Imaginal Discs and Memories


Image courtesy of National Wildlife Federation

From morning to late afternoon I watched a caterpillar climb a tall pine tree, climb without ever stopping to rest. That was September, two years ago, in the beautiful northern woods of Door County, Wisconsin. This tiny creature spent the entire day climbing, up and up the tall rugged trunk, over hill and dale, then out along a high branch, never resting. He seemed to be feeling some urgency, I thought; who knows? I've not been a caterpillar. He was certainly determined. When he stopped, I thought he must be exhausted, and then he began to spin. Surely, he felt he was about to fall apart; how could he not? Did he know he was packing an incorruptible set of memories of lessons he had learned? And did he know about the imaginal discs that would transform him to something unrecognizable that would still be him living his life?

The autumn equinox is past, and the time for preparing for winter is here, just like that; days shorter, nights longer, and tipping towards the dark and cold times at a seemingly accelerating pace. If I do my autumn work now, stacking wood and cleaning the chimney pipe, putting away the things of summer and bringing in the things of winter, I will likely get to enjoy some of the winter romance I imagine. I will sit by the fire on early dark winter eves, reading, drinking hot tea, journaling, taking some time to take stock of the year that is departing, to soothe the aches of it, savor the pleasures and victories, to release regrets, and to imagine a next year.

The idea of sitting by the fire in a kind of gentle transformation brings the image of a cocoon to mind. A couple of winters ago I was in a real cocoon: that is, the transformation was extreme, something more pleasant to remember than it was to anticipate. I had given up the central organizing form I had lived within for the previous twenty-five years, that of professor, and had to trust that I could turn into something else. As if to drive home the point, I got very sick. Recalling the transformation of that winter, I notice that I am still me. Everything that happened before is still “mine,” my memories, my history, my scrunched up and retooled identity. It felt very big while it was happening, like death.

But this is nature’s way. There’s a time when the chick is too big for the egg, a time when the caterpillar may already be carrying little wing buds inside its body, when the transformation must happen, or there will be certain death. The ugly caterpillar that spins a cocoon, then goes to sleep in its little hammock, and wakes up a beautiful butterfly is legendary. Its actual process is more devastating, less romantic.

The first thing the little creature who has realized all its wormy potential must do is to create imaginal discs of what it will become. These imaginal discs are a few cells, maybe 50 in each disc. These will eventually organize a large number of cells, maybe 50,000 each. (Does it know what it's doing, does it hope for wings?) The second thing the little caterpillar must do is to digest itself, quite literally give up all form, breaking down into a liquid that will become nutrition for the new form. The caterpillar does not turn into a butterfly, but into caterpillar soup with a few imaginal patterns floating around in the soup. For each body part that will be constructed—wings and legs, eyes and mouth, thorax and genitals, all are held in unimaginably compact form in those imaginal discs that slowly gather up the material of the former caterpillar and organize it into the parts that will organize themselves into a butterfly. The transformations feel like death because they are deaths, and every life requires many deaths.

This year is still living. I have tomatoes and squash on the vines, potatoes and beets in the still soft soil. But the world is beginning to weave its cocoon, to shed its leaves, to give up its green and blue. Soon it will go all brown and gray. And out of that cold and gray will come next year. We do not know how it happens that death gives birth to new beings and new years, new versions of ourselves that are still somehow continuous with the one who died.

A recent series of experiments at Georgetown demonstrated that butterflies remember lessons they learned as caterpillars. How can this be? If you cut open the cocoon at its most liquid moment, you would not see any body parts, no worm, no wings, and you would see no memories of lessons learned. You would see brown soup. But the images and memories are in there, unrecognizable.

I like to take lessons from other creatures, those who do life so seemingly differently from the way I do it. I imagine I can perhaps even radically expand my behavioral repertoire that way, perhaps not all the way to wings, but maybe to flight behavior (to borrow Barbara Kingsolver’s latest title). So I offer this lesson from a worm that can be recalled when you have to let go of your center, when a death is speeding towards you. The memories of your past, the imaginal discs of your future, they are in there, in the soup, the broken down you that will become nutritional substance for some imaginal potential you don't yet know you have.