Naraleian Caterpillars


I want to clear something up which has hung over me during the last couple of years of insect collecting. It's something which some of you probably know already, given the little hints I've dropped here and there in my blog, but for the rest of you don't worry - I've already prepared myself for your inevitable disappointment in me. Yes it's true - I really do believe in Naraleian caterpillars.

My reasoning is the same as most people who claim to believe in them: I believe in them because I've seen them. I saw them in 2001, back when I was dating my wife Jennifer, during a drive across the Algonquin national park from the hockey rink in Killaloe to Huntsville.

It's true that even after all these years I cannot completely shake the embarrassment of writing about Naraleian caterpillars, because as some of you will know, in the world of insect collecting you don't claim to have seen Naraleian caterpillars unless you expect to receive a certain amount of mockery. To most serious insect collectors the Naraleian caterpillar simply isn't really a caterpillar at all - it's a folklore tale - only believed in by conspiracy theorists and new age pot-heads.

The stories all stem from some kind native American mysticism. The Alogonquian tribe called them "dressmaking caterpillars" and believed they had a role in the "wedding" of trees - stringing distinct silk structures between two close-by trees which, in autumn, would help the spread of new seedlings over the forest floor. But since then there have been all kinds of other stories - old ladies say putting their silk in tea and drinking it can heal a broken heart, and the kids here in Ontario call them "kissing caterpillars" and say that if you put the silk in a girl's hair she is destined to be married within a year.

But, even without these stories, there is a much more practical reason why most insect collectors don't believe in Naraleian caterpillars, which is simply that almost everyone who has claimed to have found, examined, or written about Naraleian caterpillars has always described a caterpillar which, in all physical description at least, sounds eerily familiar to the Forest Tent caterpillar - one of the most common caterpillars in Ontario that swarms the forests every year in thousands.

And I'll admit, my story contains some elements of mysticism too. But then again, driving across the Algonquin national park in the evening is always a somewhat ethereal experience. Out the car window I remember seeing the setting sun reflected in all those small lakes full of driftwood and upright dead trees, and the water blooming - as if buckets of turmeric and saffron had been poured into it, or a coral reef had grown below the surface overnight. The car was so peaceful then, and I remember looking into the rear view mirror and seeing Ben, Jennifer's son, sitting there in the back seats, everything soaked through with warm air, his hockey sticks rattling against the car's windows. That was how I saw the caterpillars - on one of those drives - and for me, somehow the sun, and Ben, and everything which was going on at that point in my life is so completely entangled that I know that if I am going to convince you that I really did see them, I'd better start from the beginning, and tell you how I came to be driving Ben across Algonquin in the first place.

The thing is, when it comes to insects, I've always collected the rare ones - and for that I've been incredibly lucky to live where I do, with the chance to spend my time sitting in a wet tent in the Ontario wilderness surrounded by bugs. But while I was out there with my nets and jars, my friends were getting married, and after that my friend's friends were getting married. And this is where it starts: because at some point it stopped being so fun being out in the rain alone. Or to put it another way, until I met Jennifer, my luck in the world of insect collecting had not translated into the same luck in love.

I met Jennifer while I was working at the Killaloe hockey rink. She was one of a group of parents that would come to watch their kids at hockey training during the week. They had this habit of sitting right up at the top of the stands up by the rafters. When I had nothing else to do I would climb up through the cold air to join them at the top, and we would talk together, listening to the kid's high pitched shouts echo around the walls and against the glass sides of the rink.

Being a single parent Jennifer was more regular than most of them, but I had never gotten to know her well. From a distance, my impression of her was as a very practical person. I think I must have overhead a conversation between her and another parent about something like how to do the insurance forms for their dog who'd been in a car accident or something. And, I remember she spoke with this confident, warm voice that was so calming and reassuring. It was the kind of voice belonging to a person you'd be just as confident in if they were passing you the salt as if they were filling out your tax returns. But there was always this edge, as if upon any kind of interruption she might suddenly become this opposite, irrational person who could destroy you with a few precisely chosen words.

"Aren't you the general manager?" She said to me one day out of the blue.

"Don't you have some managing to do, rather than chatting up here with us all day long?"

