Being a country girl transplanted into suburban life, I try to keep some of my childhood traditions alive, even without any woods or fields handy. One such bit of fun I can still have in my local park: popping touch-me-nots. Another one is a bit tougher: raising Monarch caterpillars into butterflies. This usually involves me traveling great distances to find a big enough patch of milkweed that is likely to have caterpillars.
When I was a kid, milkweed grew in all kinds of places I could visit without trespassing: like the margins of cornfields and alongside the highway I walked to get to town. I found so many Monarch caterpillars, I could be picky and still end up with 5 or 6. Now when I visit home, I have a lot more trouble. At some point highway maintenance crews mowed down my most productive milkweed patch, and for several years I have come home empty-handed. I have only anecdotal evidence that it's harder to find milkweed, but it kind of makes sense. More urban sprawl means fewer fields. More mowing means less milkweed, which means butterflies have fewer safe places to lay their eggs. Scientists right now are trying to figure out if there really are fewer Monarchs, and if there's anything to be done about it.
In my current home, not far from New York City, I still have the habit of checking every straggly patch of milkweed I see for caterpillars, even though I have no hope of success. So imagine my surprise yesterday when at my bus stop, at the offramp of a major highway, I glanced at the forlorn straggly patch of milkweed growing in the terminal buffer of the guardrail and found this little miracle:
Now my teeny little caterpillar is snug in a shoebox covered in netting, munching away on some milkweed leaves, not knowing s/he's handing me a great gift for the next 3 weeks or so: nostalgia for the late summers of childhood. In return, I'm seriously planning to plant milkweed in my garden next year to make it a waystation for the miraculous migration of monarchs.