Editorial: The Godforsaken Caterpillars by Ashley Thomas
In the morning, I take my sons and new, postpartum body on an eight to ten-mile walk along the Silver Comet Trail. The trail spans the route of an expansive, one hundred and twenty-two-mile railroad, which has been paved over for athletes, housewives, children, and aggressive bikers of all kinds. I can usually be found walking there, with a greatly oversized ten-month-old, strapped to my chest, while I push my set of two-year-old twin boys, whose temperament ranges sporadically from lovely to terrifying, in a double stroller. My back and emotional balance deserve an award. I’m street famous as Strong Mother, a circus act of wonder. Men and women, both young and old, often gasp in disbelief and holler in support, as I brisk by, blasting an ever-changing soundtrack of lectures and music from an inappropriately, loud speaker.
I have a sense of harmony with nature that feels romantic in moments. Inevitably, romanticism is a rosy lens I’ve been taught by European literature to view life through. I experience a dense grounding that I’ve cultivated since childhood, by only wearing shoes when socially mandatory. I don’t like separating my feet from the earth. It's probably conceited for me to think the way I see my surroundings is unique. I’m an artist, after all. Maybe awareness is hubris, in a sense, when you don’t have it quite right. Regardless, I can’t help but notice the habits of people walking beside me, focused intensely on getting a good workout or whatever voices are in their air pods. They don’t look up at the sky or the little wonders, all around. They miss the fairytale-like arcs of iridescent spider webs, suspended across twenty feet or more between the tips of the tree branches. They bypass the leaves and pine needles levitating playfully as they dangle from disconnected, invisible threads. Rays of sunlight make them twinkle on their edges when you spot them. I find myself looking up constantly at the sun cascading through the treetops and leaves, flickering as I roll my children along. I close my eyes and let the light bounce on and off my skin and I imagine this must be how my children feel when I kiss their little faces until they laugh.
Atlanta hawks reveal themselves to me constantly. I don’t have to be outdoors. They sit outside my windows. I see them low to the ground, chasing blackbirds, circling, or descending across my path to perch on a tree beside me. I look into the woods and see them balancing in the middle of thick patches of green. They let me approach them as they sit on fences or bottom branches. I don’t understand this wordless conversation with birds of prey. I picked a hawk’s feather up off the ground one day and the energy it held was so startling, I had to put it back down.
Roaring cicadas are a southern intensity that is special to this humid, morally segregated, and complicated place. Their sound is something I missed when I lived in New York, even with all the exciting man-made noise that replaced them. Up to 1.5 million male cicadas scream on any given acre of land surrounding me. I am a voyeur, listening to cries of either battle or sexual desire, vibrating off my eardrums in the cadence of an audience doing the wave at a ball game. It's strange. I rarely see them, but I don’t mind that. One day, a cicada and its banshee wail flew into the stroller. I immediately jumped back and let it leave on its own, while one of my sons was holding his ears, terrorized by the sound. The whole ordeal lasted maybe ten seconds, but I’ll never forget my retreat, with a smirk (even though I’ve had to question my motherly instinct regarding insects ever since).
I’ll never forget the day I saw the earth move. To the left of the path, was a cliff-like area of red clay and large rocks with curved trees jutting out on the sides. I happened to look to the left at just the right time and saw a part of the rock shake. A huge tree was thrown out of its sessility. It dropped some inches into its new home, for an undetermined amount of time in nature's history. I was in awe. There are moments when the sacred subtleties of our earth allow you to bear witness as a reminder that it’s as alive as you are. We treat it otherwise in our daily, egomaniacal dominion of forgetfulness.
I believe in synchronicity. The moment I realized that my tears were the same as the rain, my relationship with God instantly evolved. God is only in my image, as I am everything, as everything is God. Dominion and ego have been an insane mix, making us believe we possess God objectively, while we treat all things badly, including ourselves.
I see the layers of existence. Our hair, fur, skin, scales, fat, muscles, tendons, bones, teeth, cells, DNA, consciousness, and souls are all reflective of how God works. There are levels and layers in the mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical. There are other worlds in the treetops and under the ground beneath our feet. We are monolithic when it comes to the importance we give humanity. We are wrong.
We use ideologies of racism to dehumanize each other. We use the same moral justifications of hierarchy to terrorize this planet and anything that lives on it. The huge questions, the macro concepts, and obsessions, can all be answered through the micro; the littlest things that we pass right over, that are a reflection of what we seek to understand. As my running app clocks my miles, the hawks, spiders, trees, and cicadas remind me that there is a whole realm of purpose happening around me. The animals are warring, mating, hunting, and speaking above my head and around my body. The spirit world is doing the same.
When we think of caterpillars, symbolically we idolize their stages of metamorphosis. The first thing I envision is their process of breaking, bending, and patiently, furiously transforming into beautiful butterflies. Butterflies land on me often. That could be the reason for my acute awareness of the plight of these caterpillars. As I look to the ground during the late remnants of summer, there are caterpillars everywhere. They are literally on an unwarranted path of destruction, their own middle passage, a trail of tears, and holocaust. That is quite possibly dramatic. But what if this is what all of our lives look like from a bird’s eye view, while we create scenarios of safety as a means for mental survival?
