend I’m going in search of another fennel plant. Keep your fingers crossed that my “pests” consider it an invitation to return. And next summer, there will be a whole patch of fennel.

I drafted this yesterday, and this morning I saw an Eastern Swallowtail butterfly in our yard. I'm choosing to believe at least one of our poor caterpillars survived our mistreatment.

And the young woman I mentioned? After a presentation I gave today, I received the nicest note from her telling me she'd enjoyed it.

In this moment, all is well, and that's about all anyone could ask for.