Sep 4 2011

Open Wings

Melissa Crytzer Fry

The first time I saw one of these critters during a jog, I thought it looked like something from a sci-fi movie with all its knobs and protrusions. But after some research, I learned that it is the precursor to something quite beautiful.

Aug. 6 -- This little guy slinked on over to the door and literally hung around, all day, despite our in-and-out-the-door activity. Click to enlarge.

When this fella crawled up on the side of the door, I figured it would inch away like the other 8 million caterpillars roaming our desert paradise. But it didn’t. It parked right there, next to the metal door frame.

So I watched it all day. And watched it some more. Then I gently poked it, watching it recoil ever so slightly, and I figured it was dying since it had stopped moving.

But behold, the very next day, it had transformed into this:

Aug. 7 -- What a difference a day makes! Commence the pupation and chrysalis stages. How insane is that tiny thread that he managed to lasso around himself so he wouldn’t fall from the wall? Click to enlarge.

Then just two days later, the chrysalis had transformed, again, into this:

Aug. 9 -- At this point, I was pretty sure this thing had stopped its metamorphosis due to the hardening and darkening of the chyrsalis (and the complete lack of movement). Click to enlarge.

For the next week, I kept telling hubby that our little science gift from Mother Nature had succumbed to the heat. “It’s all going on inside,” he said. “You have to be patient.” Me, patient? Does this man not know the woman he married?

But I have to confess: I thought I could see the ridges of eyes forming on top of the now-brown pod, the faint traces of patterned wings emerging under that armor that resembled a raised-relief map of ridges and horns. Nah. It was just my geeky wishful thinking. The critter was dead.

Or was it? A short nine days later, I just happened to rush out the door (hoping I hadn’t missed the garbage truck). Upon my return, I saw this:

Aug. 17 -- Boy was I ticked when I realized that this pipevine swallowtail butterfly was probably emerging from the chyrsalis the very second I slammed out the door. I could have videotaped the entire rebirth! Click to enlarge.

Even though I missed baby’s first steps (heh heh), I was awestruck – especially at how this butterfly, rightfully rumpled as it made its way into the world, could even fit in those cramped quarters. It seemed to defy logic – especially learning that only about 10 percent of caterpillars even make it to the pupating (resting) stage.

The first few attempts to shake out those wings were clumsy and actually landed him on the concrete, crawling toward me, crawling over my leg, up the camera strap, on my arm, over my shoulders, on my neck.

Only about 15 minutes after emerging, the butterfly flapped its wings and clung to the door. Click to enlarge.

I love the wonder of nature, and that I was privy to the unfolding of this little life, the light pressure of butterfly feet dancing on my skin.

Butterfly with floppy wings on my arm - minutes after emerging. Click to enlarge.

I was right! If you look closely at this now-empty shell, you can see the faint lines that marked the outlines of the butterfly's wings.

For Writers: The butterfly is a metaphorical wonderland. I could relate this creature – and this personal experience – to a writer’s metamorphosis (or to the stages of a story); to the cocoon some of us feel we live in as isolated writers; to opening our wings as writers; or even to life and death themes (of our ideas, of our characters), given the adult butterfly’s short lifespan of only about two weeks.

But I’m curious … what do you think when you read this post and view these photos? How does the butterfly relate to your writing journey, your writing process, to writing in general? What lessons does the pipevine swallowtail offer, if any?


39 Responses to “Open Wings”

  • avatar Julia Says:

    Wow, this post definitely did not disappoint! I love butterflies and the whole process of metamorphosis. As for my writing journey, I’d have to say I’m somewhere between caterpillar and chrysalis… certainly in the pre-emergent stage of the life cycle! (p.s. That must’ve been so cool to have the “light pressure of butterfly feet” on your skin!)

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    Melissa Reply:

    I don’t know, Julia … after your Labor Day Marathon of writing, you might be emerging as that butterfly!

    Yes, it WAS the neatest thing to have the butterfly walk up my arm!

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  • avatar Sue Mitchell Says:

    That is one amazing transformation! The parallel I see is with the writing process itself. My initial draft is rather grotesque, LOL, but I see the potential. Then it incubates in my mind, although nothing appears to be happening on the surface. Eventually, it emerges as a something much more appealing.

    I’m a big proponent of the cocoon stage in writing. If I try to go too quickly from drafting to revising, not enough internal processing has occurred and the finished piece isn’t much different from the draft. To really get that beautiful butterfly, there’s an incubation period involved.

    Wonderful photos, as usual!

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    Melissa Reply:

    You bring up such a good point about the incubatory process … that’s when so much IS going on, but we can get so ‘down’ on ourselves as writers since we’re not seeing anything on paper just yet. That simmer time is so, so important!

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  • avatar Cynthia Robertson Says:

    I showed your post to my husband, Melissa. We love butterflies, and the whole miracle of their transformation. (We’ve seen these red-horned caterpillars around, and have wondered what they turn in to…thank you for showing us!!!)
    He said something very wise after reading your post and the questions for writers at the end of it. You said only 10% of catepillars will make it to the pupa stage. And he related this to the persistence it takes for a writer to make it to the published stage. We’ve gotta be persistent and committed!

