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McCallum: Wooly Bear's Progress

It’s my habit when walking the dog to look down more than up. That’s because there are sometimes interesting critters on the road making a kind of pilgrimage to the other side. The dog finds the flattened remains of those who didn’t quite get there and tries to roll on their desiccated corpses, while I often help a red eft newt or toad on its way.

This fall it’s been woolly bears on the march. The fuzzy black and golden brown banded caterpillars trucking down the road are seeking that perfect log or pile of leaves to shelter beneath during their winter dormant period. And every time I meet one, I think of Mr. Blanchard. That’s not his real name, but one I’ll use to protect the identity of an inmate I knew when I taught in Vermont’s high security prison.

Anyway, one spring, this inmate brought two woolly bears to me in an empty donut box with holes punched in the lid. He’d found them in the exercise yard and wanted to keep them in his cell. “What are they gonna hatch into, Teach?” he asked.

We did research. Mr. Blanchard added grass and a tiny twig to the box. One woolly bear died but the other formed a chrysalis on the lid. Then Mr. Blanchard asked me to keep the donut box in my classroom. “I don’t want my roommate messing with it before it hatches,” he said. During the next few weeks, other inmates asked to see the chrysalis and held the box up to the florescent light to observe a slowly occurring transformation. They wondered what the moth would look like when it emerged. Mr. Blanchard was proprietary and acted like a nervous father.

Then one day I peeked in and saw the empty chrysalis with a hole in one end. Suspended from inside the box lid was an Isabella Tiger Moth - still, fragile and a stunning shade of golden brown. I called Mr. Blanchard’s unit officer and asked him to send Mr. Blanchard right over. He ran across the exercise yard, burst in the door and opened the box. He stared as his breath frilled across the unmoving tiger moth’s delicately folded wings. We didn’t speak for a few moments, then Mr. Blanchard shut the lid and tucked the box carefully under his arm.

“Listen Teach,” he said gruffly. “I’m gonna let it go. I’ll find some grass in a corner out in the yard where no guys walk and put it on the ground. It shouldn’t be locked up inside with me.”

“Good idea,” I said. And off he went with his donut box.

That was some years ago. I trust that the Isabella Tiger Moth made it out of jail all right and went on to live through its life cycle. I know less about Mr. Blanchard’s success beyond the razor wire - but think of him every time I help a woolly bear make that hazardous crossing to the other side of the road.

Mary McCallum is a freelance writer and former prison librarian who now works with Vermont elders.
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