Like many eager young students, my understanding of metamorphosis began with the charming story of the caterpillar, almost always fairytale-like in its delivery. Its beginning urged me to sympathy, portraying the caterpillar as a lonesome, unsightly creature who spends his days lounging on dandelion heads or in the green shadows of jungle gym tunnels. By the end of the story, my eyes widened with wonder. After a long season of deep slumber in a self-constructed chrysalis, the caterpillar emerges, now butterfly, now winged, soaring, a beautifully fragile flourish of flight.
It is worth noting, however, that metamorphosis is not exclusively a mechanism meant for “upgrading biologically” in a purely aesthetic sense. To quote marine biologist Jason Hodin, metamorphosis is a “substantial morphological transition between two multicellular phases in an organism’s life cycle, often marking the passage from a prereproductive to a reproductive life stage.” But perhaps I would delve into the whole process more intimately, unravel it until every creature that metamorphoses can find itself between the growth spurts, the transitions of transitions.
Tadpoles are tempted from the water with the promise of legs. Their metamorphosis begs for beginnings; a clutch of quavering eggs stares up from the murky shallows of the pond, like the many glaucomic eyes of a fitful sea monster. Metamorphosis aches for resolution. Before it can allow the frog to learn of the land, it must snuff out the youthful tail and sculpt all that remains into a more dignified asymmetrical rump.
More important, metamorphosis challenges old identities while new ones form beneath. In his book The Mystery of Metamorphosis, Frank Ryan explains that at one point organisms were classified only by their adult forms. He goes on to explain the major flaw of this classification system, “that many larval forms just did not fit in with the extrapolation of the tree of life based on the adults.” Such observation is astute because it acknowledges that an organism’s identity encompasses its whole life cycle, not just the end of it, after it has fully shed away its old skin, corrected its awkward gait. Life cycles shape children into adolescents, adolescents into adults, tissue by tissue, organ by organ. But it is a mere shaping and reshaping, not a rebirth, not a revival. In the hands of metamorphosis, everybody emerges with his own creation dust in his eyes.
In the hands of metamorphosis, nobody is ever complete.
As a child, I went through a phase where I demanded that my mom call me nothing other than honey. I liked the way the name demanded attention. No matter how my mom said it— whether before a gush of praise or a torrent of scolding—it always came laced with affection. The final syllable’s lilt let off a glimmer that left me afraid of the darkness that would trail any other name. At summer camp, some kid called me hamster because of the way I walked, an antic of which I was not even aware—in either myself or in hamsters. It was the first time anyone ever analyzed the way I walk, and the last. Perhaps the description was accurate, at one point in my life. Perhaps I no longer walk that way. I walk with purpose. I walk because I can lose myself. I walk so that I can lose myself. I either imagine or recall my mom telling me once, “Honey, you were a late crawler, but you can sure walk fast.”
My legs were the first parts of myself I ever wanted to hide, perhaps in the shadow of an abandoned chrysalis or the gleaming scales and fins of a mermaid’s tail.
Luidia sarsi, an “unusually large” salmon-pink starfish, begins its life already prepared to shed away its juvenile self in favor of its adult form. Ryan describes the starfish and its larval stage as such:
Luidia’s larva is a diaphanous sprite that grows to an inch and a half long…The technical name for its body plan is “bipinnarian…” In appearance it resembles an uprooted vegetable, with a tangle of roots on one end and two broad and fleshy leaves on another. Unlike the adult starfish, with its radial symmetry, the larva is bilaterally symmetrical. The adult is conceived form a cluster of cells lining the internal cavity of the larva, and here it grows and matures, an alien existence independent of, and seemingly oblivious to, the larval body structures, axis, bilateral symmetry, and form, imbued with what can only be described as a complete disregard for every embodiment of its larval stage of existence (14).
From this description, I consider the starfish fortunate. It metamorphoses with little to no adolescent awkwardness, no hesitation, no nostalgia. I recall a day of my childhood, where I sat in the sunlight coming through the window of my bedroom. On this particular day, I became aware of my own skeleton and navigated it just through imagination. I settled between my ribcage like a songbird on a phone wire, hunted down the growing pains beginning in my thighs before they could manifest themselves as realities.
