One afternoon in late August, our family was on our way to lunch in Mt. Kisco, a town to the north of where we live. My kids (Jamie aged 9, and Rose aged 6) noticed some commotion on the sidewalk outside a Chinese restaurant and stopped to investigate. The cook’s kids had found a huge caterpillar. It was three or four inches in length, and bright green with little orange spots along its sides. We watched as it kept trying to climb up the brick wall and falling back to the sidewalk.
The caterpillar outside the restaurant
At lunch, I couldn’t stop thinking about our nature sighting. It was probably the caterpillar form of the luna moth, a gorgeous, pale-green, fairy-like creature. It would be amazing to take it home and see it transform. But I don’t make decisions like this lightly; it’s a heavy responsibility to take a creature out of nature. Instead, we could bring it to some nearby woods and thereby rescue it without removing it from its natural habitat. But it can be a magical thing for kids to see and touch something wild, to observe it every day and watch it change. If we leave it on the sidewalk, it’s just going to get squished anyway, I thought. So when Jamie asked, “Can we take home the caterpillar?” I said, “Yes.”
We snagged a disposable iced coffee cup from the restaurant. When we got back to the spot, the kids from the restaurant were huddled protectively around the caterpillar, which had now moved to the middle of the sidewalk. They were making sure no one stepped on it. I showed them our cup. “We’re going to take it home so it can make its cocoon somewhere safe,” I told them. They didn’t respond but looked sad. They’d been taking such good care of it. I googled Luna Moth on my phone, and held up the picture for them. “Look, this is what your caterpillar is going to turn into!” Their dad came out to look too, wiping his hands on his white apron and peering at the image of the delicate green moth. Everyone gets excited when nature unexpectedly drops into their lives. When everyone had said their goodbyes, we scooped up the caterpillar and snapped the lid onto the cup.
Luna’s cocoon inside the leaf
On the way home in the car, Jamie and Rose took turns carrying the caterpillar. Rose named her Princess Luna, which I found so touching. Such a regal name for a bug that many girls might think scary or gross.They noticed that the caterpillar was moving its head back and forth on the inside of the cup, leaving shiny zig-zags of silk in its wake. “She’s making a cocoon in the cup!” Jamie said. The poor thing seemed desperate, as though her transformation were overdue. At home, we quickly prepared a space for the Princess. We took a butterfly house (an old birthday gift from the kids’ grandmother) and outfitted it with fresh leaves and a few sticks. Once inside, Princess Luna immediately set to work. She chose a large maple leaf and began to roll herself up inside it. “She’s making a taco!” said Rose. Peering in, we could see her using her silk to draw the leaf tightly around herself. Soon, it closed up like a purse, and we couldn’t see inside. But we could hear her. If we were very quiet and put our ears next to the butterfly house’s soft mesh side, we could hear a rhythmic chewing sound. It sounded like a bug nibbling a leaf, but we knew it was the sound of Luna spinning and weaving her silk, around and around.
Rose peers inside the leaf taco
After a day or so, the chewing sound stopped. “We can take the leaf out, guys, just once, and look inside,” I said. When I lifted the leaf and placed it into Rose’s hand, Luna thrashed around a bit. Our butterfly book had noted, “The pupa is active in its cocoon,” but it was startling. We took turns peering into the leaf taco, and inside we could see a white cottony lump. “It’s only half as long as the caterpillar,” said Jamie. “Maybe she folded herself in half in there.” We put her carefully back into the butterfly house, where she wriggled a few more times and fell quiet.
We talked about a radio science show I’d once heard. The hosts said that people tend to think that inside cocoons, caterpillars shed extra legs and sprout wings and antennae and become butterflies that way. But in fact, they dissolve into a formless goo that completely reforms into a new body. They described an experiment in which some caterpillars were shown a flashing light before receiving food, and some weren’t. After they pupated and became butterflies, the ones who’d seen the flashing light as caterpillars reacted to it, expecting food. Their brain cells retained memories from their old lives, surviving that total dissolution and coming with them into their new existence as winged creatures. “Will she remember being in the cup?” wondered Rose. “Or the kids from the restaurant?” added Jamie. We imagined her as goo, as liquid possibility, full of potential.
The book said that luna moths have two broods- one early in summer, one later. If Luna were a first brood caterpillar, she’d emerge from her cocoon after about two weeks. If she were a second brood gal, she’d remain in pupa form for the winter, and come out in the spring. It was late August, but I had my fingers crossed for Luna to hatch in a few weeks. I wasn’t sure if the conditions would be right for her to over winter with us. But three weeks came and went without any signs of hatching. I moved the butterfly house to the basement, where it would at least be dark and cool. I got busy with other things, and mostly forgot about her down there.
Rose didn’t forget. In February, she announced, “It’s going to be spring soon. We have to bring Luna upstairs so we can see her hatch!” I was worried. Luna had stopped moving, and the leaf that housed her cocoon was dry and crackly. It’s too dry and warm in the basement, I thought. She probably dried up and died back in September. What’s going to happen to Rose when Luna doesn’t hatch? Putting away laundry, I’d look at the butterfly house on Rose’s dresser and feel a wave of guilt. We should have released her in the woods, I thought. At Thanksgiving, Rose’s teacher had the children make place mats with pictures of their families. Rose’s family portrait depicted Nissim, me, Jamie, our cat Bodhi, our fish Pebbles, and Princess Luna as a beautiful green moth. I sighed. How elaborate is the moth funeral going to have to be?
