When I was 9 we lived in some apartments in Salem. I was not happy there. The other children did not like me and would not play with me. I spent most of my time reading. When I wasn’t reading, I was trying to get the other children to play with me. When they would not, I would hang out with local dogs and cats and imagine I had friends who were mostly horses. As might be apparent from this and has been mentioned elsewhere, I was somewhat peculiar.
Our apartment complex was surrounded by fields. A few years after we moved away, the fields were mowed to put in a GI Joe store, Bi-mart, and strip malls. Ugly places. But when I lived there, the fields did too, filled with scrub trees and brush high enough in which to make forts. Our apartment had a patio that faced the main road, which was lined with oaks. There was also a tall, thin oak in our patio area. On this tree, there were often buggy creatures.
One cool, fall day while sitting on the patio breathlessly discussing my latest gymnastic championship with an imaginary sportscaster, I noticed a movement on the tree. Always curious about things of this sort, I went over to investigate. The movement was that of a fluffy, brown-and-black striped caterpillar. She was crawling rapidly up the tree. Bump. Flat. Bump. Flat. On she moved to some unknown destination.
I was utterly enchanted. A friend! I picked her up and placed her in my palm. She rolled into a small circle, the two black ends of her body touching. I walked over to a lawn chair and sat down, waiting. Her fluffs were kind of prickly, but also kind of soft. She had a shiny, black hood for a head at one end of her oblong body.
Eventually, she wakened and began crawling up my palm and onto my arm. I picked her up to turn her around. She rolled back into a circle. We continued like this for several minutes. She would begin crawling until she started to get too far up my arm, then I would move her back to my palm. After several rounds, I placed her on the table on our patio and watched her inching crawl.
This caterpillar was fast! I knew if I did not keep an eye on her, she would soon be gone. She was so fast, I decided she needed a fast name and decided on the highly original Jet. I loved her. I wanted to keep her until she grew into a butterfly.
I went into our apartment and began to rummage around for a jar. I placed Jet into a bowl on the kitchen counter and located a small jar with a lid. I took the jar and Jet out back and looked for some nature-like things with which to furnish Jet’s new home. I found some leaves, sticks, old brush, and a few dandelion flowers, and arranged them carefully in the jar. Then I placed Jet inside and twisted on the lid. I then, however, began to worry that Jet would suffocate in her new home, so I reopened it and went back into the house to locate a hammer and nail with which to create a ventilation system. I found the tools and headed back outside once again.
A short time later, Jet’s home was properly aerated so she would not suffocate. At this point I figured she might also need hydration, and went in to get a cup of water, leaving Jet in the jar while I did so. When I returned, I placed some droplets of water for her on a leaf. Jet crawled around the minute space for a bit, and then just stood there on a stick. I thought perhaps the home was boring for her, and brought her out again to play. This went on for a couple of hours until my mom came home from work. I showed her Jet and Jet’s new apartment before she began making dinner.
That evening, as I sat and watched television with my sister, Jet sat with me in her jar. I would take her out to crawl, then return her to her house. Finally my mom pointed out that Jet might be tired. I agreed and took her upstairs to my bedroom window sill for the night.
The next morning, upon awakening, I immediately went to Jet and her jar. She was not there! I looked and looked, but there was definitely no fluffy, black-and-brown caterpillar in the jar. I ran hollering into my mom’s bedroom, sobbing. Jet is gone! She isn’t here anymore!
My mom looked into the jar as well. Then she pointed to a soft, brown cocoon. See that? She made her cocoon. So fast? I could not believe it. I looked skeptically into the jar. Lo and behold, there was a cocoon! In my frenzied excitement over the missing caterpillar, the cocoon had completely escaped my attention. Part of the reason may have been because the cocoon was much smaller than Jet had been, or so it seemed. It was about the same width, but only about half the length, and it was light brown.
I kept the jar in my bedroom for the next few weeks. At first, I checked it constantly to see if a beautiful butterfly had emerged. As time progressed though, I began to wonder if maybe Jet had died in the cocoon. The grass and leaves shriveled up, and the jar looked decidedly bleaker than it had when I created the nest. The cocoon looked so light and fragile, I wasn’t so sure Jet was still alive.
My childhood existed before there was an internet where one could go and look up the incubation time for caterpillars, or what kind of butterfly or moth would emerge. I had gone to the library to see if I could find a book about Jet, but was not successful. I had no idea how long it would take for her to grow. Little did I realize that Jet would be wintering with me for months.
One morning the following spring, upon wakening, I went immediately to the jar, as had become my habit. I never expected a change because it had been a very long time since she had moved into the jar and turned into a cocoon. But this morning was different. The cocoon was spliced neatly up one side. However, I could not see any butterfly inside the jar.
Having been fooled once into thinking Jet had left, I was not so easily deterred this time. I took the jar into another room where the light from the windows was much brighter than in my room. There, among the dried leaves, grass, and dandelions, was a brown, spotted moth. Jet was not a butterfly, but a moth! I thought she was beautiful. Her wings seemed still to be wet and not completely ready to fly, so I left her in the jar while I went to school. After school, I took the jar and placed it outside with the lid off so she could fly away. Later when I went to see her, she was gone.
Since thinking about Jet recently, I went and looked up this type of caterpillar on the internet. Somewhere along the way I learned they are often called woolly bears. I played with many more such caterpillars throughout my childhood. In my recent research, I discovered that the moths that grow from woolly bear caterpillars are called Isia Isabella, or Tiger Moths. I love it that these creatures who brought enchantment to my life as a girl share the same name as my youngest daughter. I also learned that I had created just the perfect habitat for little Jet to cocoon for the winter. They like cool, small, dimly lit spaces with dirt, leaves, and dandelions, and once they are ready, they will hunker down until spring. My cool window sill was to the west under some trees; the jar an ideal woolly bear habitat.
Interestingly, there are legends that the woolly bear can predict whether winter will be more or less severe based on the thickness of their stripe. Some believe that if the woolly bear’s stripe is wide, winter will be mild. If the stripe is narrow, winter will be severe. Others believe the narrow stripe arises from more moisture, while a wide stripe comes from dry conditions. Considering wet winters are also often severe, these two lines of thought seem in corroboration.
I don’t remember what the weather was like the year Jet wintered with us. I lived in Oregon, so it was likely a wet winter. Compared to the many woolly bear photos I have now seen, hers was a narrow stripe. If this one woolly bear’s stripe was any indication, perhaps the legends about the woolly bears are true. All I know is that she was an interesting companion and brought happiness to an introverted and often lonely child, and she gave me something fun to look forward to.
Here is a photo of a woolly bear. This one looks exactly like Jet did.