Monday, July 13, 2009

Caterpillars aren't my favorite.

Once, I helped gut and skin a road-killed deer. (It was my first day on a new job, I couldn't say no!) I have buried animal carcasses in my yard just to dig them up months later and examine the bones. I've spent hours digging through the mud I've dredged up from stream bottoms, in search of crawdads, snails, insect exoskeletons, and other such treasures.

It does take a lot to gross me out. But there is one thing that creeps me out big-time, despite my best intentions. Caterpillars. Eew. The ugly truth is, I can't stand them. Unless they are behind glass or in some other confined space well away from me, it makes my skin crawl just to look at them.

So when L's school held a picnic in a park that was literally crawling with them, I nearly went out of my mind.

When it comes to being with kids in nature, I believe it's important to keep your own fears and negative attitudes out of the picture. Really, if you hate bugs or you can't stand being outdoors at night, your kids will definitely pick up on that and they will start to "adopt" that same attitude toward creatures.

Perhaps that's where I developed this aversion to caterpillars. My mother hated them. I have distinct memories of her, reacting with fear and panic when she came across an inchworm inching across my back one day when I was young. For years, I was terrified, and I do mean terrified of caterpillars of all kinds.

As a naturalist, I am a bit sheepish about admitting it, but this was a full-blown phobia I had for a while. I actually managed to work through this awful condition with hypnosis, but that's another story for another time.

So what was once a paralyzing phobia is now really only mild discomfort, so I can generally tolerate the presence of caterpillars without freaking out. And this takes some mental gymnastics. But I do OK. I prefer not to hold them or touch them, and when in the presence of them, I think mostly of the butterfly or moth they will become, and I do OK. And kids everywhere seem to love them. And that's really pretty cool. I get excited about that. So that helps me forget my discomfort a bit too.

Back to the school picnic. Glorious summer day. Dozens of kids frolicking on picnic blankets, eating ice cream, and dancing and playing in a wonderful park full of oak trees. We were having a great time, until I looked down and saw a few caterpillars crawling on the edge of a picnic blanket. Hmm. No biggie. Suddenly I realized that there were caterpillars all over the place. In the grass, on the tree trunks. On people's lunches.

Kids were picking them up, carrying them around. A cluster of kids had gathered around one little girl and when she turned to look at me she had a handful of them, they were crawling up and down her arms, on her shoulders. She was delighted!

Lucy approached me with one, curled up in her hand. "Look, mommy! A callerpiller! Do you want to hold it?" aw, crap.

So, while, yes, I firmly believe that I need to check my attitude and fear at the door, so to speak, so as not to taint my kids' experiences of nature and all manner of critters, I'm also a firm believer in honesty. 'Tis a fine line.

"Yep, honey, it sure is." Deep breath. "I don't want to hold it, caterpillars aren't my favorite. But thanks." She gently put it back on a tree, bless her sweet little heart. J followed her, and, with one tiny finger, stroked its back as it crawled up the tree trunk. They watched it together as I beat back the panic I was starting to feel.

I tried to focus on all these kids having such a great time, making friends with the caterpillars, naming them, organizing caterpillar races. They were so excited. It was great. There must have been thousands of caterpillars, and the many of the kids were just thrilled to be able to see them up close. (note: Nature geek that I am, I have since learned that these were Forest Tent Caterpillars, and this was a pretty typical infestation. It's likely there were actually several million of the darn thing in this particular park. I'm so glad I didn't know this at the time.)

A part of my brain was saying, "Get me out of here! They're everywhere!" And I was trying not to scream. And trying not to look like a complete freak, brushing off my back and feeling my hair to make sure I had none crawling on me. What I really wanted to do was grab my kids and run. Just get out of the park.

Luckily, it was almost time to leave anyway. I managed to very calmly herd J and L back to our pile of stuff, which I realized was probably crawling with caterpillars. (It was.) I shook out our blanket. I picked up our picnic bag. We made our way out of the park. We crossed the road, across which a few dozen caterpillars were scooting. L wanted to stop and watch. I let her, while I loaded up the car and strapped J in to the car seat. "There they go, Mommy, off to find some leaves to eat!" she said happily.

I was exhausted from the effort of holding it together. My skin was crawling. I wanted to appear calm, unfazed. Deep breaths. They don't need to know I'm freaking out. It's OK for them to know there are some things I'm not comfortable with. I just don't want them to feel so afraid, like I did. Like I do right now.

On the way home, I kept thinking of how scared I got as a kid that time my mom freaked out about a caterpillar. I really, really don't want my kids to feel that way about caterpillars, or anything in nature for that matter. At least, not unless they get to that place on their own. I had to keep it together. And, I did the best I could. I was bummed that I couldn't share their joy. I was disappointed that I couldn't play with the caterpillars with my kids.

But at least I didn't run screaming from the park. I didn't lose my head and completely freak out. And that's got to count for something. Sometimes, it's enough for me to appreciate that my kids can appreciate something.

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