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    Melissa Reply:

    I’m so happy you and hubby enjoyed the post; it was such a wonderful experience for me to be a part of! Your hubby’s observation and analogy are spot on. I love it! Here’s to us being the pupae who make it!

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  • avatar V.V. Denman Says:

    That’s just beautiful!

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  • avatar Sara Says:

    I can’t believe you got to see all of that, how special! I remember when I first learned that caterpillars can turn into butterflies I thought everyone was lying to me. It seems like so much effort to live for so short a time, but I suppose everything is relative. Since it took it’s first little wing-steps on you I wonder if it thought you were it’s mother? 🙂

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    Melissa Reply:

    I don’t know about the butterfly thinking I was mom, BUT confess that I thought the little guy was a little confused. I did also learn that butterflies can taste with their feet! How cool is that?

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  • avatar K Says:

    Wonderful! Melissa I have painted a pipevine swallowtail because of their extreme colors and being so prolific in our area. They always seem so happy, like they are singing a song while sipping nectar. Your cataloging the metamorphosis is fascinating. I LOVE your blog 🙂

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    Melissa Reply:

    I LOVE your pipevine painting! Yes, they DO seem happy. I love your description of them. I simply got LUCKY being able to photograph the various stages; what a gift!

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  • avatar Beth Hoffman Says:

    Simply wonderful, Melissa!

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  • avatar Erika Marks Says:

    Oh, you and I are truly kindred spirits! Every season we try and help swallowtails to hatch and it is nothing short of breath-taking–and as you point out, their life is so fleeting, it’s hard not to find such grace in their development and then their reveal. If I could relate it to writing, I would say it is that PERCEPTION of fragility–that we imagine the butterfly as fragile, much like our own work–when in reality, the creature is remarkable sturdy. (My husband always reminds me of those butterflies who flies hundreds–or is it thousands?–of miles once hatched?). Like our own writing, we have to trust that there is great strength and resilience in its structure that allows it to weather the storms of revision, to stay intact through all those daunting edits.

    Those pictures are so wonderful, Melissa. And there is nothing like watching those wings dry and unfurl and grow, is there?

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    Melissa Reply:

    Another reason we need to get together soon! I love that your family takes such an interest in the swallowtails.What great insight regarding their perceived fragility; yes, many of them travel entire countries to reach their final destination. They ARE tough little buggers, even if some of their lives are short-lived. I like thinking of my WIP as “remarkably sturdy,” too! Such a fabulous analogy.

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  • avatar Leah Says:

    This is amazing and I can’t believe you captured the change from caterpillar to butterfly! I can’t wait to show Sophie since she’s very much into this. Reminds me of the classic Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” book. I love that you captured nature happening right before you. Amazing!

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    Melissa Reply:

    I hope Sophie enjoys! And The Hungry Caterpillar was one of my favorite children’s books growing up!

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  • avatar Nina Says:

    Melissa, I can relate this EASILY to my post this week and how I’m feeling in general. I think I was more of a “butterfly” before my heightened awareness of the publishing industry. Now it’s like I’ve had my wings clipped, and I’m trying now (a recent decision) to get those wings back. I want to enjoy the process again without the worry of what will happen to the finished product.

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    Melissa Reply:

    My wings never felt clipped due to the publishing process, but more as a result of my own self-sabatoge – something I’ve only recently realized that I was doing. Now that I am making my writing a priority in the MIDST of insane work deadlines, I think I’m proving that I “can” do it… and that the joy of writing you talk about is what is helping me through my work – i.e. knowing that every morning I have the treat of working on FICTION vs. freelance is kind of a reward. And it’s moving more toward my fiction goal at the same time.

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  • avatar Country Wife Says:

    Very cool capture! Such a great metaphor for so many things. I especially love how the caterpillar does most of its transformation on the inside…

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    Melissa Reply:

    That was one of the parallels that I drew, too! I love that the transformation takes place on the inside, in much the same way that it does in the kinds of character-driven fiction I like to read.

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  • avatar Patrick Ross Says:

    OK Melissa, I’m back to social media after this weekend and once again love your photography, and marvel at what you managed to catch (let go your concern about not getting video). Is Arizona Highways still in print? You’d be a natural to write/shoot for that. I was in an antique store this weekend with my daughter and found an embossed faux-leather binder designed to hold AH issues with five issues from 1971 in them, and of course bought it.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Confession … I did get some good video (but not of the ’emergence.’) But, I will “let it go,” as you suggest. 🙂 You’re right – it’s still a good find and was amazing to witness. Alas, I have tried to get my foot in the door at Arizona Highways for years, and to no avail… Met with the publisher, had previous working experience with the new editor. Still… nuthin’. Even proposed a blog for them. I would LOVE that opportunity, as I love the magazine and obviously have a passion for Arizona’s outdoors. Cool find on the vintage copies!

