hot and dirty in zone 9b


Becoming. Nabokov on Transformation.

A P R I L  2 0 0 0 

On Transformation

In March of 1951, in the first year that Nabokov taught his Masterpieces of European Fiction course at Cornell, he included three stories involving transformation: Gogol’s “The Overcoat” (with his habitual hyperprecision he preferred to translate the title as “The Carrick”), Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” Here he introduces the subject of transformation for his students.



THERE was a Chinese philosopher who all his life pondered the problem whether he was a Chinese philosopher dreaming that he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming that she was a philosopher.

All three stories [“The Carrick,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and “The Metamorphosis”] are concerned with transformation, with metamorphosis. Who can explain the process in entomological terms?

Transformation … Transformation is a marvelous thing … I am thinking especially of the transformation of butterflies. Though wonderful to watch, transformation from larva to pupa or from pupa to butterfly is not a particularly pleasant process for the subject involved. There comes for every caterpillar a difficult moment when he begins to feel pervaded by an odd sense of discomfort. It is a tight feeling — here about the neck and elsewhere, and then an unbearable itch. Of course he has moulted a few times before, but that is nothing in comparison to the tickle and urge that he feels now. He must shed that tight dry skin, or die. As you have guessed under that skin, the armor of a pupa — and how uncomfortable to wear one’s skin over one’s armor — is already forming: I am especially concerned at the moment with those butterflies that have carved golden pupa, called also chrysalis, which hang from some surface in the open air.

Well, the caterpillar must do something about that horrible feeling. He walks about looking for a suitable place. He finds it. He crawls up a wall or a tree-trunk. He makes for himself a little pad of silk on the underside of that perch. He hangs himself by the tip of his tail or last legs, from the silk patch, so as to dangle head downwards in the position of an inverted question-mark, and there is a question — how to get rid now of his skin. One wriggle, another wriggle — and zip the skin bursts down the back, and he gradually gets out of it working with shoulders and hips like a person getting out of a sausage dress. Then comes the most critical moment. — You understand that we are hanging head down by our last pair of legs, and the problem now is to shed the whole skin — even the skin of those last legs by which we hang — but how to accomplish this without falling?

So what does he do, this courageous and stubborn little animal who is already partly disrobed. Very carefully he starts working out his hind legs, dislodging them from the patch of silk from which he is dangling, head down — and then with an admirable twist and jerk he sort of jumps offthe silk pad, sheds the last shred of hose, and immediately, in the process of the same jerk-and-twist-jump he attaches himself anew by means of a hook that was under the shed skin on the tip of his body. Now all the skin has come off, thank God, and the bared surface, now hard and glistening, is the pupa, a swathed-baby like thing hanging from that twig — a very beautiful chrysalis with golden knobs and plate-armor wingcases. This pupal stage lasts from a few days to a few years. I remember as a boy keeping a hawkmoth’s pupa in a box for something like seven years, so that I actually finished high school while the thing was asleep — and then finally it hatched — unfortunately it happened during a journey on the train, — a nice case of misjudgement after all those years. But to come back to our butterfly pupa.

After say two or three weeks something begins to happen. The pupa hangs quite motionless, but you notice one day that through the wingcases, which are many times smaller than the wings of the future perfect insect — you notice that through the horn-like texture of each wingcase you can see in miniature the pattern of the future wing, the lovely flush of the groundcolor, a dark margin, a rudimentary eyespot. Another day or two — and the final transformation occurs. The pupa splits as the caterpillar had split — it is really a last glorified moult, and the butterfly creeps out — and in its turn hangs down from the twig to dry. She is not handsome at first. She is very damp and bedraggled. But those limp implements of hers that she has disengaged, gradually dry, distend, the veins branch and harden — and in twenty minutes or so she is ready to fly. You have noticed that the caterpillar is a he, the pupa an it, and the butterfly a she.You will ask — what is the feeling of hatching? Oh, no doubt, there is a rush of panic to the head, a thrill of breathless and strange sensation, but then the eyes see, in a flow of sunshine, the butterfly sees the world, the large and awful face of the gaping entomologist.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; Nabokov’s Butterflies, On Transformation – 00.04; Volume 285, No. 4; page 54. 


Monarchs and Red Admirals and Swallowtails, Oh My!

Well, it is definitely spring here in New Orleans. I am not sure we really had winter…and neither are the Monarchs, I don’t think. We have had Monarch butterflies all winter this year, without pause. Boy, are my milkweed tired! Phew! They just keep going, getting stripped down to stems and popping out more leaves. It is pretty amazing. Admirable, really.