The Godforsaken caterpillars are stuck crossing this man-made trail. While walking, I am continuously assaulted by helmets, bright colors, and wheels buzzing by, hollering “ON YOUR LEFT!”, like an aggressive fly by my ear. It is no comparison to the genocide along my way. However, this story is not about the caterpillars themselves, their lives being cut short of their awakening, or their environment being invaded by barbaric human beings. This is about what I have learned about my own humanity in relation to witnessing and partaking in their murders.
I clearly see them. No matter how in tune I am with my surroundings, I see them the most. I push the kids along, sidestepping, and swerving to evade the crossing caterpillars at all costs. I watch while they’re dying, about to die, just making it, and starting or ending their extremely dangerous quest. My immediate instinct is to help them. I think to grab a leaf and gently place them down in the grass. And then, a voice enters in my mind, “If you stopped to physically help every caterpillar out of danger, what kind of a walk would you have? Your kids scream at you any time you stop the stroller. Your workout would be fragmented and you wouldn’t burn as many calories. Your walk would go from two hours to three, and the kids would be monsters by the end of it.” Now, I am an activist. Not just in thought or philosophy, also in doing. I say that to paint the picture of the hypocrisy I feel for not wanting to help the Godforsaken caterpillars because of my personal comfort being momentarily interrupted.
I wonder if the man jogging behind me who told me to “get out of the way” that one time, confused me with a kind of spiderpillar monstrosity with my eight legs, eight arms, eight ears, eyes, and four mouths, one of which was screaming to the treetops, as we rolled to a stop on the path of his white entitlement. What if instead of hate, me and my children’s existence were merely things he has to step over and around on the unnatural path he created for himself.
I realize that in many circumstances, I reflect on what I know is wrong. There is a totem of how we devalue all life like we do Blackness. I eat meat without considering the consequences of fear and sadness in families of animals being kidnapped, separated, and butchered for my consumption (unless they are domesticated and then we buy them little outfits, special food, and leashes). Is comfort the reason why we don’t mind other things or people being repeatedly squished, ran over, chopped into pieces, shot, incarcerated, groomed for profit, and commoditized? I think it is. And in this case, I can’t protest and lift up my voice in unison with my comrades of societal trauma, for I am the willing oppressor. I am worse than those who don’t see them as they are rolling by. I know what’s happening, and I don’t do whatever is needed to help or try and stop it. I act as though it must be their destiny.
I look down at the caterpillars and think of the things I’m fighting for. I see us helpless as we are divided. These caterpillars are constantly endangered, moving as individuals. Bikers don’t feel bad for rolling over a caterpillar here and there. They are usually black and their insides are slimy and the yellow-green mix of Georgia pollen. But what if their distance apps had a tally for how many bugs they decapitated during their workout? Maybe they would still feel like the caterpillars shouldn’t have been in their concrete neck of the woods in the first place. Comfort doesn’t equal kindness. I like to visualize the impossible task of all of the caterpillars communicating a strategy, and traveling far and wide in whatever phase of their process, to a meeting spot, where they unite against the rest of us. It would bring everyone to a complete halt. The judgment of onlookers alone would stop anyone from obviously running over them. The colonialists would suddenly remember they are on their way to becoming butterflies, and we love butterflies, don’t we? We make songs about them, wear them on a multitude of clothing, get them tattooed on our asses, clip synthetic versions in our hair and ears, and consider them a sign of growth and freedom. We idolize them.
Does God love me like the caterpillar at the bottom, scurrying under the feet of an unnatural trail of whiteness and the one percent of wheels, being one of relatively few surviving and thriving against all odds stacked against me? That can’t be the case, because the people at the top of my reality, are at the bottom, in a parallel one. As reflections of each other, we are all cats in a bag in one way or another.
I question while I notice. I take accountability for my thoughts and actions, even if I don’t act on them. I am aware of my evils; of human arrogance in regards to nature. I won’t beat a puppy to death, but I have no problem slaughtering a fly. I wonder how much karma is tallied for how many beings of all species, that are killed or tormented for the sake of the leggings that I bought a week ago, my iPhone, hair products, groceries, and various streaming entertainment. It's nauseating to consider, especially since my ego believes I am more in harmony than many, right? That means I am guilty of a substantial offense that is unrecognizable to my comprehension.
It's possible the metamorphosis of a caterpillar is a symbolism that we have askew. It might not represent the shift and change we encounter in our lives on this earth. Their wings could be a sign of the eternal, and life on this earth, the process. It is in the details that we learn the truth of our biggest questions. It’s shameful not to do everything I can to help these saintly guides of my own existence, survive another day. This morning when I made it to the path, I saw that it was clear of the caterpillars. They had either made it or perished along the way. It was over. I was happy that I no longer had the distressful battle with myself over their fate, for the entire duration of my workout, until next year. I will listen to my youtube videos and Solange, while pushing my sons, and not think about the blatant complexities and hypocrisies of my inherent values. I can tally my calorie deficit in self-centered peace.
Paintings by John Vochatzer. Sculptures by Sharon Graver.