Flashback to our early days of child rearing: Collect a few milkweed caterpillars, the familiar larvae of the monarch butterfly…Keep them well supplied for a week or more with fresh milkweed leaves in a jar…Place a stick in the jar…Watch the caterpillars select a location to transform into a chrysalis…Wait patiently…And, voila! An adult monarch butterfly appears…Bid the insect Bon voyage! I would not have believed this activity had made such an impact on our children. I was wrong.
This summer, our adult son collected numerous milkweed caterpillars in Iowa. He tapped the youthful enthusiasm of his student athletes in the project to care for them while he traveled. The result? Success! One later email attached a photograph entitled “New Baby.” The baby was an adult monarch preparing to leave its adopted home. It was dutifully released, likely to produce another generation of monarchs before summer ended. Perhaps it even traveled to eastern Illinois where our daughter and her children collected several tiny caterpillars and watched each eventually become a chrysalis. We now await more “new babies.”
Even my wife and I have become immersed in this youth renewal activity. Three healthy monarch caterpillars greedily devoured leaf after leaf in my office. Then they energetically scouted their jar environment in order to locate an ideal spot to produce stage three in their metamorphosis--emerald green, delicately formed, exquisitely gold-bejeweled masterpieces. Upon release after emerging, this generation of monarchs will make their long journey of several thousand miles to special locations in southern California or Mexico. They will return to those traditional wintering spots by using a guidance system known only to them and to their Maker, as though the four stage process of metamorphosis had not already rewarded us with enough wonderment.
Historically, scientists have wrestled with terms like vitalism and élan vital--the “something special” that living things, including monarch butterflies, possess. Researchers often address these unique abilities on a reductionist level, attempting to explain the behaviors by pinpointing an identifiable physical process. Such research should continue. But we may also ponder whether mysterious behaviors in animals, or even the unique qualities of consciousness in humans, are special gifts bestowed by the Creator, known fully only to Him.