Metamorphosis & Active Hope

Musings on climate chaos and caring action from Branches co-director Leena Miller Cressman.

This summer, as I take in the horrifying stories of fruit baking on trees in BC, and mass dying of wildlife along the west coast, fifteen monarch caterpillars have hatched in my care. It’s a tiny act of hope for a natural world in peril.

In the wild, only 10% of monarch caterpillars normally survive to reproduce, and those rates are decreasing due to pesticide use and climate change. Inside, all but one has survived so far. Once the butterflies emerge, I’ll release them to my garden.

In two weeks a caterpillar’s weight increases 2,700 times as they devour only milkweed leaves. Then they search for the perfect spot, and hang in a J shape, waiting, and over 6-12 hours they slowly change form under the surface. Then in a sudden final burst, (as seen in this 10 minute time lapse), they wriggle out of their caterpillar skin and become a chrysalis.

one of four monarch chrysalides in Leena’s dining room

Ecologist and Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy describes hope as a verb. It is something you do, actively, not something you have. In my little monarch sanctuary, I’m practicing these acts of hope for the world, and observing, with awe, the processes of nature. These processes are not linear – the reveal of a butterfly is just one step in the cycle. Equally significant are laying the eggs, days of devouring milkweed, waiting in a hanging J-shape, and the surrender into the chrysalis. 

The showy transformation of a butterfly hatching from the chrysalis is so often in photographs or videos, but this stage of metamorphosis – from caterpillar to pupa – is stunning in its own right. These creatures are so full of rich metaphors and timely teachings. 

Metamorphosis, for the caterpillar, requires a full stop and wait. It pauses, and it literally softens until it can easily wiggle out of its skin into a new form. Can you think of a time in your life when you felt or seemed stuck, but under the surface something new was emerging for you? 

As we remerge from our COVID cocoons, we might ask ourselves how we want to re-engage with the world. What hopes do we want to live into for our own wellbeing, and that of the planet? Do we really need to go back to so much jet setting? Could we continue to do more local travel and exploring? Will we keep up our new vegetable gardens or our breadmaking?

During the pandemic, we’ve seen governments and communities make monumental changes, fast. We’ve spent billions to help keep vulnerable businesses and workers afloat. We can no longer say that huge changes are impossible or just too hard. I’m living into hope for climate justice. 

To me this is about acting with care, but without attachment to the results. This is a key teaching in yogic philosophy and in the Bhagavad Gita. Will my small number of monarchs make a difference? Will the letter I send to my MP calling for action on climate change do anything? Who knows, but it’s still a good action. For more exploration on applying the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita to our climate emergency, you might check out these two posts by my friend and colleague Matthew Remski: one, two.

Let’s bolster and inspire each other with active hope – share in the comments what actions you’re taking.

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