Digging Out From Under

spider-lilies

My grandmother’s spider lilies. They come up like red fireworks in the fall, year after year; she gave them to me not long before she died.

 

I started drafting this back in February; I have run into it a couple of times in my drafts, and I look at it, and put it away. So, today, I decided to post it… see if that helps me work through.

I’m trying to dig myself out. I’ve gotten lost, buried under layers of emotional debris. It’s been a rough few years.

This is one of those things where there wasn’t any single definitive moment when things collapsed, but more like the erosion of a steep hillside after a roadway cut, with periods of settling and equilibrium between rock slides. Things got buried, crushed under boulders, damaged and dented. I’m hoping that most of the important things, I’ll be able to dust off and glue back together. My creative soul has been lying in many pieces; I’m trying to grow another one, or breathe some life into the one I have.

I’ve always felt a nagging insecurity when I’m writing articles or teaching classes. When I read descriptions of impostor syndrome, it was like it was based on me, like somebody was describing my personal case. I’ve done huge amounts of reading and study, and I know my stuff… but sometimes I feel like I’m bluffing, just faking it, and everybody’s going to find out. I think part of this is that all my training is informal; I don’t have any degrees or anything official, nothing I can point to as a source of authority, no certificate on the wall that justifies what I say. I have always gotten good reviews on classes and I feel like my writing is sound, but the insidious nagging inner voice can shake my confidence. I can usually hush it up, with good self-talk and inner cheerleading, and I can usually get back to a comfortable, confident place.

When someone external echoes those internal thoughts, it’s harder to refute. If you were to tell me that my parents never loved me and I can’t spell, those would bounce right off, because I’m rock solid certain about those things, but if you tell me that my article was tedious and nobody really respects my weaving work, it would hit me hard, because they’re things I worry about, in the small hours of the night. They’re tender spots.

I had this happen twice within a couple of weeks, back in 2013. First, in the course of one long fight, I heard that nobody likes me, I’m a pathetic loser writing articles that will only matter to other sad weirdos like me, and the whole stupid yarn thing doesn’t matter in the real world, and on and on. They’re the kind of words that you know your loved ones would never say when in their right frame of mind… but they have to be at least a little true, or they wouldn’t hurt so much. They can hit all the spots that are the most vulnerable. I haven’t woven since then, not a stitch. I haven’t made silk. I taught a couple of classes that I had committed to before the emotional train went off the rails, but my creative energy just felt like it had been kicked hard in the gut. Then, I had another person, someone in a position of respect and authority, make a snide remark on an Internet forum – basically implying that I stole my class material from another teacher without giving credit. I was off kilter enough that I just let it stand; later, I finally went through and dug into my sources, and proved to myself that I knew the genealogy of my information and the development of my classes. The one class on that material that I taught between then and now, felt like I was just going through the motions – not anything that felt like fun, or enjoyable, or even pleasant. Talking about my process, and about learning to do these things, was like telling another person’s story – it felt distant, without emotion, detached. I have taught a couple of classes in those years; it felt like I was a substitute teacher, like I was presenting another person’s information.

I’ve loved being a creative person. I’ve learned to dance, and draw, and sing, and weave, and sculpt, and dye – they’re all ways of using that same energy, that creative wellspring. I feel like my spring has just kind of dried and stagnated, like my creative juices have gone bad and just stopped flowing. My dreams have been sad and gray. I’ve had some rough, bad times between then and now, and I’m finally feeling like I’m recovering and might get back out from under. I’m having some brilliant and colorful dreams, I’m getting glimpses of the unicorn disappearing around the corner in the woods. Sometimes I can hear the birds singing.

Along with this, threaded through and around the same emotional and creative crash, a lot of other things happened. I lost two grandparents; neither was a surprise, but it still bit hard. I’ve hit some serious relationship rocks. We’ve been up and down, and things have been amazing and horrible, kind of in turns. We solemnized our fifteen-year relationship with a courthouse wedding, and everything was amazing; we had some screaming fights, and there were some weeks where we didn’t sleep in the same bed. I’ve been everywhere from crying with happiness, to suicidal depression. I had that downward-spiraling emotional cycle where you start out with “I don’t want to get out of bed today,” and you go on to “and then I’d lose my job” and you end up at “I might as well just kill myself and get it over with.” I never injured myself, but I had gotten to the point of ideation and planning, figuring out how much charcoal would be needed to fill a small closet with carbon monoxide, which pills would be nice to help me relax while I waited, and keep me from being revived if somebody found me. Those things are still handy, where I can get to them if I need them. From here, it seems like a long distance from that dark place… but it’s still closer than I’d like. I’ve developed anxiety issues severe enough for four Xanax a day, and there were plenty of days when I needed all four of them to get through. Now, I haven’t taken one in months, but just the knowledge that they’re there helps me feel like I can deal with it if it gets out of hand.

