Short essay by Pamela Eason
Lapara coniferarum, in its caterpillar stage, is covered in green and pale yellow stripes fused like colors in a watermelon rind. After awhile spent in the dark damp dirt, it will stretch dark-gray wings and emerge as a Southern Pine Sphinx, a Royal Moth, that, even from a short distance, looks an awful lot like a discarded chip of pine bark. James Edward Smith, a British botanist, who saw the larvae of its sixteenth-century kin clinging face-down on a pine-tree trunk and who focused on its shape rather than its watermelon-rind color, was reminded of Egyptian sphinxes and named it accordingly.
The life cycle of this particular species of Sphinx is spent in the pine forests of the eastern United States. From spring to fall, you can find the Sphinx family flying among the pines from Maine to New York and Connecticut. From there, their habitat spreads with the conifers and their cones south to Florida, west to Louisiana and then north again to Missouri and Illinois so that it’s green and brown habitat takes a kind of trapezoid shape.
Sam, the Savior
Sam, who is six days short of seven years, found a Lapara coniferarum caterpillar laying under the Florida sun on the white sidewalk in his newly constructed neighborhood. How the caterpillar came to be there is a mystery. Perhaps a gusty spring wind carried it in swirling loops as it clung to a bundle of pine needles from the forest behind Sam’s backyard until it was ejected from its streamlined airplane, landing on the sidewalk in front of his house.
Sam carefully scooped the squishy and squirmy body up in with his long, bony fingers and softly placed it in his bug collection box. His mother thought it might be a cabbage worm, so Sam put a green cabbage leaf in the box and tucked the caterpillar in for what he thought would be a snug and comfortable stay and dragged the box to his grandmother’s house.
His grandmother, who had sat through many a biology class and who had examined and dissected many worms in her college days, said, “I think it’s a green-stripped maple worm.”
But Sam argued that it didn’t have horns. He said the mouth was mostly yellow, not black, and that it didn’t have the red part near the tail.
“Just wait,” his grandmother said, “It will turn into a pink and white moth.”
Sam refused to believe it though and kept looking at computer images, comparing them to his detailed memory of his caterpillar until he found Lapara coniferarum, an exact match.
Connections to God
All kinds of connections in the form of similes, analogies, metaphors, and connotations, can be made at this point. Since God proclaims that the world tells true things about him, a Christian or a student of Christianity might say that, like the image of the Lapara confierarum and the live caterpillar, Jesus is an exact image of God. Human beings are in the image of God, but not exactly.
Old sinners converted to saints who sang Isaac Watt’s hymns may mentally recall the words, Alas! and did my savior bleed for such a worm as I. Gospel readers who suspect that the wind carried the caterpillar to its destination might remember that unpretentious Jesus said to sagacious Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Or maybe, if they zero in on Sam’s keen knowledge of the caterpillar’s characteristics, those who feel especially loved by God would say that God knows each person exactly. He has numbered a man’s days and the hairs on his head, knows his words before they are spoken, and, has collected and recorded every tear that has fallen from his eyes.
Pride & Pain
Here’s another connection. This one is for proven professionals in Christianity, as some claim to be, or for those in any sanctified subject. Sometimes people outside your field of expertise may have something valuable to contribute no matter how uninformed you assume they are, and maybe it would be wise at times to listen to those who have a different kind of knowledge.
Sam’s mom, who had not studied medicine but who had studied Sam, knew tiny details about him that the oncologist and pediatricians didn’t. She sweetly pointed out her particular observations and pleaded for different interventions, but her pleas must have sounded like static in specialized ears until a tumor turned up, kidneys almost failed, and other disastrous distresses sent her running many a midnight after Sam and a handful of nurses to the PICU. If only open-mindedness had replaced arrogance, a few near-death moments and quite a bit of needless suffering and pity-pulling pain could have been avoided. It’s an exercise in humility for the all-mighty expert to apologize to the incompetent amateur, but two or three do, and that makes them less tyrant-like and more human.
Knowing What’s Best
Perhaps policy-makers, protocol-implementers, and proficient parents alike could benefit from another connection that could be summed: Decreeing and enforcing what we think is best, isn’t always best. And questioning all along that we might not really know what is best and changing what we do when we find out that what we did actually wasn’t best after all is another exercise in humility.
It takes some effort for a wiry little boy to find a cabbage, pull a leaf from it, and put the leaf in a bug catcher and even more to replace it with fresh pine green needles when there are only browns ones laying lifeless on the ground nearby. But, if you care one hair about a Southern Pine Sphinx caterpillar, who survives off of pine foliage and not cabbage leaves, that is just what you will do. If you are humble enough and energetic enough to assist in the flourishing of a being, who knows, you might be rewarded with the seeing of a grand awe-inspiring transformation.
Stubbornness, in the case of the prideful professional and the presumptuous policy-maker, isn’t usually considered a positive attribute. It can be a productive trait though when pride and presumptuous don’t come along for the ride. This is a connection for those who like to assertively pronounce judgments and say what is a fact without really thinking a matter all the way through.
Stubbornness, like the kind Sam has sometimes when he’s looking for the real answer, lays there on the path, unmoving even if it is kicked hard. It is a nuisance if you are in a hurry or just want to enjoy yourself. But sometimes stubbornness makes a man or a woman or a girl or a boy who bumps up against it pause or change direction. The pause may be just long enough, or the change in direction may be just slight enough, to see some tiny true thing that had gone unnoticed before, or it may open up an abyss of opinion-disrupting, beautiful truth that changes everything.
Cognitive Webs of Wonder
Connections, strong and weak, are funny and marvelous things. Cognitive scientists study them to see how humans associate one concept to another. They depict these connections in diagrams that look like a web a simple spider might spin with intricacy enough to inspire an artist.
The fact that the idea of caterpillars and little boys who save them can bring us to God and teach us something about him is nothing short of a miracle. That they can make us aware of how we have caused suffering and give us a way to feel regret and sorrow and repent is a mercy. That reflection on the erroneous connections we have made can correct our wrongheadedness or teach us something useful is a wonder. What’s wonderfully wonderful too is that a squirmy worm in peril and a skinny boy savior can open the heavy but heavenly door of awe-inspiring awareness and invite you in.
Image by Smith, James Edward, Sir, 1759-1828 (text), Abbot, John, 1751-1840 (artist) – The natural history of the rarer lepidopterous insects of Georgia, volume 1, Tab 42 (modified from Biodiversity Heritage Library), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7630726