The anaesthesia of knowledge

When was the last time you remembered that you know nothing?

My mint plant has acquired a hungry caterpillar. When I spotted the tiny guy curled under the leaf, my instinct was to break off the stalk and fling it in the bin. Luckily for him, I’ve recently been inspired by Keith Reynolds from Manchester to create a space which welcomes wildlife. His philosophy on gardening is to invite wildlife into his balcony. He plans his garden in terms of what he can offer- plants which host caterpillars, plants which offer nectar, fruits, and shelter. Even aphids are welcomed by him as food for ladybirds.

Like Keith, I’m learning to celebrate the appearance of each new creature. Two days ago, I saw a little snail. Yesterday a small wolf spider. With wary care, I check on the caterpillar every day. He seems to double in size every few days. And he thrashes his body from side to side when he feels threatened, which gives me the heebie-jeebies, but I let him be. I would prefer it if he can bulk up and cocoon down without having to decimate my entire mint plant. Being a bit hazy on the process I researched the life cycle of a butterfly.

A caterpillar will hatch from eggs laid directly onto a plant which it can eat. After hatching the caterpillar will spend all day eating voraciously. As they grow, their exoskeleton does not grow, and the caterpillar sheds this skin several times as it grows. This stage often lasts about 4 weeks, but many will stick around over winter, and then pupate in time for spring. I’m hoping the Minty Thrasher will be a four week kinda guy.

Pupation. We all know that story. We may even have recently helped a child to read up about it. It’s always accompanied by adjectives like wondrous, remarkable, fascinating. Don’t let the adjective dull the event for you. Adjectives are anaesthesia to stop our minds from experiencing. Pause and really think about it.

The caterpillar locks itself into a cocoon or pupa, then releases enzymes to dissolve its own body. It digests itself, and if you cut a pupa open at one stage, caterpillar soup would flow out. The only things to survive this digestion are imaginal discs, and in some species a few caterpillar body parts such as the nervous system. Each imaginal disc contains the building code for one butterfly body part. The discs use the caterpillar soup to fuel rapid cell division, in order to grow into an adult body part.

You knew caterpillars turn into butterflies, but did you know about this self-digestion?

You know about self-digestion, but do we really understand what happens?

Does it hurt? How much of the creature’s consciousness survives the metamorphosis? Some studies indicate moths may remember what the caterpillar learned. What does it feel like to be a caterpillar? A pupa? A butterfly? Does flying feel like freedom because the butterfly remembers what it felt like to crawl?

We gather knowledge around us, read books and articles, share articles on politics, news, science and technology- and have this warm idea at our core that we know. We are keeping informed. We have knowledge that will help us understand the world. But our knowledge is piecemeal, superficial and incomplete. I’d even say, our knowledge is damaging, it’s anaesthesia.

Take the caterpillar for example. Way back in school we learned that caterpillars turn into butterflies. Maybe we spent a semester bringing in jars with a pupa hanging from a twig to watch the butterfly emerge, and then we forgot about it. We attached names, labels and theories to it. Now any time you see a caterpillar or a butterfly, your brain says ‘yes, I know’ and you dismiss it. You don’t wonder at the mystery.

To look again, really look and wonder, we have to forget we know. Or rather, stop thinking that we know. It’s only by remembering the world is deeply mysterious that we can see it again and pay attention to it. Observe it.

I and the functioning of my conscious, subconscious, and unconscious mind are deeply mysterious and require attention. My partner, my family, my friends…. you get the idea. Every person is a mystery and should be looked at with the same wonder and awe as those crazy self-digesting mystic caterpillars.

Photograph by Prithika Nair
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