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The very hungry caterpillar: a tragedy in three acts

September 28, 2013


This is the time of year when we begin to find unexpected visitors in the house. The most blatant ones are of the eight-legged variety. Spiders come in looking for a warm place to spend the winter, and make me jump by appearing beside light-switches and in bathrooms and even, eek, bedrooms. Have you noticed that autumn spiders are so often huge? An enormous one has taken roost behind the kitchen bin, making all recycling a test of nerve.

There are six-legged visitors too. Butterflies find their way in somehow and fold themselves up like books for hibernation. Beetles scuttle in search of dark crevices. And then there was the caterpillar in the fridge.


Act One

You should know that this was not just any old caterpillar. In fact, it was virtually family. Back in the early summer, younger son decided to turn his hand to a spot of gardening. We planted whatever we could find in the seed packets that had been gathering dust all winter beside the kitchen sink: radishes, parsley, poppies and curly kale. It was good to see our boy enjoying sharing and eating the fruits (or rather the vegetables) of his labours. He even remembered to do a little weeding now and again.

While the rest of the plot is bare earth now, the kale is several feet high and still putting out crunchy fresh leaves. We are not the only species to enjoy them – which is how the caterpillar came to be in the fridge, along with a handful of son’s home-grown kale. By the time I discovered it, a day or two after picking the kale, the poor little caterpillar was just a frozen curl of green, chilled to the…well, to whatever caterpillars have where their bones should be.

It’s not unusual to find bugs and beasties on home-grown fruit and veg, so I am pretty relaxed about them; even the teeny white worms in the blackberries don’t bother me these days. (Although…earwigs in apples…eeww.) Normally I just put them in the compost along with the trimmings, reasoning that they will either survive on the contents of the bin until it is emptied onto the compost heap, or they will die stuffed and happy.

As I carried the little frozen curl to the compost bucket, however, the warmth of my palm worked a minor miracle. The caterpillar returned to life. Slowly, it uncurled on the warmth of my palm, lifted its little blunt head and peered about cautiously. My heart smote me.


home of the caterpillar - the kale is on the left

home of the caterpillar – the kale is on the left


Act Two

And thus it was, dear reader, that we came to have a pet caterpillar in the house. No longer in the fridge, it gained itself a very desirable residence of a clean yogurt pot, with air-holes punched in the lid and filled with rain-washed fresh kale.  Well, you know, my younger son happens to be doing a project on butterflies at school this term: what else could we do? Once he had spotted the caterpillar – his caterpillar, because from his kale – there was no option but to keep it.

On Tuesday he took it to school, where it was greatly admired. Son decided to call the caterpillar ‘Camo’ because it was so well camouflaged against the green kale leaves. The class had high hopes of a cabbage white butterfly being born to my son a few weeks from now.

The caterpillar, meanwhile, seemed oblivious to the attention. He simply obeyed instinct and ate, and ate, and ate. (Oh, and poo-d  out little green blobs all over the leaves – who knew?) He was just an alimentary canal on six weeny legs. After three days, he had doubled in size: no longer a tiny curl, he was frankly a bit of an incredible hulk. We started to plan his new living quarters for his metamorphosis.,28.9.13-1

caterpillar food: finest home-grown kale


Act Three

We were in a rush this morning and didn’t have time to check the pot before school. I peeked in on the caterpillar at midday, however, and found that, sure enough, he had stopped eating and had fastened himself to the wall of the yogurt pot. His shoulders were hunched up. Without doubt, he was ready to start spinning himself a chrysalis. Was it my imagination, though, or was he looking a bit wan? Perhaps it was just the strain of  the transition.

‘Guess what!’ I said to younger son when he got home this afternoon. ‘Camo is ready to turn in to a chrysalis!’

Great excitement. Son rushed to the pot and carefully took off its lid.

‘I can’t see him, Mummy.’

Under the kale leaves, at the bottom of the pot, we found the pathetic, sunken body of Camo the caterpillar, weeny legs upturned in a stiffness more permanent than any cocoon.

We gave him a grand send-off in the compost bucket, surrounded by kale leaves. A handful of old sweet peas were strewn over the top. My son was inconsolable for twenty long minutes…until I let him lick the bowl of the chocolate cake I was baking for older son’s birthday this weekend.

‘Cake mixture always helps, Mummy,’ said he, beaming from a chocolatey face.



