This morning, I took a quick look at our caterpillar bed, checking to see whether our blueberry plants had finally succumbed to this blasted drought.
The garden's been hanging in there despite the lack of rain – the advantage of native plants. That's especially helpful here at Shamrock, since the only hose tap within reach is inside one of the boys' bathrooms.
The passionflower vines are doing especially well, trailing everywhere and putting out their spectacular purple flowers.
We planted them in part because they're beautiful, but mainly because they're food for larvae of fritillary butterflies, orange-and-white spangled creatures that breed here in summer and fall.
As I clear some of the vines off the suffering blueberries, I spy a burnt-orange streak among the green. A caterpillar! It's a variegated fritillary, with long orange stripes running down its sides and black spikes designed to make it look unappetizingly prickly.
Class hasn't started yet, and kids are moving up and down the corridors. I head into Parker's classroom to tell them the good news. Parker and nature-loving Cameron follow me out to view the caterpillar.
Another student, Hernan, stops at his classroom door and asks us what we're doing. When we tell him, he points at to the brick wall at the edge of the garden. There are lots of caterpillars there, he notes.
We troop over, and sure enough, he's right. Not caterpillars, but chrysalises – lots of them. Caterpillars rarely form their chrysalises on the plants they eat. I'd been looking on other plants for signs, but had never thought to check the wall, which stands several feet from the beds.
The first chrysalis we see is in its early stages – half caterpillar, half hardening shell. It clings to the brick with the tiniest bit of silk.
On the other side of the wall, almost to the walkway, sits a finished chrysalis, bright green with gleaming golden spots. More kids pause on their way to class to look.
What's this? one of them asks, pointing further up the wall. Closer inspection reveals yet another chrysalis, this one brown, with a lower half that looks like a pair of discarded moth wings, or perhaps a fragment of dried leaf. That one's made by a Gulf fritillary, a spiky red caterpillar that likes passion vines as well.
All of a sudden, sharp eyes are looking and fingers pointing everywhere. Kids can't find half the things that are right under their noses. But now they spot chrysalis after chrysalis, on the wall, on the adjoining wall, hanging from the gutters up above our heads.
Then someone calls. Look here!
Right by the garden, hanging underneath a bone-dry drainpipe, is a butterfly with bright-patterned wings, holding to a dry brown chrysalis. Clearly, it has just emerged, and is drying its wings. Kids gather round to look. They admire its wings, point out its curled proboscis.
Morning reading can wait. The class ventures out in small groups, all eyes, to see caterpillars, chrysalises, butterfly – a lesson come to life.