She had an odd expression on her face, a kind of defensive half grin.

"Probably - although I reckon the only thing they really need me for around here is driving the Zamboni."

Another one of the parents turned around.

"And he doesn't even do a good job of that."

Jennifer smiled at me, before turning back to continue her previous conversation.

The ice was broken and we soon became good friends.

"I heard you took Ben to see the Leafs in Toronto last Thursday?"

"Yeah, it was a long drive down. Ben loved the match though - except for the final score, which put him into a mood."

"Too bad - that's one reason why I can't watch hockey any more. I ended up shouting at the screen."

"I thought you were over your phase of pretending you don't watch hockey Simeon?"

"With the amount of hockey I watch here at the rink it sort of loses its appeal."

"That's a shame, because I had a favorite rink manager I wanted to invite to come see the next game with us, but then I remembered he hates hockey!"

The conversations we had in the stands always felt unnaturally weighty - once the words came out they hung up in the cold air in the rafters close to the sky. Pinned in place - slowly rotating around, illuminated from every side by the raw light of the floodlights. When all the parents spoke together, it was like a little weather system, with clouds, and wind, and rain and sunshine all passing over - shouts and echoes and whispers vibrating around the whole stadium.

And then, as the training came to an end and the parents spoke in whispers it became still, and the conversations would drop like little flakes of snow, in delicate words, that fluttered and threaded their way to the ground.

There was a kind of tenderness in Jennifer then, and she began to open up to me about the details of her previous marriage with a seriousness that intimidated me.

"He told me he wanted more adventure - that he was becoming depressed from the same monotony of family life. Watching the same shows on TV, eating the same food, driving past the same places in the same small town. I ... really couldn't believe he would throw away everything we'd built together just to fuck off to somewhere else with a slightly different set of buildings, trees, and TV shows he'd not seen before ... but he did ... because he didn't really love me anymore."

Jennifer stopped talking and turned around - Ben was walking towards us, his hockey stick propped up on his shoulder, wrapped in his coat and ready to go.

"Hey, are you ready?" Ben said peering over my shoulder.

I suddenly felt cold, like I needed to jump around to stretch my legs and bring some more blood to my limbs. Jennifer noticed me fidgeting and turned around.

"I can give him a lift if you like" I said.

Jennifer paused, and studied my face.

"Well, next time I can pick him up after school and drive him home after practice if you like. The school is only a few minutes drive from the rink after all. It will save you a trip."

"You would want to do that for Ben?" Jennifer replied.

"If he doesn't mind waiting for me after school. He might need to wait around for 15 minutes after practice while I shut up the rink."

She looked at me with an expression like she was trying to communicate something important to me. Eventually she turned to Ben.

"What do you think if Simeon drives you back from practice Ben?"

"Sure," Ben replied, without looking up from his phone.

"I'll message you about picking up Ben next week."

Jennifer got up and Ben turned to follow her as she started making her way down the stands.

After she left, I looked at the little deserted rink down below. For a second it looked very unusual, as if the layout or color of the rink markings had changed, and all the colors flashed brightly in my vision. But I looked again and I couldn't see anything different - it was back to normal, and all I could hear was the rumbling of the air conditioning, so I went down the stands to lock up the rink.

Insect collecting is basically a hobby in two stages. There is the capture, and then there is the preservation, which includes pinning the specimens and putting them into carefully prepared and sealed boxes.

Perhaps surprisingly, the second stage is almost always the stage at which things go wrong - because insects are delicate creatures, and even the smallest mistake can easily harm them. A pin out of place can deform a beloved specimen beyond repair - and a botched preservation, such as a leaky seal, can lead to mold and decay. Now - that is the ultimate nightmare for all collectors - to return to a collection months later to find everything rotten and turned to dust.

And there is a running joke in the community that the rarer the specimen, the more supernatural its ability to evade capture at this second stage - as if rare insects hold some power to invoke the will of god from beyond the grave - to pinch open a seal by a few millimeters - to cause a momentary lack of strength in the collector's hands - just enough for a pin to slide, or a case to drop to the floor.