Visiting the exciting garden of a new client, who is a certified ‘Monarch Waystation’, was like being in a Monarch airport! Then we caught sight of an erratic little dark flitter-fluttering thing. “What’s that one?”, she asked. I couldn’t get a good enough look to tell. Then. later in the week, I caught sight of another of the little darters. This time, attracted by our picnic blanket (a bright purple mexican sarape), it slowed down enough for me to really get an eyeful.

The butterfly you may have been trying to identify as it herky-jerks past you in it’s super-fast flight is likely a Red Admiral, or Vanessa atalanta.

Don’t let it’s spikiness fool you or scare you away, the Red Admiral caterpillar is not one of the stinging caterpillars.

One of the more common larval hosts (caterpillar food plant) for the Red Admiral is False Nettle, also known as Bog Nettle, Boehmeria cylindrica. 

This native plant is a very common “weed” of gardens and wet, low-lying areas (ie. New Orleans). Prolific and widespread, it is nice to know it is also useful! Red Admiral caterpillars are often difficult to spot, as they wrap themselves in the leaves of the plant while eating.

And finally, the Red Admiral chrysalis. Difficult to spot in nature!

Beautifully camouflaged, the chrysalis, like that of the Monarch, becomes more and more transparent as the butterfly matures within.

Another butterfly I am seeing a lot of lately are of the Swallowtail (Papilio) genus. Ruby and I were lucky enough to observe one female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio glaucus, very closely.

She must have just hatched and was drying her wings on the irises in our garden. This is not my shot of said butterfly, but one found on google images, by the way (in case you are saying, “Those aren’t irises!”). Cutting through Fortier Park on the way to the coffeehouse, I spotted at least 6 Black Swallowtails lilting about. They could have been either species, I was not able to get close enough to verify which. Here is the female Black Swallowtail, or Papilio polyxenes. 

Very similar, que no?

Here are the boys. First the male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail:

easily distinguishable from the male of the Black Swallowtail, here:

A little trickier to tell the ladies apart, yes?

The larval hosts for each species are different. Some options for New Orleans gardeners wanting to attract the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail are: Mexican Plum (Prunus mexicana), Sweetbay (Magnolia virginiana), Black Willow (Salix nigra), Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), River Birch (Betula nigra) and Carolina Ash (Fraxinus caroliniana).

Plants for feeding Black Swallowtail caterpillars are those in the Parsley (Apiaceae) family, such as: Parsley, Fennel (I like to use Bronze Fennel. It looks like a little misty puff of smoke in the garden!), Dill and Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota).

Plant it and they will come!

Here is the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail in an early instar, very usefully camouflaged as bird poop!

Here are some images of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar as it progresses through later instars:

Almost doesn’t look real, does it?! Those eye spots!!!

And here is the larva of the Black Swallowtail:

and then in a later instar:

and finally, getting ready to pupate:

I am always amazed that more people don’t butterfly garden. The plants are largely carefree and the rewards are considerable. I think one of the things that happens is that people want butterflies, yes, of course, who doesn’t think butterflies are beautiful? So, they plant nectar plants. Though they are surely important, nectar plants are only part of the equation. If one really wants to be able to see the whole life cycle and be insured that the butterflies will seek your garden out and return to it year after year, the answer is to provide food for their caterpillars. Namely, larval host plants.

Now, there are those who take umbrage at the thought of planting plants expressly for them to be stripped down to bare stems by *icky worms*…but obviously, those are not the folks this blog is geared towards! So if that is you and you are still reading…wow! Thanks!!! I think that once most people realize that those “icky worms” are actually amazing butterflies-to-be, perhaps they are able to look at them differently and view their “trespasses” in their gardens another way. Personally, i find the caterpillars just as fascinating (if not more so, sometimes!) than the butterflies they become. Alien and funky, caterpillars are just plain weird.

I like weird, me.

Butterfly Gardening at Crescent City Montessori

Prepared for planting



After planting with the kids.


There are few gardening projects that I find more satisfying than the ones I have done with children. Butterfly gardening with kids is especially fulfilling because of the immediate and tangible results: plant host plants and voila! caterpillars!

Learning about the life cycle of a butterfly or moth, so beautifully metaphorical for life’s many opportunities for growth and transformation are so succinctly communicated by these fragile but resilient and tenacious creatures. The wonder in the faces of the kids when they discover a hidden chrysalis or an egg on a milkweed leaf are the best reward one could hope for.