The enormous spider behind the kitchen bin seems to be dead too. It is reduced to a tangle of legs in a heap on the floor. Peering at it, oddly enough, I don’t feel any need for cake mixture at all.


You might enjoy another childhood adventure in Here be treasure.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Snoring Dog Studio permalink
    September 28, 2013 2:04 pm

    What a lovely garden and a lovelier story. You presented your children with a wonderful gift – respecting the creatures that surround us!

    • September 28, 2013 7:10 pm

      Thank you. I certainly hope that I am teaching them to respect and appreciate their fellow creatures.

  2. hmunro permalink
    September 28, 2013 11:11 pm

    Oh, Dancing Beastie … how on earth are you so clever, and so kind? The title of your post made me laugh out loud, when it popped up just now in my reader. But the rest of your post made me weep for the tenderness with which you and Younger Son treated Camo. I’m so sorry the little creature joined the caterpillar choir eternal, rather than bloom into the butterfly (or moth?) you’d both hoped for. It may be one of life’s toughest lessons, that we can’t always save our fellow creatures. But you’ve taught your son one of life’s most *valuable* lessons: That at least we can care, and we can try to make a difference.

    On a less charitable note, I’m happy to hear that recycling will no longer be a test of nerve for you. Requiescat in pace, Mr. Spider.

    • October 1, 2013 11:00 pm

      These are important lessons, aren’t they? I wish my boys had known the loss only of a caterpillar so far in their lives. But it was a relief to see that my son was able to keep a sense of perspective about this little history: I was a bit worried that it might spark off a return of grief about the more serious losses of last year. It’s good for him to learn that we can try to make a difference, as you say; that we don’t always manage it; and also that the world keeps turning and joy returns. Hurray.

  3. September 29, 2013 7:33 am

    What a lovely story! Poor Camo, but at least he enjoyed his second life (missing out on the third). Having just got Colin to rescue a medium-sized spider from the kitchen, I can sympathise with your spider predicament. When the girls were younger they learned always to call them ‘medium’ spiders if they had to report one – a ‘big’ one would cause premature panic, whereas a ‘medium’ one would always tempt me to go and look.

    • October 1, 2013 11:01 pm

      That made me laugh! It’s good psychology: I must tell myself in future that they are only ‘medium’ spiders, not ‘enormous’. 🙂

  4. September 29, 2013 12:09 pm

    Oh what a delightful, if ultimately tragic, tale, DB. So many good lesson taught so gently to younger son, who is quite right that cake mixture does help. 🙂 I enjoyed this enormously.

    • October 1, 2013 11:03 pm

      Thank you, I am glad you enjoyed it! Poor old caterpillar, I wonder what we should have done differently. But I must admit that we are rather enjoying the finished cake now.

  5. October 1, 2013 1:44 am

    You are such a grand story teller.
    (And glad the spider didn’t sit down beside her!)

  6. Erika W. permalink
    October 2, 2013 2:22 pm

    A sad little story.

    You have reminded me of how differently vegetables are now grown–commercially at least, drenched in fertilizers and poisons probably. When i was a child everything had to be soaked in salt water, and then carefully washed, to remove al the insects and caterpillars and even then one occasionally got through to the salad bowl or even turned up cooked…Now everything bought and not home grown, even if labeled “organic” is washed to remove spray residues instead–nothing else living has come near to it.

    But our house here in Delaware is still a happy spider haven (oh dear) and the annual invasion of brown stink bugs has begun–tucking themselves hopefully into wooden window frames, and the crickets are arriving in every way possible.

    • October 7, 2013 12:02 am

      At least we don’t have to deal with stink bugs and crickets in Scotland! And I am, on balance, happy to say that we still get our veg and salad mostly from the garden, and have to wash off all the beasties first.

  7. Caroline permalink
    October 6, 2013 8:14 pm

    Lovely, important story in the unfolding of wonder. what a gift for your children. one of my most important memories of childhood – over half a century ago – was being shown the sticky bud of a horsechestnut after the leaf had fallen. And it still fills me with awe (Maybe this should be a comment for your Tuesday trees….)……but alot of your writing is about wonder……..thank you.

    • October 7, 2013 12:04 am

      Oh, I remember being fascinated by sticky horse-chestnut buds! You are absolutely right about my writing being about wonder. I still have precious remnants of my childhood wonder at the world. How sad it would be to lose that.


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