I wrote this late last year, and then filed it under drafts, gardens and gardening, have very much become a theme of lockdown. This year, my caterpillars haven't returned as yet, I am hoping they come back to vist...
...back to last year...
The other day, I was thinking about how gardens were like minds, and
mostly how my garden was very much like my mind.
There is my front garden, the bit that's on show to the world. It's neat, and tidy, and very much fits in with an expectation of what a garden should look like. My back garden however is very different. It's a place where neatness and order gives way to chaos and complication. A place where plants seem to grow just where they fancy, rather than in any kind of obvious order. Some of them seem to be just where they are for no apparent reason.
And isn't that like most of us? We try to keep a neat and together outside, while the part us which is behind the garden gate is often messy and complicated.
Many of the problems people experience is when we try to make those complicated gardens meet those neat and tidy expectations. We grow anxious, frustrated, angry even when our garden doesn't grow the way we want it to. So we try even harder only to find it gets even more messy and complicated.
And my role in this is to help people to accept that this is just how their garden grows, and that if they learn to love their messy garden, it will in time find it's own balance and harmony.
And so this story is all about caterpillars, and this caterpillar in particular...
This beastie is the larval form of the Large Cabbage White. It's called that because it is a white butterfly with 2 black spots on it's wings and a liking for brassica's. It's caterpillars can strip a plant to stalks in a matter of a few weeks. It's rather versatile, because it not only likes cabbages, it also eats mustards, and in this case Nasturtiums.
In most gardens, especially allotments, these little animals are viewed with horror. Throughout the Summer, gardeners up and down the country wage war against them with pesticides, nets, or in the case of an old allotment friend of mine, a badminton racket.
Except in my garden, I don't wage war against them, there is no need.
I don't feel the need to make my garden meet any particular expectation, just to be whatever it is. If it has caterpillars, then it is obviously a caterpillar garden! My job is just to be amazed by whatever grows.
Whenever I walk in that place we call the countryside, I notice that plants don't grow in neat rows arranged by colour and shape, with nicely tilled bare earth in between. In fact whenever I see artificially imposed order it feels wrong somehow and a little uncomfortable. There is peace in the randomness of how trees grow, and how plants are scattered hither and thither.
Gardening is sometimes described as an exercise in mastery over nature. And don't we talk about feelings in the same way? Aren't we expected to master our emotions, to control them, lest they get too wild, and the caterpillars turn everything into stalks?
So what happens if you decide to let go of that expectation of what a garden should look like? What happens if you decide to grow a caterpillar garden instead?
There was this bare patch of land, which is getting a rhubarb later in the year... probably. And so I sowed a green manure, which is a fast growing plant designed to protect the soil, and is dug in later.
The cabbage whites loved them. They came and laid hundreds of eggs in little clusters under the leaves. Tiny caterpillars emerged and began munching away, but the plants didn't care. They just grew fast and strong, and soon they were a sea of yellow flowers. When I walked into my garden I was greeted by the humming buzz of swarming insects.
The caterpillars continued to gorge creating a forest of bare stalks, but the plants still didn't care, they just got on with the business of swelling the bright green seed pods which were appearing.
And then something new appeared...
And no this is not the pupae of a Large White Cabbage butterfly. This is a little cluster of wasp pupae. The husk of the caterpillar had fallen off a couple of weeks earlier. .
The female of this parasitic wasp hunts out caterpillars to inject her eggs into. Once inside they hatch, and they eat the caterpillar while the caterpillar tries to out eat the wasps. This grim battle always ends up with the wasps winning.
When I used to have an allotment, I welcomed the wasps and the relief they brought from my losing battle with the caterpillars and my desire to produce perfect green leaved cabbages.
This idea of using a natural predator to control pests is the driving force behind developing biological controls. Except they have a habit of not working too well. And there are numerous examples of human beings introducing a species to try to control a pest, only for the unintended consequences to make things worse. The wasps on my allotment didn't stop the caterpillars from turning my cabbages into stalks either.
But for me, there is a bigger question...
Why doesn't the caterpillar give up?
It's an interesting question...
Once the wasp has injected it's eggs into the caterpillar, there is no more point to the caterpillar. It's never going to be a butterfly, it's always going to be nothing more than an incubator for a wasp.
So knowing this, why doesn't it just give up?
One answer, comes from the humanistic tradition, and says that everything strives to become. The caterpillar never stops striving to become a butterfly. It never gives up trying, no matter what, even if there is no hope of it ever becoming a butterfly.
