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Life Lessons: Daughters and butterflies spread wings

The San Francisco Chronicle – August 25, 2007
By Susan DeMersseman

During one of our hotter summer days I opened the window in my daughter's room and saw a swallowtail fluttering through the top of the birch trees just outside her window. I wondered for a minute if it might be the offspring of one of the butterflies my daughter raised many years ago when she was in high school.

In her room she had created a huge butterfly habitat of cereal boxes, duct tape and large "windows" of plastic wrap. She spent an entire afternoon making it after the caterpillars outgrew the jar she'd been using. She filled the habitat with small twigs and fresh fennel sprigs and the nine caterpillars she had found on the plants across the street. Each day she put fresh fennel in and waited patiently.

Weeks later, in the same low-key way that she created the incubator, she released the emerging swallowtails. She held one dangling on a twig out her window. "It doesn't seem ready to fly yet," she said and put it back into its safe, temporary home. It got another chance the next day.

It was comforting to watch her nurture the caterpillars and to get a glimpse below the surly teenage surface. The tenderness she sometimes tried to hide was still there, still growing. The little things that made her unique had not been neutralized by this stage of conforming with the peer group. I have sometimes thought that the phrase "sweet sixteen" was an oxymoron. Every mother of a teenage girl has prayed for patience. But the connection between her journey of transformation and that of the butterflies was clear and poignant. It was a subtle exercise of faith in nature and in her own emergence.

Fewer and fewer children these days are experiencing the luxury - no, the necessity - of this connection with nature.

There's a wonderful book on this topic, "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder." The author, Richard Louv, describes the growing research indicating that exposure to nature is essential to the healthy development of children.

A related organization, the , encourages projects that help create the valuable connection between children and nature, They are part of the "Leave No Child Inside" movement.

Kids need this faith in growth and transformation. Though not all connections are as transparent as that of my butterfly midwife, children have a huge need to see their relationship to the ever-changing natural environment and to see how they can be part of it in a positive way.

My wondering about the swallowtails hovering outside my daughter's window led me to do some research. Was I being too romantic in thinking that these butterflies might be seeking their ancestral home in a contraption of cereal boxes, plastic wrap and duct tape? I was pleased to learn that swallowtails do in fact return to lay their eggs in the place of their hatching. The butterflies will find fennel plants across the street, but the habitat is long gone and the girl who created it has flown now too. She's moved to Seattle, where she volunteers at an urban nature center for children. And like the butterflies, I'm pretty sure she knows how to find her way back.

Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator in Berkeley. E-mail her at

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