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  • avatar Jessica McCann Says:

    Wowza. Melissa, your ability to see things most people would completely overlook continues to amaze me. And your patience in monitoring and documening this little fella’s progress impresses the heck out of me. Well done!

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    Melissa Reply:

    You know, there was a time – probably a few years ago – where I might not have noticed at all. But now I’m always seeking out the ‘hard to see.’ It’s a much more enriching way to live life! Thanks for the great compliments.

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  • avatar Stephanie Alexander Says:

    So amazing! I have to say the first thing that came to mind for me is vulnerability. That tiny little creature going through such a change, right there in the open!

    Sometimes writing feels like that– like we put ourselves out there and wait for a bit bird to swoop by an swallow us whole. But, if we can’t be vulnerable, the writing will ring false, so we take the chance. 🙂

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  • avatar Jolina Petersheim Says:

    I love how you captured this metamorphosis, Melissa! I also have no patience when it comes to cocoons. I fear that I killed a moth as a child while trying to “help” it come out of its wrappings.

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  • avatar Suzie Ivy Says:

    Over the past few weeks, I too have needed a resting stage. I took time off from my novel and wrote short pieces for my blog just to keep my head in the game. If only I could come out of my funk looking like your butterfly. What a beauty!

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    Melissa Reply:

    You WILL emerge from your funk into that butterfly. I know it! Hope the rest of the week got a bit better.

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  • avatar Natalia Sylvester Says:

    This is so amazing, Melissa. What a rare treat to be able to witness this little miracle in every stage (we’re so lucky to have you share it with us!).

    You’re right it can relate to writing on so many levels. For me, it reminded me of the fact that we have to have the patience and the faith to see it through. We often start with these ugly drafts, and it’s so easy to give up before we’ve even reached the cocoon stage because we fear the writing will never rise above that. Your husband said it beautifully when he said “It’s all going on inside.” The same is true for writing. It doesn’t just emerge. It all goes on inside the process itself.

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  • avatar Lori Parker Says:

    I love the blue on his/her wings! Gorgeous!! I really agree with Patrick about you working for AZ Highways. I loved that magazine. If they didn’t hire you instantly, then apparently their common sense saguaro was also zapped by lightening.

    As for the metaphor, I’m going to apply the bumpy little bug in hiding to my story – not fully developed and not sure it will see the light of day – but maybe it shake it’s wings out eventually. Awesome job, M.

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    Melissa Reply:

    You all do my ego so much good. I would love nothing more than to write for AZ HIghways, so if you have any connections … 🙂

    I’m pretty sure the bumpy little bug you call your novel is going to soar. Keep going, girl!

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  • avatar Mahesh Raj Mohan Says:

    For some reason my brain sees your title “Open Wings” and decides to play “Broken Wings” by Mister Mister. lol. Then the pictures of the transformation made me a little verklempt, I have to admit. They are really beautiful.

    For a lot of stories, I spent a great deal of time writing and revising in my head before I sit down to type. In that way, the butterfly unfolds on the page. 🙂

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    Melissa Reply:

    Ha ha. Haven’t heard “Broken Wings” in forever. Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

    Love your analogy of the writing process. I think I’m much like you, too – letting things grow in my mind, and letting them fly away on the page.

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  • avatar Marianne Smith Says:

    Melissa,
    Soul-stirring post! When my writing is with an EDITOR *and I always see that word in all caps*, I go into some kind of mini death. After some simmering, I think I might live and that things (my writing) will get better. Then when things drag out I think that surely the EDITOR has died, or has been completely overwhelmed by what they have taken on! That’s when I’m lifelessly stuck on the wall. Always hoping for emergence, but the time spent on the wall seems longer 🙂
    Beautiful photos and enjoyed the thread of comments!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Thanks for stopping by Marianne. It can be daunting waiting for an editor’s approval, can’t it? But the proof of your strength is your stick-to-it-ness (pun intended).

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  • avatar Shari Lopatin Says:

    Honestly Melissa, this post made me tear up. I have such a LOVE for nature, and I share your wonderment (is that even a word?). So to not only witness, but EXPERIENCE the re-birth of a butterfly (i.e. the baby crawling all over you) is such a gift. WOW!! You should write a short creative narrative about this. You could probably get it published in a literary magazine, I bet.

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    Melissa Reply:

    I can’t tell you how happy I am to be able to share these brushes with nature with OTHERS. To know that they create an emotional response is pretty much the best compliment anyone could ever give me. Thank you.
    I might just take your advice about writing some type of short creative narrative about the experience. Did I mention that I was so moved by that event that I couldn’t get much accomplished the rest of the day? Ha ha.

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  • avatar Hallie Sawyer Says:

    Alright, everyone has said everything cool and there is nothing more brilliant I can add. What I will say is don’t judge a book by its cover! (How’s that for original?) That horrendous looking red alien bug became a breathtaking bug princess. All of our writing has hope with a lot of patience and some damn hard behind the scenes work. 🙂

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    Melissa Reply:

    I LOVE the analogy of bug to bug princess and how that is exactly the way our WIPS take shape! Hope you’re well, girl.

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