But there is another answer...
Maybe the caterpillar needs the wasp.
Think about this way. If the caterpillar when it was attacked by the wasp, simply stopped eating, then those wasp larvae would have less to eat. They might not even be able to grow into adult wasps. Wouldn't this at least help the caterpillar's brothers and sisters grow into butterflies? There would be more food for them and fewer wasps to prey on them, wouldn't there?
So why wouldn't it choose this?
We are going through a global environmental crisis, and it's not only warming we need to do something about. Habitat loss is also a major problem. The collapse in insect populations is in part driven by habitat loss.
One such area are savannah's and grass lands, which are turning into deserts. One of the reasons for this is that they have fewer herds of large herbivores roaming across them. They have been replaced by cattle, and those cattle graze quite differently, mostly because they are fenced in.
When roaming ungulates arrive at an area, they chew everything down to the ground, but they also leave piles of dung everywhere, before moving onto the next area. The dung then acts as a fertiliser for the next cycle of growth.
If the grass is not grazed, and is left intact at the end of the growing season, then it rots down very slowly, mostly through the action of anaerobic bacteria. This produces methane, and turns into a smelly, slimy mess. Eventually the grasses will die, and the land turns into a desert.
In order to survive these grasses need to be eaten and turned into dung.
If I think about my plot of land, exactly the same thing is happening. My caterpillars are the roaming herbivores of my garden They are turning those fast growing mustards into fertiliser. Indeed, the black blob in the photo, above, is some caterpillar poop.
And then when I think about my caterpillars and wasps, something similar is happening, because what made my caterpillars so voracious, and so adaptable? Why is the Cabbage White so ubiquitous?
The crisis of being preyed on by wasps, perhaps? They had to grow strong to survive, and turn into butterflies.
And the wasps need the caterpillars too. They can't get too good at finding caterpillars, there always have to be some caterpillars which survive and turn into butterflies. The wasps aren't trying to control the caterpillars, they are in their own way trying to help the caterpillars become better caterpillars.
The Mind Garden
The other day I was in my garden, when a piece of imagination floated into my head. I imagined a visiting friend seeing my caterpillars, not liking them, and then deciding to fix my 'problem' for me, while ignoring me when I told them not to.
I then had a feeling of imaginary loss, followed by imaginary anger, which developed into an imaginary monologue, of me telling my friend just exactly why they should leave my caterpillars alone!
And that monologue turned into this piece of writing.
The anger I felt is not about losing a caterpillar, after all I didn't mind losing a few caterpillars to wasps. How my garden is organised is a reflection of my identity. My well-meaning but interfering imaginary friend is making a judgement not about my garden, but really about me.
If I want to love the caterpillars of my mind, then who are they to say I must squash them!
We all have our own version of 'mind caterpillars' and many of us also have 'angry wasps' as well as 'worry wasps' trying in vain to control them.
It seems to me anxiety is like having a mind full of caterpillars, and one of the most voracious is the "what other people think" variety. It's the kind of caterpillar which most of the time makes sure we don't get too full ourselves, and too self-absorbed. It makes us think about others and how they will react to us. However it can all too easily get out of control and go round eating everything.
Then there is the 'worry wasp', the one which reminds you that looking anxious in social situations will lead to people thinking bad things about you. So instead of controlling your anxious caterpillars, all it does is to make them stronger, which then summons more wasps.
When those 'mind caterpillars' are about, if we only see the stalks, are we missing the fertiliser? So when we summon the 'wasps' to control them, are we noticing that in truth the wasps need the caterpillars? And even if the wasps do kill all the caterpillars, what do they eat instead? Anything which looks remotely like a caterpillar, perhaps?
Maybe instead of expecting to have a pristine garden, with shiny green leaves, we just need to accept that our garden has caterpillars. Instead of looking in dismay at the stalks, perhaps we need to also see the fertiliser, while recognising that the caterpillars are going to summon some wasps.
So instead of focusing on how anxious we were in that social situation, maybe what we need to see was just how fast and strong our plant had to grow for us to be able to attend, and to speak to a few people. Aterwards, instead of summoning our army of 'critical wasps', perhaps we need to spend our time recognising that managing to attend even though we felt really anxious, is the fertiliser for the next cycle.
Perhaps where we start when we have a mind full of caterpillars and wasps, is to accept that today we have a caterpillar garden. Perhaps then we can go on to be curious about them, and then amazed by them.
Perhaps in time we can learn to love them, and then they can find their own balance.