Eight years ago, she watched in horror as a wasp “carved up” a baby caterpillar on the weed that had blown into her yard. Since then, she’s become a summer monarch keeper. What does that mean? Well, she tends the milkweed now lining her front yard, together with her heirloom tomatoes and zucchini. Milkweed is a monarch’s nursery. It is the only plant the delicate butterflies use for laying their eggs — “They hang off the end of the leaf, swing their abdomen around and up and, boink, stick on an egg,” says Brzezicki — and later the only food source for the hatching caterpillars.
Once she finds the eggs, she shepherds them inside to the sanctuary of her “House of Champions.” You should know Brzezicki is an artist. She didn’t just make any old hutch for the nursing caterpillars. She fashioned a screen box with scrap wood, affixed the spindles of an old chair on top and below, painted them turquoise and added the flourish of two plastic trophies — one a woman’s body, the other a leaf — she’d fished from the side of the road and merged together. So, as the caterpillars climb the screen to the box’s ceiling to begin their metamorphosis, they are mirrored above by Daphne, the Greek nymph who becomes a tree to escapes a lusty god.
Hanging from the roof today are two thumb-sized chrysalises, the colour of jade. When Brzezicki shines a flashlight onto one, I can make out the lines of a wing folded inside. I always thought caterpillars built cocoons. Not monarchs. Once they anchor their tails to the roof of Brzezicki’s box, they hang down like bats, and then their skin splits open and “they have wild gyrations to make it drop off,” says Brzezicki, 58. “It looks like they’re taking off a sweater.”
Monarchs are not the only wild creatures Brzezicki tends to. She’s a naturalist in the middle of the city: a baby raccoon howls for its mother in her shed (she found it wet and limping this morning); a family of squirrels sometimes sets up shop in the box she hung up; and a few bees have burrowed into the nest she built. Her backyard feels like a little slice of the country — the milkweeds and fringed loosestrife and butterfly bushes the adult monarchs suck from, all fighting for sun in a verdant tangle. Step outside and you feel your pulse slow.
Brzezicki has spent hours watching with wonder as the monarchs transformed. Blow on the caterpillars and they raise their rear ends. They have gold spots on their green larva shells. Under a magnifying glass, you can see their wings are ridged, like fingerprints.
Reports show the monarch colonies bounced back from last year’s collapse in their winter grounds high in the fir forests of central Mexico. But a dry spring in Texas and a wet one here has butterfly experts concerned. In her banner year, Brzezicki tended to 30 — opening the box outside to watch each flutter away. She normally finds her first eggs in May. This summer, they didn’t appear till mid-June.
Soon, the jade green of their chrysalises will turn transparent, and she’ll see their black bodies and orange wings. Then, the film will break and they’ll emerge in all their glory, pumping their wings up with their abdomen. These two will live for around 30 days, laying as many as 300 eggs each (if they are female), for which Brzezicki will scour barefoot in the mornings.
Then those children will have children, and those will likely begin the long descent back to Mexico for the winter. If all goes well, their grandchildren will return next spring.
The “House of Champions” might be little, but the perspective it gives is big. We should all have little boxes like this, to remind us of a greater life beyond our webs of concrete and crowded schedules. “It’s restorative,” says Brzezicki of her monarch-tending hobby. “It all sounds so corny — the circle of life — but it’s sacred. I walk into my backyard and look at an insect and think, ‘It’s a bloody miracle.’ ”
Catherine Porter’s column usually appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. She can be reached at email@example.com
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