Theo Jansen’s ‘Strandbeests’

Butterfly Gardening with the Under 6 Set

Miss Josie examines a Monarch Butterfly caterpillar

Ballerinas and baby butterflies, photo courtesy Leslie Bouie

City Park Movement and Art on Dumaine at North Hennessy is a great place to take your preschooler for Ballet and Tap Dance classes. And, while they are there, they can learn a little about Butterfly Gardening! I put in the Butterfly Garden at CPM&A and less than two weeks later the milkweed plants were covered with Monarch caterpillars and there was a chrysalis, hanging like a single jade pendant kissed with gold, from the fire hydrant! It is so rewarding to watch the learning that happens from having direct contact with life in the garden.

Trees of the French Quarter

A friend of mine is making maps. Of the French Quarter. She’s done one that is of all the bookstores: Beckham’s, Crescent City Books, Acadian Books, Faulkner House, La Librairie, Dauphine Street Books. Another is of the best places to go for a cheap drink. Then, of utmost importance, especially after all the cheap drinks, locations of the French Quarter’s (available) public bathrooms.

And now, she is mapping the trees. If you ask most New Orleanians about trees in the French Quarter, they will tell you there aren’t many or any. This is actually not true. There are quite a few and a good many native trees, to my especial delight. I spent the better part of this lovely, unseasonably cool, early October day riding my bicycle around the quarter taking photos and notes of exceptional specimens and answering Quarterite’s questions about what I was doing.

I am not halfway done but am, thus far, enjoying myself immensely. Perhaps like many of the city’s residents, I don’t spend much time in the French Quarter. Though I do love it. It is the hypnotic and intoxicating (and often intoxicated) heart of the city, too often written off as the “tourist part of town”. Bourbon Street, T-shirt shops, drunk tourists flashing each other for shiny, plastic, marijuana leaf-shaped beads in May (read: no time near Mardi Gras).

Of course, it is all of these things and infinitely more. There are many people who call the quarter home and have for many years, generations. “Quarter Rats”, they are often affectionately called (or call themselves) and there have been infamous ones, often referred to as “Quarter Characters”. Ruthie the Duck Girl, The Lucky Bead Lady and Porkchop, to name a few of the more memorable, gone-but-not-forgotten.  There are schools. Churches. Corner Grocery stores. And trees.

Here are a few of my pics from today.

Nice use of American Holly (LA native!) as a street planting. Ilex opaca is one of the more commonly used street trees in the French Quarter.

Hackberry at Mc Donogh 15 school, perimeter planting on Royal Street.

The perimeter planting at Mc Donogh 15, St. Peter and Royal streets, is the highest concentration of Lousiana native trees that I observed. At this single location there are a Southern Magnolia, Bald Cypress, Sweet Bay Magnolia, Mulberry, Sycamore, Yaupon Holly, American Hollies, Wax Myrtle, Pines and a Silverbell tree. I was let in on a story by a 21-year resident of the Quarter and member of the Vieux Carre Commission (the French Quarter’s Neighborhood Association) about this planting and the Silverbell tree in particular. A big proponent of using native trees in street plantings, this resident was herself a part of the committee to determine what trees were planted around the school. She was incensed to find that one of the parents, a landscape architect, surreptitiously slipped a Crepe Myrtle into the spot at the corner of St. Peter and Royal, where the Silverbell tree now stands. Shortly after the incident, she received a call accusing her of putting a gris-gris (vodou spell) on the offending Crepe Myrtle, as it had been “burnt to a crisp” in a freak accident involving the explosion of an underground gas line below the tree. The Silverbell was put in its rightful place!

Silverbell or Halesia diptera

Hackberry (detail of bark) with beads

Sycamore tree, St. Peter street perimeter planting at Mc Donogh 15

A Southern Magnolia and a Southern Live Oak in a very rare French Quarter "front yard" (instead of traditional enclosed courtyard)


To stay tuned to the mapping project and other French Quarter ephemera, lore, localism and legend, check out French Quarter Block By Block at

Dirt E-mind

creativity+dirty hands=happy me

I have discovered this: if my experience in gardening is not equal parts opportunity to be creative and hands-in-the-dirt toil, I am not a happy gardener. I enjoy the creative visioning and problem-solving of design and consultation work but if I don’t get to get my shovel in it, it’s just doesn’t scratch that itch!

As a means toward satisfying the creative end of the spectrum, I have created a tumblr called dirtE-mind. It is my little cyber-stream of garden-related inspiration and amusement. One must nourish one’s sense of humor…

Check it out!

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