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Published May 9, 1999|Updated Sep. 29, 2005

In a small glass jar on the kitchen counter, a miracle takes shape.

When I mention to friends that I have planted a butterfly garden, I'm sure they picture masses of colorful flowers in carefully planned beds, something quite unlike my haphazard arrangement of functional plants.

I started with a scraggly patch in the back yard. After several trips to the nursery for perennial plants such as lantana, penta, salvia and the requisite butterfly milkweed, the patch was complete, but it was even scragglier than it had been before.

It didn't take long for the garden to be discovered. The orange-bloomed milkweed attracted many orange-winged visitors, and before long several clusters of tiny, tiger-striped Monarch butterfly caterpillars appeared. Unfortunately, they disappeared just as quickly. Finally, late in the season, some hardy individuals managed to survive to reach full size. We carefully chose one likely candidate, transferred him to a bug jar and moved him to our kitchen counter.

Ostensibly, this was for educational purposes. I told myself that having this vaguely disgusting creature living in my kitchen was so that my young children could witness the process of metamorphosis. In actuality, I think I was far more intrigued by the prospect of witnessing the change than they were.

The caterpillar lived happily in its jar, consuming alarming numbers of milkweed leaves, which now had to be imported from the garden. Silently, and without witness, the first change occurred. Now, a tiny, glittering jewel hung from the top of the jar.

No photograph in a science book can capture the iridescent beauty of that milky pale-green gem. Traced with sparkling gold, its distinctive shape barely hinted at what was going on inside its walls. The chrysalis held me in awe. I spent long stretches of time admiring it from every angle as it silently changed from the inside out. There was never a hint of movement _ not the smallest suggestion of the progress taking place inside the delicate case.

Long before my fascination waned, although long after the children had lost interest, the most amazing part of the process happened. Again, silently and unseen, my little green jewel turned to glass. Its shape and structure remained the same, but the shining green walls had become a crystal-clear window, giving us a full view of the complete, soon-to-emerge butterfly. The end of its captive life was imminent. It could be a day; it could be an hour; but a new creature was about to begin a new life _ one of freedom after unimaginable confinement.

It occurred to me that the caterpillar had done its job. It had beaten the odds in the garden and handily made the change from creepy-crawler to winged beauty. All the hard work was done. Anything more would just be showing off. It would be so easy to stay in that protective glass showcase.

For the butterfly, this was simply a rest stop. Once again it stealthily made its move. On my next trip into the kitchen the little glass chrysalis was empty, and from it hung an enormous butterfly. Watching it flex its golden wings edged with black lace, it was clear that hanging around in a plastic bag would not be a full enough life.

At last, something that interested the children. The next day we carried the container outside and placed it in a warm, sunny spot right next to the garden where we found the caterpillar. Its wings glowed in the sunshine and seemed to be soaking in the warmth. Only moments later, our newborn spread its wings for us one last time and took flight. It fluttered up and away, finally disappearing into the sunlight.

On a cold and windy night only weeks ago, I opened the back door to find a Monarch butterfly hanging on to the screen. Its wings were battered and torn, and it was barely able to hold on against the cold wind. It is unlikely that this was the same butterfly we'd said goodbye to more than a year earlier, but I chose to believe it was, that this was the same caterpillar we'd scooped out of the garden, the same chrysalis that had so enthralled me and the same butterfly we watched fly to freedom. I chose to believe that it had come back to show off the life it had lived and the miles it had traveled _ to show us another miracle, that of survival.

No, it was no longer a perfect, glass-encased specimen. It was even more beautiful and even more wondrous than I could have imagined.

Susan Andrews is a writer who lives in St. Petersburg. Private Lives is edited by Mary Jane Park.


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