It's of course during this second stage that the Naraleian caterpillar has shown the most prowess in evading capture. Yes, plenty of people have claimed to have seen the Naraleian caterpillar - but to actually get it into a case - for display in a quiet, dark, public museum - under the eyes of inquisitive scientists. That has always been a step too far.

The rarest creatures are always, by their very nature, flighty and unpredictable. Humans are no different. We all know a person with a remarkable resistance to being pinned down - someone who makes it their life's goal to fly in the opposite direction to the net. For me, this person has always been Cecilia.

Unlike me, Cecilia is a real bona-fide entomologist. She works as a biologist at Queen's university, and she has dyed hair blue and large black rimmed glasses - not exactly a typical Algonquin native - she pulls no punches about being a biology nerd. Her father was the one who took us insect hunting all those long sunny weekends years ago in the Onatrio wilderness, and after that we were flat-mates together briefly at University, but unlike her I had returned back to Algonquin after my degree.

It happened as things usually did with Cecilia - she messaged me one evening saying that she would be in Bancroft for a couple of days running a field trip and wondering if I wanted to grab a drink at a bar nearby. I invited Jennifer to come along with us to meet her.

When I arrived at the bar Jennifer was already there, glancing around nervously. She waved me over. She was drinking a coke - she had to drive home afterwards. After a few minutes wait Cecilia arrived, sweeping into the bar with a cold gust of wind.

She walked over to our table, and stood over it, cocking her head and smiling.

"You must be Jennifer!" She said, grinning.

"Wow, that is a really beautiful scarf!" she said again, looking down at Jennifer's blue and yellow scarf which was delicately spread over the table in messy folds.

"Oh, thanks!" Jennifer replied, carefully gathering her scarf and putting it on her chair while Cecilia sat down.

"So, Simeon tells me that you're a biologist Cecilia?"

"Strictly true, although the university seems to be doing all that they can to prevent me from actually studying any insects - this term I've been covering for another professor's course, which means I've spent most of the time teaching and marking papers. At least I get to spend a few days out here though now an then," she said, turning to me and smiling again.

"And what do you do? I don't think Simeon told me."

"Well, I work as a teaching assistant, although to be honest just looking after my son takes up most of my time."

"Oh!" Cecilia said, looking at me quickly before glancing away.

"That's great - how old is he? You know ... I always wondered, like, how my life might have been different had I'd had children."

Jennifer started to explain a little more of what Ben was up to at school and I found myself studying Cecilia's face in profile, watching the small changes in light as she spoke and nodded along to their conversation. It was a long time since I had seen her last, and it felt like a lot had changed.

There was something about Cecilia's face that looked so bold, sharp, and determined. In my memories she had always been this small meek girl - an introverted collector who's Dad had been in charge of everything on those trips. And now, as I studied her face, and watched her speak, I couldn't help but feel somehow very proud of her - as she moved she looked artistic, chiseled - and I felt when I looked at my own face in the mirror I saw the exact opposite - features that were sanded down, worn and weathered in comparison - beveled edges.

As they continued talking, Jennifer and Cecilia formed a sort of unexpected camaraderie. Cecilia told stories about the trials of working in a male dominated workplace, and Jennifer told tales about the difficulties of being a single mother and looking after Ben now he was a teenager. Both of them seemed relived to be talking to a similarly minded person.

Cecilia asked me about any recent insect collecting I'd done, and we began to remember those days together when we were children and at University. It turned out Cecilia remembered a lot more than me, and she fell into her stride, telling all of her favorite insect collecting stories. As she gathered speed she leaned in toward me, and there was an intensity in her eyes, which I could see that Jennifer had noticed too.

"Do you remember when we found those cockroaches in our university apartment? We chased them around with empty jars to see if we could catch them and the ones we caught we lined up on the coffee table for guests to see?"

"That's gross", Jennifer said laughing a little.

"No, not really, cockroaches really aren't as dirty as everyone thinks they are," Cecilia said.

"No, really - its gross," Jennifer replied.

"No, it really isn't, trust me I know,"

"Yeah and I know it's gross,"

Cecilia turned to look at me and then back at Jennifer.

