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.