Hanging by a thread - exploring the world in miniature
Kev Reynolds tells the story of how a tiny, hovering caterpillar stopped him in his tracks while out walking near his home in Kent. Illustrations by Clare Crooke.
It’s not how far you walk that matters. It’s what you see on the journey, what you absorb, and what lifts your spirits that has real meaning…
One evening in May, after a full day at the word processor, I had need of a walk. I needed fresh air and exercise, needed to smell the dew-dampening grass and to hear the birds’ anthems at dusk. I needed to be Out There, for Out There is where I belong.
It only takes five minutes to walk to the first meadow, with its view north to a line of greensand hills on whose slopes I lived for more than 40 years. Five minutes, that’s all it takes, and four of those five minutes are along a farm lane flanked by trees and bushes, in springtime bursting with new growth full of colour, fragrance and sound.
Below the farm I crossed a stream and traced the edge of a second meadow, veering towards a half-hidden pond to study the hawthorn blossom and inhale its musky fragrance. The meadow is lined on three sides with graceful oak trees all of a similar age, and every leaf that evening was an identical colour and hue, by contrast with a couple of weeks earlier when each tree seemed to have reached a different stage of development.
From a lofty branch on one of those trees a blackbird sounded the ‘chip-chip-chip’ call that tells of the day ebbing away – the feathered watchman warning of night’s approach by stealth.
It was then that I saw a caterpillar – no more than a centimetre in length, it was – and it appeared to be hovering in the air at eye-level.
Hovering? Surely not! It had to be suspended by a microscopically thin line of gossamer, so thin it was invisible to the human eye.
I studied it from all angles, moving slowly around the tiny creature, making a full circle in an attempt to find a natural source of light that would expose the thread holding it there, but failed.
So there it was, the creamy-white caterpillar suspended by an invisible life-line, gently swaying in the baby’s breath of air that drifted across the meadow. I was transfixed by it. Fascinated; excited even. My walk forgotten, I stood rooted to the spot.
A moment later it must have unravelled another length of gossamer, for it dropped a few centimetres, swung some more, then lowered itself again and again in jerky motions until at last it reached the meadowland grass. And there it settled on a single blade, rested for a moment or two, then, moving its tiny head, detached itself from the gossamer and moved slowly down the grass to its stem.
I went down on my knees beside it. Down where the grass emerged from the soil in quiver-like tufts full of green arrows, I tried to picture the caterpillar gorging itself on vegetation until it could morph into a chrysalis, and then emerge, transformed into a butterfly. Unless, of course, it became supper for a scavenging bird or an army of ants…
Taking my eyes off it for a moment, I looked up at the lowest branch of the oak it had launched itself from, tried to gauge just how far it had descended, and reckoned it must have been at least five metres. That’s 500 times its length. Relate that to a human scale, and it will be something like 750 metres! Seven-hundred-and fifty metres, hanging by a thread; that is one scary abseil!
By the time I looked down again, the caterpillar had vanished, leaving me to speculate when I might see it again in the guise of a beautiful butterfly drifting across that same meadow, gathering nectar from flowers that had yet to make an appearance, and looking for a mate to begin its life cycle all over again: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, butterfly…
I was lost in the wonders of Nature. You see, sometimes it’s worth taking your eyes off the bigger picture and looking at the world in miniature.
I do. Often.
I’m a simple, uneducated man for whom the world Out There is full of miracles. On that gentle May evening I knew I’d just witnessed one of them, and with a warm glow stood up and turned for home, richer than when I’d set out.
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