"The problem with you Jennifer is you are too normal," Cecilia laughed, "too normal for people like me and Simeon."

Jennifer turned to me and she looked flushed with tiredness, as if she had been carrying heavy shopping, and all the straps on the bags had broken, smashing everything against the floor.

I took a deep breath to say something, but Jennifer stood up before I could work out what to say.

"You know what, I should probably get going, but it has been really nice to meet you Cecilia!"

Jennifer finished her drink quickly. She hugged me and Cecilia before walking out of the door.

"Well, it was really nice to meet Jennifer", said Cecilia to me warmly, "she seems like a very nice lady."

Beside me on Jennifer's seat was her yellow and blue scarf wrapped up in a tight curl. I picked it up and showed it to Cecilia.

"Let me see if I can catch her before she leaves."

"Sure," said Cecilia taking another sip of her beer and taking our her phone.

Outside the pub the temperature had dropped and it had started to rain lightly. The neon of the bar sign spread over the wet concrete like a pink and red oil slick, and in the darkness surrounding the tree-line the leaves rustled at shook with the dripping rain.

I walked quickly in a lap around the parking lot, my breath pouring out in thick clouds in the cold wet air. To the left I saw Jennifer's navy blue car pull around the corner and pass by in front of me. I shouted her name and waved the scarf, but she appeared not to notice me. Her car swerved out of the parking lot and onto the gravel road, launching pebbles and spraying water over the ground. On the road it began to accelerate toward the highway, its dark chassis shining and glistening like the shell of a beetle in the rain. Then, it disappeared behind the tree-line, patches of car visible through the gaps in the branches - it was flying away, through the trees, disappearing into the dark night.

To an insect collector, there are basically two kinds of specimens which mean something to them - those specimens which signify some important event, such as their first capture of a particular species, or their first capture in a particular location, and those specimens which mean something because they are rare or difficult to capture - because they took investment of time, patience, and skill to finally catch.

The value placed on these two kinds tends to be based on the age of the collector. Younger collectors seem to value the second kind, essentially wanting to prove themselves by collecting insects which are highly valued by other collectors. While old collectors want to gather the first kind - looking for memories they can bring out again on a rainy day.

But all collectors, no matter what age, dream of a specimens which are special in both respects. They all dream of moments when the rain finally stops - and the rainbow appears - and the insect which has been avoiding them for days finally reveals itself. We all dream of that perfect moment.

Naturally, I apologized to Jennifer for what had happened at the bar, and for the fact that Cecilia had called her "too normal" but to be honest it just made things worse between us - Jennifer was, as she admitted herself, a fairly normal person - and did not want me tell her she wasn't - or, in her words, "lie to me to try and change things". And eventually she was unable to talk about the whole thing at all, and our relationship seemed to crumble and decay. In our conversations I started to see her practicality as stubbornness, and found it annoying the way she would interject into our little conversations with reasons why what I was saying was stupid - whatever the topic she was always able to find reasons why I was always wrong.

But I continued to take Ben to and from the hockey rink right up until we saw the caterpillars.

It was a journey which had always been mostly a silent experience. We would sit together, and, with the rumble of the engine in the background he would spend most of the time playing pokemon on his gameboy.

It was a game I had always had a soft spot for but there was something that I found amusing about Ben's play style. For one, he seemed to have practically zero interest in actually catching any pokemon, and his whole team was filled with weak and common pokemon you find around the starting area. And, since he didn't actually train up any of these pokemon, he did all the fighting with his (now immensely powerful) starter pokemon.

When I mentioned this to him, he didn't even seem to understand what I was getting at - to him this was the way of playing the game. Ben didn't care that his whole team was filled with normal pokemon, and for some reason this made me want to ask him what he thought about his mum's supposed normal-ness:

"Ben, do you think your mum is normal?"

"No," Ben said, without looking up from his gameboy.

"But I mean, objectively she is quite normal right?" I replied.

"Not really," he said frowning, he eyes still fixed on his gameboy.

The car returned to quietness. Beyond the windscreen the trees whipped quickly by the side of the car. The sun, which was just starting to set, gave their bark a kind of watery look, as if it were delicately brushed with blue and orange paint.

