We came upon a caterpillar on our walk through the parking lot this morning. It was lying on the pavement, unmoving, glued to the ground in the place its insides had been squashed out.
“Pet him,” H said, squatting down next to the caterpillar.
I kneeled down, too, and pet the caterpillar while H looked on. I waited for him to reach out his hand, but he held back, observing me instead.
“Pick up. Mama pick up,” H said, looking earnestly at the caterpillar and then at me.
“You want mama to pick up the caterpillar?”
“Yeah. Yeah.” H’s whole body bounced in assent.
“He’s dead, sweet pea. See, he’s not moving.”
I lifted what I could of the caterpillar from the pavement. Its body was limp and pliant. There was no wiggling, no curling up on itself, no resistance to being encroached upon. I felt uncomfortable poking and prodding at the dead body, as if I were disturbing its peace.
“He’s dead. Not alive. Maybe he got run over by a car or maybe he got stepped on. His insides are all smooshed out. He’s not alive anymore. He’s dead.”
I pointed to the yellow ooze pinning one end of the caterpillar to the ground. I wondered if the caterpillar’s guts looked as yellow and formless on the inside when it was alive as they did now on the pavement. I thought about our guts and viscera, about consciousness, about what it is that animates us, about my own discomfort with death and dying.
“Not alive,” H repeated my words and nodded in the way he does when he is working at understanding something. “Dead. Smooshed. Car. Run. Over. Not alive.”
“Yes. He’s dead, that’s right,” I said.
H stood up and took my hand. We wandered a bit away.
“He broke,” H said.
“Yes. He broke. That’s right.”
H pulled me back to the caterpillar, and we stood over it in silent contemplation before he was ready to move away again.
We continued to talk about the caterpillar for a while, in-between talking about other things, H coming around to our beginning points again and again as he turned over the idea of death.
“Dead. Not alive. Smooshed. Car. Run. Over. Not alive. Smooshed. Dead. He broke,” he told me, nodding with each declaration. We traversed the parking lot, me repeating his words back to him and elaborating until he moved on to other topics.
How often he stuns me with the connections he makes and the ways he verbalizes his ideas. We had talked about death before, and we had talked about broken before, but putting those two concepts together was wholly his own. It is easy to forget when knee deep in diaper changes and tracking how much he is or is not eating and facilitating sleep and worrying over how to best support him through gross motor delays that there are bigger, philosophical questions turning over in his brain, the kinds of questions that require us just to be, to wander, to be outside, to explore, to happen upon things we don’t necessarily know we need to experience, to have the time and space to reflect and talk and wonder about the world around us. It can be easy to forget that these things are important, too.
I once read that human consciousness is nature’s way of gazing upon itself in all of its forms, an idea that has poetic resonance for me even if it is not strictly, scientifically true. I like how it knits us to everything that is alive, from the smallest, simplest organisms like bacteria and algae, to our nearest genetic relatives, the great apes. I like that it acknowledges our oneness and connection with the universe; we may be different from plants and other animals, but we are not separate. I like the responsibility implied; we are able to see the whole in a way that everything else likely cannot and with that ability lies the possibility that we might think beyond ourselves to find ways to care for the earth and all of her creatures. I like that the reach of our awareness is part of what allows us to grapple with questions about the meaning of life, about what consciousness is, about the meaning of death. Asking these hard questions, even if they remain unanswered, adds richness to our experience.
What a gift it is to watch a new consciousness gaze upon nature and develop theories about the big things in life, and what an honor to walk beside him as he does.