On cocoons

by Christie Chisholm

by Christie Chisholm

If you sliced open a caterpillar’s cocoon, you’d expect to find a tiny beast, a creature that would look new to you yet somehow familiar. Half caterpillar, half butterfly, perhaps a shiny and squiggly green grub just starting to sprout wings; wet, furled, squished into its soft, shrouding casing. But that is not what you would find. 

If you plucked a cocoon from its silky strings and took a fingernail to it, you would not find an insectan chimera. You would find no wings, no spongy body, no little nubbin legs. There would be no velveteen antennae, no eyes of iridescence. You would find goo. Just a cocoon of fibers and silk filled with sticky, yellow goo.

After a caterpillar spins itself a cocoon, it begins to break down. It doesn’t grow wings, doesn’t evolve. It devolves. It dissolves. It disintegrates. And then it rebuilds. From this unnerving and miraculous transformation comes a question: When a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, is it still the same animal? If it returns to nothing but molecules and paste before reincarnating itself, can you still call it by the same name? Or is one animal just taking the other’s place?

The answer, somehow, is both. A caterpillar subjected to Pavlovian tricks and trained to react to specific smells will react in kind once it has transformed. An insect left alone will likewise present no reaction when it has wings. It is the same beast, utterly rearranged.

The metaphor here is not subtle, particularly if you have at a time spun your own cocoon out of necessity, forged a place to rest in the dark, stretched to turn puss and paste into something that can carry you. It’s a metaphor worth clinging to. 

There’s something deeply comforting about the notion that even when you’re in the goo, so to speak, there’s a part of yourself—an essence or an atom or a cell—that you retain, and that someday, if you accept where you are and keep working, you will return to the world. Changed, but still you.