One morning in March I was making breakfast and heard an excited shout from Rose’s room. I thought I heard the word “Luna.”
“What is it?” I called upstairs.
Rose burst from her room and called downstairs, “Princess Luna hatched! She’s out! Come see!”
The lovely and ethereal Princess Luna
I ran upstairs, and Jamie came too. Clinging to the inside of the top of the butterfly house was an enormous moth, almost the size of my palm. Its wings were still wrinkled at the edges, and its antennae hadn’t yet unfurled. I couldn’t believe it. From that dry, crumpled leaf taco that had languished in our basement all winter, this alien creature had somehow survived and emerged. I looked for the swooping green tails that are the hallmark of the luna moth, but they weren’t there. This moth was brown. We decided to bring the house downstairs to get a better look, and when we put it down on the kitchen counter the moth fell from her perch and spread her wings on the floor of the cage. “She has pink on her wings, look at that!” said Rose. Her wings were mostly brown, but with subtle stripes of pink, red, and purple. There were translucent window spots on her upper and lower wings, and two huge blue eye spots on the lower. Her body was covered in plush brown fur. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Her very existence seemed an impossibility.Rose said, “I feel like this is a dream.” Princess Luna was gorgeous. And she was not a luna moth. Jamie ran to the computer to try to look her up, and Rose got the butterfly book.
A positive identification
Rose ended up identifying her from our book before Jamie could find anything online. Score one for books! Princess Luna was a polyphemus moth, a member of the giant silk moth family. (Luna moths are in that family too, so my caterpillar ID wasn’t that far off.) Jamie helped us find more pictures online, and from those we determined that she was indeed a girl. You can tell by the shape of the antennae. This sentence from the book caught my attention: “You can obtain specimens and study mating, egg laying, and growth by placing a newly emerged female in an out-of-doors cage and waiting for the males to reach the cage.” I looked up how to do this. You put the female outside at night in a “mating cage,” (heh heh) and the males can reach through the screen and mate with her while she remains contained. She’d lay her eggs there, and we could see the whole cycle begin again. It was tempting. I decided to discuss it with the kids and let this one be more of a group decision.
We talked about it a lot. We could try to make a mating cage, but that seemed overly complicated and kind of mean. We could gently lift her out of the butterfly house and watch her fly away. Or there was an in-between option: We could prop open the top of the house and let her either attract a male and lay her eggs there, or fly away if she chose. “She’s only going to live for about seven days,” I said. “These guys only eat as caterpillars. As moths, they can’t eat or drink anything. They just mate, lay eggs and die. That’s the end of their life cycle. I feel bad keeping her in a cage when she only has seven days to fly free.” The kids agreed, and decided on the third option. We would let Luna choose whether to stay or go. Rose was optimistic about the possibility of her staying. We’d read that females tend to stay put, while the males fly around following the trail of pheromones. “Maybe she likes it with us,” Rose said.
Getting ready to open the cage
Jamie and Rose were so excited to show the moth to Nissim when he got home that night. It was Friday and warm out, so we decided to walk to town to have dinner. Before we left, we brought Luna’s cage to the backyard and opened the top. A breeze blew through, and this seemed to excite her. She flapped her wings and fell awkwardly back to the cage floor. “Is she okay?” asked Rose. “I think so,” I said. “She’s just trying to learn how to fly. She’ll get it.”
The whole way to dinner, Rose wondered about Luna. “Maybe she’ll fly out into the forest and meet her Prince Luna, and then she’ll tell him Hey, I have this nice place down there, it has leaves and sticks and I was there all winter and it’s nice and safe. Lets have our babies there! And they’ll come back together.” When we got home, it was dark. I turned on my phone’s flashlight and shone it at the cage. It was empty. “She flew away,” I said. “Are you sure?” asked Rose, searching carefully. We looked on the table, and the sides of the house, and the nearby trees, but saw no sign of her. “Goodbye, Luna,” Rose called into the night. “I love you.”
When I tucked Rose in that night, her eyes filled with tears. “I know it’s sad,” I said, “But she needed to be free.”
“I know,” said Rose, her voice catching. “I didn’t want to keep her in the cage. But I just wish we watched her fly away.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That would have been nice. But she was very shy, remember how she didn’t like it when we moved her cage? Maybe she needed privacy to fly away and find her Prince. And I think she’ll always remember you. You saved her, you know. If you hadn’t brought her cage up from the basement and checked it every morning, she might have hatched down there without us knowing. And then she would have died in the cage and never flown free. Now she can be free in the forest, and have babies. And it’s all because of you. I’m so proud of you. You never gave up on her.”
Luna’s cocoon after her emergence
Rose cried for a while and I hugged her. I felt weepy too. I was awed by the transformation we’d been so lucky to witness. And more than that, I was humbled by my daughter’s faith. I’d been cynical and pessimistic about Luna’s fate, but to Rose, there was never a question of whether Luna was still alive inside her dry, brown leaf. She took care of her all winter and was there to see her emergence, and could then share that tiny miracle with the rest of us. Luna helped me see my daughter in a new light- her strength, her courage, her kind and unselfish heart. When we bring nature into our lives, we open the door to experiences that can transform us forever.