So now, I’m feeling my sap rising. I’m feeling better in a lot of ways… but so much of my spirit is still in mothballs. My studio, which was always cluttered and full of junk, is literally so crammed with hoarder-style miserable crap, that I can’t get to where my loom is, or approach the desk, or open the closet where the beads and threads are. There are so many beautiful things there that I can’t even touch. I cleaned it out twice in the past few years, but I wasn’t using any of it, so there was no reason not to just put a box of stuff on top of the desk, and then one behind the chair, and slowly the room filled up again. In addition, the garden that brings me so much joy is full of weeds, and the plants are so overgrown that I’ll need to do a lot of work with pruners, and in some spots possibly a machete, before I can even get in to hoe up the weeds to plant.

New skins, new attitudes

 

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Overnight, the majority of the caterpillars changed their skins. They spin a pad of silk, and then hook their rear feet in the silk; then they wiggle and shimmy their way out of the old skin. This is an old skin. You can see the rear feet at the top left, and you can see some of the hairs from the old skin in the middle of the shot. Click on the picture for the bigger version.

 

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Here, you can see a first-instar caterpillar (left) who’s a day or so behind the game. The difference in size between the first instar and second instar head casings is substantial.

 

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When they come out of the day of rest with new skins, they have a voracious appetite; they turn the mulberry leaves into lace.

 

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It’s hard to get the focus just right to see it, but the head casings are surprisingly hairy.

 

Too much sausage, not enough casing.

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After five days, the silkworms have grown SO much! Their heads are the same size as they were before, but now the heads look tiny on their thick bodies. The bodies look like they’re over-stuffed – like too much sausage stuffed into not enough casing.

 

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At this scale, the head is about the same size as the other one. See how much it’s grown?

 

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This one looks like it’s getting ready to shed its skin. This process involves a day of rest, followed by shedding the face mask and the full skin for a larger, looser one.

For I will consider my moth Jeoffry.

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This is a male Polyphemus moth. I’m always fascinated by the variety of scales and textures on their wings, and I got some close-up photos so you can really see why butterflies and moths are called “Lepidoptera” meaning “Scaled wings”

 

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The scales are formed of chitin, like the exoskeleton and the substrate of the wing, and they provide insulation, aerodynamic effect, and coloration. The colors can help a moth hide, or help it protect itself.

 

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The thick, furry scales on the moth’s body not only help it retain heat (produced by the muscles – they can actually fly at quite low temperatures, and the body is hot to the touch after flight) but they also help make the moth harder to bite – the scales come off, and you might just get a mouth full of fuzz.

 

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The gray fur on the head reminds me of salt and pepper hair.

 

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These eyespots mimic the eyes of a predator. The moth will often rest with its wings folded, so that the spots are concealed – and then pop them out if threatened. This mimicing of a predator (particularly a predator common to the prey species and its predator species) is common in the animal world, and is called Batesian mimicry. I’ve gotten to observe it in Polyphemus moths first hand. After they are done breeding, I often feed spent moths to our backyard chickens. One female proved that she wasn’t quite done for, when the chickens ran up to claim their tasty snack – she popped out those big black eyes, and the chickens literally backed… away… slowly. It was cool, and kind of creepy.

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Here you can see the texture of the individual scales. If you click on the picture, it takes you to the full-size image, where you can see it REALLY close up. The shiny spot is wing with no scales at all – it reflects light, and light passes through it, like glass.

 

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The legs have another kind of hair-like scale. The big, muscular thighs and knees remind me of tarantula legs.

 

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Because Jeoffry is a male moth, he has huge, plumose (feathery) antennae. The males use these to detect pheromones, or sex hormones, released into the air by the female. They can fly miles to find a female, tacking into the breeze to follow the trace of scent.

 

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Here, in really-really-close zoom, you can see the individual little hair-like scales on the antennae; these have scent receptors which will comb through the night air and allow Jeoffry to smell his potential mate.

So many hairy babies….

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They hatched out just a couple of days ago, but they’re already noticeably larger. They will grow until their skins can’t expand any further, and then shed. On the bottom right corner, you can see the silk strands that they lay down constantly – these function as a safety line, if one of them falls off a branch.

Am I blue…. ?

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These silkworm eggs are starting to turn “blue” – the developing worm inside separates from the shell, and they get a hazy lighter color. About half the eggs in this photo are blue – the others are likely nonviable.

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If you look really close, and you’ve got a good magnification on your camera or hand lens, you can see the caterpillar curled inside the egg.