The stream of trees reminded me of a zoetrope - an endless film of unique evolving bark patterns, ticking by in a kind of fractal, repeating stutter, flickering and jumping like someone running the pages of a book between their fingers. It reminded me of those first biology lessons, looking down the microscope at a leaf, and, for the first time really understanding that nature had this kind of infinite fractal beauty to it. Understanding that when you picked up a leaf from the forest ground and put it to your eye, you were only scratching the surface of what was there - and that at every possible level there was this new and incredible world to discover - bare eyes, under a microscope, of from bird's eye view out an airplane - everything was beautiful and incredible at every scale in nature.

This was the real truth of nature I thought, that while a forest like this was regular and repetitive on face value, in reality, in every corner there was infinite unfathomable detail and beauty if you wanted to find it.

I imagined myself walking off into the forest - finding a small square meter in the middle of nowhere, with its own little layout of leaves and twigs lining the floor, and its own different selection of plants, undergrowth, and insects. I had no doubt, that if I dedicated my life to studying this square meter I would find an endless range of angles that would produce beautiful paintings and photographs - and find a life's worth of scientific discoveries that could fill a scientific journal. And, that it would contain hundreds of stories, from the lives of the trees which had stood there for thousands of years, to the small, immeasurable wars and struggles that raged between the microscopic bacteria and fungus.

That was the scientific fact - that each square meter of forest on earth was worth dedicating your life to - that each square meter of forest had an endless capacity for exploration, discovery, beauty - adoration.

And, I realized, Jennifer had not been upset at being called normal - she knew herself that she was, objectively, statistically, and like everything and everyone, normal - she was upset that in that moment I had not seen her as more than that - that in the reflection of my eyes she had seen just another square meter of boreal forest.

But nothing is normal when it is loved, and I did love her.

As I watched the trees I suddenly noticed a large black patch fly past the windscreen, and then another, and a third. I slowed the car a little to try and make sense of what I was seeing. Upon closer inspection I could see the patches were actually Forest Tent caterpillars, swarming and pilled on top of each other in their hundreds, lining the bark as they often do in summer. And, for some reason I decided to make a kind of joke about it to Ben.

"Did you see all those kissing caterpillars?"

Ben sat up.

"No?!" He said, surprised and excited.

It was not what I had expected. I had expected him to know already that kissing caterpillars were just a myth, and that I was just talking about Forest Tent caterpillars which he will have surely seen many times on the trees in Huntsville. But, for whatever reason he did not, and I decided to run with it...

"We can stop at the next spot if you like and take a closer look - seems they are starting to swarm."

"Really?! Amazing!" Ben said, sitting up and peering out of the windows into the forest, the setting sun projecting sunlight through the glass onto his face in stained glass patterns.

I spotted another patch ahead and we slowed down, pulling over into a little grass embankment. Out of the trunk I pulled out a couple of glass jars and a torch which I handed to Ben.

"We're going to catch some?!" Ben's eyes lit up.

Back up the road near where I'd see the caterpillars there was a kind of mossy green bank. Ben jumped up it, sending small chunks of turf rolling down. He shone the torch onto the patch of caterpillars, illuminating their yellow and blue markings.

"They're all crawling over each other, like one huge creature," Ben said.

"Insect collectors call them Naraleian caterpillars," I replied.



He got down on his knees, resting the torch on his thighs. The long beam shone distantly into the forest, casting long shadows across the mossy ground. In the darkness, a few specks of blue and yellow reflected the torch light.

"Look," Ben said, "there are hundreds of them!"

We walked deeper into the forest and came to a small clearing. Above was a little opening of setting sky, illuminating the ground with a faint blue and orange glow. Surrounding us were the caterpillars, their blue and yellow markings seeming to flicker and shine in the half-light. In front of us silk hammock-like structures connected the trees together in long arcs and folds.

Ben ran past me, whipping up the corner of my coat, and suddenly I felt a flush of happy dizziness. I lowered myself to the ground and sat down cross legged in the clearing, watching Ben going from one tree to the next with his torch.

He turned and shouted to me, "these things are incredible!"

