For an illustrated version, see pages 15-17 in The Environmentor, vol. 4, no. 1.

FOLK TALE: "The Giant Caterpillar"

A very long time ago, they say, there was only ONE caterpillar in the whole world. But it was so big that if its head was here (indicate a nearby corner of the room), its tail would be there (point to the farthest corner). It was so big that a tall man couldn't pat on top of it--if he dared! Its eyes were bigger than pumpkins. Its mouth was as big as that door! (point)

Of course a caterpillar that big could not take a nap on a blade of grass, or a twig of tree. This caterpillar used to sleep stretched out in the warm dust of the dirt road. And if people were on one side of the road, and wanted to get to the other side, they usually went the long way around.

One day, three cousins wanted to pick berries in the hills on the other side of the road. Caterpillar was in the way! They didn't want to go the long way around. So the first cousin very politely went up to the caterpillar's head. "Oh Caterpillar? Excuse me, Caterpillar? I don't want to bother you, but could you please please move your tail just long enough so that I can cross the road?"

Caterpillar opened one eye and looked at that cousin. Then it moved its tail, just long enough for that cousin to get across.

Second cousin decided to be very very nice. "Caterpillar, you're so beautiful! Caterpillar, you're so friendly and sweet! Please, pretty please, will you move your tail just long enough so that I can cross the road?"

Caterpillar opened the other eye and looked at that cousin. Then it moved its tail, just long enough for that cousin to get across.

Third cousin thought, "I'm not afraid of that caterpillar! I'll show it who's boss." Third cousin went up to Caterpillar's head and yelled, "Hey Caterpillar! Move your tail!"

Caterpillar didn't do anything.

Third cousin yelled, "Caterpillar, I said 'move'!"

Caterpillar didn't do anything.

Third cousin yelled, "When I say 'move,' I mean MOVE!" and kicked that caterpillar right in its soft gooshy sides.

Then Caterpillar opened both eyes, rared up, opened its huge mouth, and swallowed that cousin right down!

The other two cousins ran the long way all the way back to the village. They ran to the chief. "Chief, chief! Caterpillar swallowed our cousin!"

The chief said, "I've been expecting this. I knew that some day, that caterpillar would cause trouble and we men would have to go fight it. Men! Let's go!"

The men of the village grabbed their weapons. This was long ago--they just had spears and bows and arrows. They all knew how big and scary that caterpillar was so, to keep up their courage, they all marched together in step and they chanted, "Hey-oh, hey-oh, we're going to fight that caterpillar!"

They made so much noise that when they got there, Caterpillar was wide awake. Caterpillar opened both eyes, rared up, and opened its big mouth.

The men threw down their weapons, "Yow!" and ran back to the village.

The women and children were waiting. "That was fast! Did you already fight that caterpillar?"

The men said, "You've got to understand. That caterpillar is so big that it stretches from here to there! Its eyes are bigger than pumpkins, its mouth is as big as that door! And it looked at us, and it rared up and opened its mouth... So we came home."

The women said, "You mean that caterpillar is still out there? It could swallow another child? We'll have to do something."

The women didn't have any weapons, but they did have tools: broom sticks and rake handles. They brought along some kitchen tools, too: you never know what you might need. And they didn't march or chant, they tiptoed. So when they got to the caterpillar, it was asleep again.

They formed a line all along the caterpillar. They raised up their broom sticks and rake handles. The leader of the women silently counted, "One; two; three" and they smushed that caterpillar--flat!

Except for one bump, which was wiggling.

They cut the bump open, and out jumped the third cousin! "Yech, it was horrible in there! It was dark, and it smelled bad! I got all covered with the goop that caterpillar ate. I will never ever be rude to a caterpillar again!" --which was easy to say, because that was the only caterpillar, and now it was dead.

The women said, "Look at all that caterpillar meat. Does anyone know, is it good to eat? It would be a shame to waste it. " But this was the first and only caterpillar in the world. Nobody had cooked one before.

"Do you make caterpillar steak? Stew? Soup? Or maybe caterpillar cookies?" It was worth a try. But they didn't want to waste the other ingredients by making a big batch, so they cut the caterpillar meat up into little skinny strips.

They filled baskets with the strips and turned back to cut more, but when they went to pile that in their baskets, they found that the baskets were empty. What? When they cut more, they found the baskets empty again.

You see, the meat of that very first caterpillar was different. The strips crawled out of the baskets, away into the grass, into the bushes, into the trees--

and turned into the little caterpillars we have today. That's where they came from.

Do you believe that?


Before starting this story, I often ask kids to tell me about caterpillars they have seen. Colors? Fuzzy or smooth? How big?

And after the story, I ask where do caterpillars really come from? After a bit, even young kids usually remember about butterflies and eggs and cocoons...

Now: can you imagine how big a butterfly that caterpillar might have metamorphosed into, if the brave women had not flattened it?


FACT TALE:  brave entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian.

From ancient Greek times, it was thought that butterflies spontaneously generated from mud. Pretty though they might be, they were sometimes called "beasts of the devil"! Of course gardeners and farmers knew about caterpillars as pests on desirable plants, but few people wanted to study them. So the connection between caterpillars and butterflies was largely unknown until a young woman living in Germany in the 1600s, Maria Sibylla Merian, began carefully observing their metamorphosis. 

Merian painted beautiful pictures showing all the stages of their life cycles, and published illustrated books that became very popular -- especially because they were printed in German rather than scholarly Latin. The Caterpillars' Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food revealed that each species had special feeding requirements. She was one of the first scientists to depend on first-hand observations, rather than ancient authorities and theories.

Merian and her daughter Dorothea got a grant from the city of Amsterdam to travel to the Dutch colony of Surinam where they studied tropical insects, not just butterflies and moths but also army ants and leaf cutter ants. Field expeditions were rare and dangerous at that time, and by women? -- unheard of! Her 1705 book about Surinam insects made her famous in Europe. She insisted on using the names given to the creatures by the Native Americans who lived with them.

Merian studied the life cycles of at least 186 insect species. Her paintings are still treasured by museums and collectors.

We now value butterflies for their beauty and as pollinators. People plant Butterfly Gardens featuring the plants that we now know their caterpillars require. Teachers can order kits allowing students to observe development and metamorphosis in the classroom, but it's still fun to seek them out in the garden and in the woods, patiently watching as Maria Sibylla Merian taught us to do.



My folktale retelling is based on "The Giant Caterpillar" from Ivory Coast, Africa (Tatterhood and Other Tales, EJ Phelps).

The Internet has a lot more facts about Maria Sibylla Merian's adventurous life. Young readers will enjoy Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian by Margarita Engel.