 

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These have reached the head pigmentation stage; you can see the little dark heads. They’ll hatch within another day or two.

 

Calleta hatchlings

The Calleta caterpillars (Eupackardia calleta) started hatching today. These beautiful moths are native to much of the American southwest. I am raising them mostly for the fun of it – they do produce silk, but it’s not one I’ve made into yarn yet.

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This tiny hatchling is eating cenizo – Leucophyllum frutescens – which many of my gardening friends call purple sage. Not related to the Salvia sages at all.

The caterpillars are covered with tiny bristles called scoli; these aren’t spiky to the touch for a person, but they would be get in the way if you were, say, a spider trying to put the bite on a caterpillar.

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The insides of the hatched eggshells are beautiful – like rosy opals. The colors remind me of Maxfield Parrish.

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Silkworm Season is beginning!

Every year it happens… the leaves pop out on the local mulberry trees, and then it’s time to start the silkworms.

10153303_10207606446412881_4991094600487356790_nThe Ancient Wisdom version says that you should start the silkworm eggs when the leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear. We don’t have the kind of long, slow spring where that lasts for long – so by the time I get a chance to snap a picture, they’re almost the size of a dime. This is a feral white mulberry tree in my yard in south Dallas.

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These are the eggs. You can tell from the size of the fibers in the torn paper towel edges, these are pretty tiny. They’re about the size of poppy seeds.

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When you get really, really close up, you can see the texture of the egg shell. The forming caterpillar embryos inside are in a state of rest called diapause; it allows them to survive through winter temperatures without dying, and they begin to metabolize and develop once they warm up in the spring.

Mimicry, and seeing life in macro

I’ve enjoyed nature all my life. I was that kid, tromping in the woods, turning over logs to marvel at the life beneath, watching the patterns of light and shadow on leaves to see the hidden snake. Getting a camera with a good macro, and learning to take close-up shots, has taught me to look even closer – now, even without the camera, I see all kinds of neat things happening that I never even knew were there.  Evolution is amazing, and the diversity of life is profound and humbling.

This house has been a revelation as well – our yard backs up to a wooded creek, and we garden organically, so there’s an abundance of life that I think would be missing in a lot of city dwellings. I’ve seen things here that I had previously only heard of, and many that I never even knew existed. We’ve got mantis flies, and tortoise beetles, and cuckoo wasps, and thread snakes. I’ve found several things where I’ve looked them up and read “Not much is known about their diet or habits” and just had to smile and shake my head at the amazing depth and complexity of life.

I found this cool tiny critter one night, luring moths to a sheet with a black light to see what would show up. It’s called Petrophila jaliscalis, less than half an inch long, and my eye was caught by the beautiful spangles on its rear wings. I couldn’t find anything like it, searching on the web. I put a request on Bugguide.net (an amazing resource, if you’re trying to ID something weird) and they pinned it down. This odd genus lives as caterpillars on stones in running water – creeks, streams, rivers.

What I didn’t find out until a lot more recently – there’s a very cool reason for the spangles on its wings. This whole genus mimics jumping spiders to help scare off predators. I found a jumping spider in the kitchen one afternoon, and got the macro lens and the ring light and shot some pictures. I’m still working on getting a firm ID for this spider, asking some smart folks on a Facebook spiders group; so far, it’s looking like Maevia inclemens.

Keep in mind, this whole spider is about the size of a pencil eraser – but with a macro lens, you can see it in magnifying-glass detail.

Here, it’s on the border where the white trim meets the yellow-painted wall… you get a sense of scale from the bubbles in the paint.

and then you adjust the lighting, and you shoot, and you shoot, and you find where the damned thing ran around the corner of the wall, and you move, and you shoot some more, and then you crop, and you adjust… and you get the portrait. I’m not a trained photographer, and I know there’s a lot that I could have done better – but I’m proud of this one.

It wasn’t until I saw an article about a spider-mimicry in metalmark moths, that I thought, “Hmm… those metallic marks look like the ones I saw on the little guy on the sheet!” and started looking into it.

And it all came together. I still want to get a better angled shot, so you can really see the “eye” and “leg” markings in the same positions. If you squint your eyes at the moth, you can definitely see the spider – and if you were some hungry bug, you might think twice. This is one of a dozen or more examples of Batesian mimicry I’ve seen in the yard; we’ve got ant-spiders, and bee-flies, and so many scary eyes.

Another cool link, showing the amazing underwater caterpillar in its *SILKEN CASE* (see, you knew there was going to be silk involved) –

http://jimmccormac.blogspot.com/2015/06/an-underwater-caterpillar.html