Why Not Concentrate on Caterpillars?

I was recently introduced to the work of a photographer, Samuel P. Jaffe, whose passion is caterpillars; a mutual friend gave me a notecard, with an image of Sphecodina abbottii Sphinx, taken in June 2009. I have never given caterpillars much thought--except when their voracious appetites defoliate my trees--and tucked the card away. But I kept returning to it--that cool, rich green dotted body is indeed a wondrous thing. (My photograph of the photograph does not quite do it justice, I should add.) By this point in my life I've learned to pay attention to things that nag at my subconcious. So this morning, after a bit of searching, I spent some time wandering through Jaffe's website. It is a veritable cabinet of curiosities, breathtaking in scope and style. He sells archival prints of his stunning photographs.

Apparently, Jaffe's been fascinated by the insect world since childhood, and his goal now is to introduce to us the rich and varied biodiversity of Eastern Massachusetts, where I assume he lives. The subjects of his photographs are often isolated against a velvety black background, so that they stand out with sculptural strength--and the caterpillars are often shown on their native host plants. I was dumbstruck by the patterning on the Phosphila trubulenta. His website contains several portfolios of photographs, taken in meadows, parking lots, ponds and forests. One, Vernal Pool life, was transfixing. I've noticed some of these creatures dart about on and in the water around here, but I've never actually seen them, until now. I have new respect for even the larval mosquito. I stopped to gaze at the lovely, blue-tinged wings of Celastrina ladon lucia--Spring Azure--photographed in Fowl Meadow in Readville, Massachusetts. Then I stumbled on Bufo americanus, the delightful American toad, who gave me a laugh because he looks like something right out of a fairy tale--but far from finding it repulsive, I wanted to give it a little kiss. The face of a caterpillar is often far more frightening.

I'm deeply moved by people who find their passions when they are children, however unusual those might be. Jaffe's project, "The Caterpillars of Massachusetts," reminded me of a cousin, Zachary Lemann, from New Orleans. Even as a child, he was obsessed with spiders, and was always coming over with boxes of tarantulas and other such...er...interesting finds. He would let them crawl on him and I would watch in fascinated horror. Well, Zachary grew up, became an entomologist, and helped found the Audubon Insectorium, the first major tourist attraction to open in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina....I don't know anything about caterpillars--well, I should say, I know more about them now, and have more appreciation for their beauty. Jaffe's photographs had the same effect on me as did Leslie Brunetta and Catherine Craig's book about Spider Silk.

Why not concentrate on caterpillars? The larval form of the order Lepidoptera, butterflies and moths can, if you care to pay attention, teach you a thing or two about unexpected beauty, metamorphosis, and perhaps even karma. Besides which, we can't live without these intricate creatures. You never know where a childhood fascination will carry you, but it is often to an unusually enlightened--and enthralling--place. How generous, too, when the rest of us are invited along for the journey.


pve design said...

(one of my favorite reads is "the hungry caterpillar"-)
I shall now be on the lookout for caterpillars~

Tara Dillard said...

What mortal could have conceived a caterpillar, wrapped it up in a beautiful little bag, & turned it into a butterfly?

I adore these type of meandering thoughts while gardening.

Trees host many caterpillars, by Providential design. Alas, systemic insect killer is sold for trees; with a full year's killing.

Caterpillars were my first thought when I heard the ads on the radio this year.

Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

karenleslie said...

why do i enjoy your blog so much? for many reasons really, but one reason is certainly your fine eye for quality in all things. your blog accomplishes your philosophy of slow love -- even now i watch a tiny spider climb up his web hanging from my office ceiling... the caterpillar pictures are amazing.

Teresa Hatfield ~ Splendid Sass said...

I love this post. My undergraduate degree is in molecular biology, and I have always been amazed by caterpillars, and the beautiful butterfies that follow. Thank you for sharing this.
Teresa (Splendid Sass)

Anonymous said...

Who would have thought? Enjoyed his photos.

josee said...

These are wonderful pictures. I am new to your blog, having just read your book. Today is my 63rd birthday, and Jaffe's website, and your blog, are great birthday presents!

mary said...

Metamorphosis--isn't what we are here to accomplish--not too different from the caterpillar. I always love the way my mind wanders after reading one of your posts. Thank you. Mary

coelacanth said...

Thank you for the wonderful link. I'll never look at a caterpillar the same way again. I wonder how people looked at birds before Audubon made them the subject of art?

Stickhorsecowgirls said...

My granddaughter is enthralled with caterpillars! Every spring she and I talk a walk so she can hunt for them. We even bought a little mesh carrier for them! Bugs and worms are a little creepy to me, but I definitely can see how they could be "art" in their natural beauty!
By the way, I so enjoyed your post on Joni Mitchell--I had forgotten her lovely music. Reminded me of Joan Baez too-- whatever happened to her?

Unknown said...

hello Dominique!

your blog is becoming, like a caterpillar slowing unwrapping from its cocoon, into my favorite daily blog to read!

As I draw insects (and caterpillars), i have answered you through my own blog, http://teabutterfly.blogspot.com/

I'd love you to have a look!

my best,

Vic from TeaButterfly.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info

Samuel Jaffe said...

Dear Dominique,

I happened upon your post about my caterpillars a little while back and was very glad to discover that you have seen and enjoyed my work.

I am continuing to try and hold onto my childhood passions, even if they don't quite fit into any previous model of career, etc. and this summer I am hanging a show of my photography and an exhibit of New England caterpillars at Boston Children's Museum.

It is going to be a thrill to bring hundreds of live caterpillars each week to the museum and watch the faces of the children as they discover them for the very first time.

If you are at all interested, the show announcement page is at www.spjaffe.com . Your post was a lovely compliment and I'd be excited to chat with you about the work and the creatures.


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