banded woolly bear
searching for a place to hole
up for the winter
My father is raking leaves and my sister and I are jumping into the fragrant piles. In the dry grass I find a woolly bear, steadily making its way across the yard. I pick it up and it curls into a black and orange ball, its fur prickling my palm. When I show it to my father, he tells me the caterpillar is looking for a place to hibernate for the winter, maybe under a log or a rock. He says you can tell how long and cold the winter is going to be by the orange banc on the caterpillar, the thicker the band, the milder the winter. This one has a narrow copper band. "Does that mean we'll have a lot of snow?" I ask hopefully. Then I start to worry that the woolly bear, even with a thick coat, will freeze. My father, a chemist, explains that the caterpillar produces a kind of antifreeze, like the ethylene glycol we put in our car or the propylene glycol they put in ice cream to keep it from forming ice crystals. "Maybe it's dimethyl sulfoxide," he mutters. I know that stuff. That's the liquid he puts on my skin when I get a bruise, claiming it will make it heal faster, but it still takes a long time to turn from purple to yellow.
We do have a lot of snow that winter, but it has nothing to do with the width of the woolly bear's band. My father's mixture of fact and fiction was misleading. He was right about the caterpillar producing a cryoprotectant. But perhaps because he wasn't a biologist, he didn't know that hatchlings from the same clutch of eggs, like kittens from the same cat, vary a lot in color, and that the copper band gets wider with age. The banded woolly bear is the larva of the Isabella tiger moth. In the spring the caterpillar emerges from hibernation, devours herbs and forbs, pupates and turns into a lovely golden moth with a furry head. The moth lives through the summer, mates, and the female lays eggs which hatch in the autumn.
It's October and the woolly bears are migrating. I see them by the dozens, marching slowly but steadily across the highway. They always go straight across, but in both directions. I drive slowly, my eyes straining to see the tiny black caterpillars against the dark pavement. When I spot one, I swerve to miss it, making sure there's no one behind me who might wonder what's wrong with me. Today, when I stop at the mail box, I see one crossing the concrete apron before the bridge and I run back to take its picture. Before I can reach down to pick up the woolly bear and deposit it in the grass, a big truck comes down the hill, so I jump back to the shoulder. After it passes, I walk back out to rescue the caterpillar, but alas, it has been smashed flat by the wheels of the truck, its green blood spewed across the concrete.
I feel terrible because I took its picture instead of rescuing it first. I try to console myself by recalling the story about the saint and the dead cat. A mischievous man decides to test the reputed equanimity of the saint. He invites the saint to his house for a meal, then leads him by the most unpleasant path. They come upon a cat that has been overtaken by a bus. The mischievous man says, "Oh, how horrible!" But the saint says, "See, what pearly white teeth."