Unending metamorphosis ◌

A trip into the forest has my mind crawling with shape-shifting caterpillars, moth-like men, and the relief that comes with transformation.

Lately I have been thinking about real-time evolution, and about the ability of a person—or an entire population—to rapidly and fully transform. Put another way, I’ve been musing over metamorphosis, and imagining what we might learn from it as both a physical and metaphorical process.

The most commonly-thought-of species to experience metamorphosis is the butterfly. But what of its less-favored cousin, the moth?

Often navigating by the moon and stars, most moths are nocturnal. Bright light confuses them; it rattles their sense of direction and leaves them feeling lost. They need darkness to thrive.

Before moths enter the flying (and final) stage of their lives, they exist as caterpillars—and they are often very hungry, voraciously anticipating their impending metamorphosis. This is how today’s shape-shifting newsletter starts.

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Last weekend I went hiking at a defunct woodland quarry near our house with a couple of friends. As we climbed from the parking area into the forest, my toddler got distracted by something on the trail, and we had to wait for him. In that moment, all was still—except for, well, something.

Pausing to listen, we heard an intermittent crackling, sort of like the pitter-patter of rain landing on dry leaves. Upon entering the deeper woods, the sound got louder and louder. That’s when we finally noticed them: The caterpillars. They were everywhere—hanging on silken threads, dangling from chewed-up leaves, crawling across the trail, clustering on lichen-covered tree trunks, inching along every. single. discernible. branch.

It was like the entirety of the forest suddenly shape-shifted from a soothing greenlit canopy into an ominous, creepy-crawling mass of fuzzy, black-and-brown worms.

This, of course, was an infestation of spongy moths in their larval stage. I’d later learn that the strange sound was a combination of the caterpillars chewing leaves and dropping their poop and shedded skin from the trees.

Invasive spongy moth populations have been ballooning throughout the Northeast over the past few years. Coming face to face with the density of their infestation was overwhelming, to say the least. I’ve seen tent caterpillars and the occasional spongy moth here or there, but never anything like this. I wondered, how will this forest ever heal from such devastation?

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In 1869, French artist, astronomer, and amateur entomologist Étienne Léopold Trouvelot unwisely introduced the first spongy moth egg mass to North America by bringing them from Europe to the Boston suburb where he lived. Trouvelot wanted to try breeding them with native moths as a way to potentially create cold-hardy silkworms. His plan went haywire when some of the larvae “escaped”—i.e. blew out of his open window—and began to breed and spread in the woods beyond his house.

The only known portrait of Trouvelot

After the incident, Trouvelot thankfully pivoted away from entrepreneurial bug-breeding, undergoing his own metamorphosis and becoming an astronomical artist. Very much like a moth himself, he was guided by the moon and stars—and found a tremendous amount of success.

Trouvelot’s illustrations depicted the cosmos in a way that most had never seen before, showing sumptuous galaxies, intricately patterned planets, and eye-popping heavenly phenomena in a way that felt both scientific and fantastical.

His images were so eye-opening, in fact, that he was asked to join the staff at Harvard’s observatory just five years after the escaped-larvae debacle. Some of his pastel works were exhibited at the first World’s Fair in Philadelphia alongside Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and the torch-bearing arm of the Statue of Liberty. Later, he even had a lunar crater named in his honor. 

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As caterpillars, spongy moths can leave an entire forest’s worth of leaves looking like Swiss cheese in just a few weeks. In the eastern U.S., it’s estimated that spongy moths defoliate an average of 700,000 acres each year. But during a bad year, as we’re experiencing now, they can do far more damage. According to a recent news report, last year spongy moth caterpillars defoliated 441,000 acres in Pennsylvania alone, and 373,000 acres in Wisconsin. That’s an entire year’s worth of defoliation coming from just two states.

Walking in the woods and seeing the destruction they’ve caused, while simultaneously imagining all that they could potentially cause, it’s easy to feel a sense of doom. 

However.

As moths, the caterpillars are biologically programmed shape-shifters. After a few weeks of voracious munching, the thick fuzzy caterpillars pupate, transforming themselves into elegant-looking moths. Then, they fly away. 

In early summer, their departure brings relief to the forest. And usually, defoliated trees will have enough time left in the season to regrow their leaves, and to capture the carbohydrates necessary to stay alive.

A female spongy moth after emerging from her cocoon. (Source)

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Trouvelot was working on his astronomical drawings at the same time that another moth-like artist, Eadweard Muybridge, was wrapped up in his own transformation.

Born in England as “Edward Muggeridge,” he left home at the age of 20 to seek his fortune in America, setting up shop as a bookseller in San Francisco during the gold rush. A few years later, he took a cross-country stagecoach trip, and was in a violent crash that killed his driver and left him with a traumatic head injury. 

While Muybridge eventually got better, that crash caused an intense alteration in his character. Upon his return to California a decade and a half later, friends stated that he had completely changed from a “smart and pleasant businessman” into an “eccentric, erratic, and unstable artist” (Source). 

Eadweard Muybridge, 1912

This is when he adopted the pseudonym “Helios,” which means “Titan of the sun,” and became utterly obsessed with inventing new ways of capturing the world around him. From there, he’d go on to pioneer multiple new forms of photography—from time-lapse and panorama to stereographs and projection—which would bring our species entirely new ways of seeing and understanding our world.

This was also around this time when Muybridge shot and killed his young wife’s lover. His attorney pleaded insanity on his behalf, and Muybridge was acquitted.

It would seem that in each life, there are booms and busts; there are pieces that feel incongruous to the broader story.

In ecosystems as well, transformation is a constant—for better or worse. But so is nature’s way of seeking equilibrium and redemption amidst unending, terrifying unpredictability.

I’ve learned that the cycles of spongy moths are, or at least have been, self-regulating. Their population growth follows a boom-and-bust pattern. Thanks to two ever-present ailments—a virus and fungus—that seem to infect them like clockwork once their numbers become unsustainable, their populations tend to collapse after about a decade of rapid proliferation.

Last weekend someone I trust to know about this stuff told me the caterpillar population is already in the process of collapsing. She said she saw their dead, virus-infected corpses raining down from the trees.

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Perhaps to shapeshift is to survive, but also to die. While metamorphosis brings relief, it can also kill us.

Both Trouvelot and Muybridge experienced intense personal metamorphoses. They were both, at times, awful men. But their lives and work also capture motion, and the magic of unending transformation:

Trouvelot’s illustration of a meteor shower shows multiple shooting stars superimposed together in the night sky, like a timelapse photograph—a new concept for his time. He called this way of rendering the meteors “an ideal view,” as it captured the sky in motion. 

Muybridge’s series, Animal Locomotion, documented movement in an entirely new way. For the first time, we could see the fractional moments that carry animals—including us—through space and time, from the past and into the future.

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As humans, I think we have an innate tendency to think linearly, and to define ourselves stagnantly. We only see the single frame, a slice in time. In this way, we’re often unable to hold the vast nuance of each other’s lives, and to see both the beauty and the brutality coexisting—all in one moment.

But shapeshifting is central to life. There are so many (his)stories to every (hu)man, to every species, within every multidimensional instant. This strange infinite circuitry is the stuff of magic, as well as the stuff of vindication.

Maybe right now our species is stuck in caterpillar mode. Overconsumption is our priority. But we should learn from their example. In receding, moths will be born, and hopefully the trauma we’ve caused can heal.

Some kind of moth on our lilac. Let me know if you can ID it 🙂

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