I pushed my hands into the twigs and dirt on the floor. In the quiet I started to think I could hear something - like a faint singing - a kind of rustling and squeaking, as if the movement of the caterpillars across their silk strings were producing the awkward vibrations of a tiny string orchestra - that was it - like a thousand tiny choral voices, humming, buzzing, and vibrating in unison.

That noise - it was like something that had been written about Naraleian caterpillars by a famous collector called Hamming Friedman. He too, had recounted a kind of soft noise or drone...

Ben came back over to me, swinging the torch and shining it in my eyes, blinding me for a second. I got up and we walked over with him to the largest of the silk hammock-like structures spanning two trees. Up close the caterpillars looked even more delicate. They had an almost transparent feeling to them when Ben shone the torch on them directly - as if their internal organs were visible.

I plucked a couple from the silk thread and put them in two jars - Ben foraged around for some leaves to add, and then we screwed the top and headed back to the car.

All the way back to the house Ben could not stop examining the caterpillars in the jars, peering around the glass at different angles. Once we got to the house he rushed to the door.

"Look Mum, we caught some kissing caterpillars", Ben said, thrusting his jar into Jennifer's face.

Jennifer looked up a me with a curious grin. The other jar felt weighty in my hands.

"It's for you... well, actually, I hoped they could be for us - I hoped that we could look after them together."

"I thought you didn't believed in kissing caterpillars Simeon?"

I didn't know what to say.

"Come in - lets put these guys in a safe place."

And together we shuffled into Jennifer's living room, and she made us coffee while we sat and ate, and watched TV and examined our Naraleian caterpillars crawling around their jars on the coffee table.

Over the next couple of days the caterpillars sat quietly in their jars on the shelves in Jennifer's living room. With an excuse to visit, I started to come to the house at least a few times a week to spend time with Ben and Jennifer to watch the caterpillars. After a couple of weeks I noticed, to the great excitement of Jennifer and Ben, that the caterpillars were starting to form cocoons and within a couple more days they were almost completely encased and immobile.

The caterpillars stayed in their cocoons, looking over us in meditative stillness while the summer rolled on and the days grew hotter. Then, one Saturday I arrived at the house to find the jars unscrewed and empty. Noticing that I had arrived, Ben ran clattering down the stairs and into the living room looking sheepish.

"What happened to the caterpillars?"

"I'm sorry!" said Ben, his eyes large, eager to explain."

"I just felt so sorry for them - they were banging against the glass like mad."

"They came out of the cocoons?"

"Yeah, I think they came out last night...this morning they were going crazy trying to get out of the jars and kept smashing against the glass."

"What did they look like?"

"I dunno, butterflies ... I can't really remember anything specific ... sorry.

I could see it was going to be impossible to get anything meaningful out of him regarding their appearance - most likely he had not really looked at them properly when he let them out.

"Did you see where they went?"

"Not really - they flew into the hall but then I lost them. I guess they either flew out the window, or are somewhere else in the house."

I looked out the living room window. The tall pine trees in Jennifer's garden were swaying in the gentle breeze. I knew I should have been annoyed at Ben for releasing the butterflies, but as I imagined those two butterflies flying out the window and up over the peaks of those trees I just felt such a strong sense of relief, like a great heavy part of my life had been carried away with them. I turned to Ben, who looked up at me, still worried, and gave him a big hug.

"Don't worry Ben, that was a kind thing you did for them."

That was pretty much the end of the Naraleian caterpillars and sometimes when I see those empty jars on Jennifer's shelves I still question if the whole thing really happened at all. But then, when I go out into the Ontario wilderness insect collecting I somehow always come back feeling reassured.

Because, although Jennifer and Ben don't come with me on those trips, and so I am in truth just as alone as I was before I met them. Somehow the rain does not feel so wet, and my tent, with its dark corners and crevices does not feel so cramped. And, when I put my head down to the ground in my sleeping bag - just before I fall asleep - with the blackness surrounding me outside - I sometimes still feel like I can hear the caterpillars as I did all those years ago in that clearing with Ben. And, before I know it I am awake again, and I crawl out of my tent to cook breakfast in the fresh cold air, and I am full of faith.