idol friends and rivals | week five | 880 words
I can't remember a time when I wasn't afraid of bugs, but I know the phobia was fairly specific when it started. Bugs and spiders were bad, but everything else was okay.
Once, many years ago, I was a kid with curiosity, a yard, and a jar just waiting for a caterpillar of my own.
This was when we were living just outside of Portland, at the house with the 3-4 acre property surrounded by forest on three sides (a forest that was continually trying to reclaim the land). There was a lot of 'nature' outside our doors. Probably 30% of it was trees, blackberry vines, or snails and slugs, but still…
I hadn't originally intended to adopt a science experiment from the yard, but one day I came across a large green caterpillar with interesting spiny red bumps. I'd never seen anything like it, and I wanted to know what it would turn into, so I put it in a jar with fresh leaves and a stick, and punched air holes in the lid. Then I went to our home library to find the book on butterflies and see what that creature might be.
My parents had several handy nature guides in the house, some more local that focused on the Western United States and other, broader guides that often amounted to being, "Birds You Do Not Have." I had given up on the bird books years ago, after easily finding sparrows, starlings, swallows, robins, towhees, crows, Oregon juncos, and blue jays in our area, but being denied red cardinals (an East-of-the-Rockies bird), Baltimore orioles (ditto), scarlet tanagers (ahahahahahaha—ditto), and any vivid red, blue, or green birds in general. Out West, most of our birds are in the black/white/gray/brown spectrum (mostly brown), sometimes with a touch of blue or yellow—and those are the male versions!
As a child, I understandably lacked the fortitude (or maybe the masochistic streak) one would need to be an avid birder in our part of the world.
The butterfly book was similarly broad, but there were more varieties of interesting potential butterflies than birds in the West. The book also showed the various life stages of each species, which was neat.
The closest match to my caterpillar was for a species commonly found in the Southeast, which seemed unlikely (really, really unlikely, according to my parents). So, what was it, then? Maybe the guide wasn't complete enough to include it. I watched the caterpillar chew leaves for a few more days, and the next thing I knew there was nothing but a large chrysalis in the jar, hanging from a leaf.
Chrysalises are pretty ugly. This one was brown, waxy-looking, and vaguely in the shape of a bug.
I checked on it every few days, to see whether anything had emerged. Finally, something came out. It turned out to be exactly what the guidebook had indicated—not a butterfly at all, but a large polyphemus moth. As moths go, these are beautiful, with lots of color and with interesting "eye" markings on their wings. They are also really big, and, well… moths. I got worried that it needed something to eat, so I tried to put some fresh leaves in there and the moth climbed onto my finger.
It was lucky I didn't fling it and the jar across the room and break both of them. Gah—it touched me, with its nasty, furry little legs and that enormous body. So disgusting.
I took the jar outside and put it on the lawn, unscrewed the lid fast, and backed away to make sure the moth couldn't get me again. It climbed to the top of the stick and out, stretching and flapping its wings for a few seconds before flying off into the air.
That type of moth is much more widespread these days than the guide noted back when it was first written (probably decades before I was even born). We still don't have cardinals in my part of the country, but with time and changes in where plants, wood, and products are shipped, insects have expanded their habitats—for better or worse, depending on what they destroy.
I'm sure that encounter with the polyphemus moth kicked up my bug phobia a few notches, along with other experiences over the years (mercifully forgotten, though the damage was done).
As an 11- or 12-year-old, I had no trouble picking up that caterpillar with my bare hands and putting it in a jar. Today, just looking up pictures of it (and its various other larval and insect stages) was a skittery, disturbing experience. Ladybugs are about the only insects I can stand to have touching me, and that took some work. Butterflies—which have nasty legs and 3-D bodies? Forget it. The pretty wings do not fool me. Butterflies are still bugs.
Reptiles don't bother me, and I will pick up and move earthworms without a second thought. But not caterpillars. They are larva, which are practically bugs (or in the case of maggots, worse than bugs).
I don't plan on touching anything in that category ever again.
I may have been the one wielding the jar all those years ago, but in the long run, it was the moth that won.
-- / --
If you enjoyed this story, you can vote for it along with many other fin entries here.