I used to associate symmetry with perfection, which is not quite accurate, considering that, with perhaps the exception of bilateral symmetry—in which an organism’s body can be dissected into two distinctly identical parts–symmetry is balanced out by imperfect means. Take the radial symmetry of a rose, for instance. As a whole, the flower is a unity of petals that leads the tentative form of a spiral staircase right into the rose’s core. Petals themselves, though, startlingly resemble the plucked feathers of a scarlet ibis, or some similar exotic bird whose feathers characterize it. To be such successful radially symmetrical creatures, Ryan explains, starfish and organisms with similar body structures need to undergo “one of the most spectacular metamorphoses in all of biology.” He explains the complexity of the phenomenon is great detail in this particular passage:
[This metamorphosis] can only be brought about through wholesale reorganization of the larval anatomy, including skin, skeletal structures, the vascular circulation, and the structure of the nervous system (10).
Interestingly, if I could eradicate any word from my vocabulary, that word would be perfect. It is an ugly word that causes more problems than it solves. Over the years, I have poured myself into it, allowed myself to bleed over its connotations of clarity and beauty, and shed somewhere between its two syllables.
Perfection is supposed to be the absence of darkness; it is unscientific, sterile, riskless. Yet I chase it down, either instinctively like a wolf with its muzzle to the moon or emotionally, like a sinner who keeps turning inwardly to cast stones at himself.
When I was in middle school, I spent much of my time avoiding mirrors. Instead, I would rely on my shadow to reveal the state of my hair and the fit of my clothes. If you know anything about shadows, particularly your own, you know that they never settle for the truth. They either over-exaggerate or undermine what casts them, dulling signature features such as facial expressions and the nuances of skin tone. They play with height and mass, either reducing you to the contour of a Russian doll in some mid-stage or stretching you as far as the walls will sprawl until your shadow-head hits the ceiling.
When I eventually relented to mirrors, first the one that sits behind my bedroom door, I noted that they too can be deceitful, only instead of relying on both the darkness and the light to deceive the way shadows do, they take in just the light, manipulate it, highlight features and lead to the scrutiny of others. Strangely, light and darkness are how I have come to better understand metamorphosis. Between life cycles, darkness interrupts light, light darkness.
Perhaps the sea urchin does not look like much. A mess of dark, spiny structures, the sea urchin looks more like some primitive-albeit-organic weapon than it does any remarkable form of ocean life. Even so, the urchin’s metamorphosis is one of self-discovery. Some time ago, I read an article in LiveScience that described the metamorphosis of the sea urchin most elegantly, describing its “growing up” as a sort of “turning yourself inside out.”
The sea urchin, in its larval form, perhaps captures the rebellious spirit of adolescence in that its larval stage is “free swimming,” making its peers the equally small and free-spirited plankton. Eventually, it matures into a languid, spiny adult that settles into a sedentary life on the ocean’s floor. Histamine, a “common signaling molecule” that is infamously associated with allergies in humans, is largely responsible for the metamorphosis of the sea urchin. The transformation is remarkably brief, without the showiness of a chrysalis’s shivering open, and is often completed within an hour, in a series of internal chemical cues triggered by the environment.
The article went on to describe an even more striking characteristic of the sea urchin larva: that it carries around a “backpacklike package around with [it] that contains adult structures, including many appendages, called tube feet.”
Strangely, after reading this, my first thought was, “Is the sea urchin lost, or is he running from something?” I am not sure why; maybe that is just evidence that I take far too much comfort in anthropomorphizing animals, trying with wonder, perhaps even in desperation, to draw parallels between them and us, them and me specifically. Perhaps, in my empathetic aching, I take comfort in viewing the sea urchin as a sort of aimless wanderer who carries the contents of his own blueprint on his back, like a young pilgrim just slightly aware of his purpose.
When I was a freshman in high school, during a week called Suicide Prevention, a speaker visited my health class and gave everyone a card with the suicide hotline typed on it. She then spoke about self-harm, depression, how both are much more complex than feeling sad. Sometimes people ache, but they can’t call that ache a pain. It’s weightier. It does not pound like a headache; instead, it timidly takes its seat and kicks the floor when the mind goes silent, like a student growing restless in math class. Sometimes it comes gradually, pooling over the body like light through closed blinds. Sometimes it arrives suddenly, uninvited, and there is no way to deal with it other than to invite it inside, let it perch on the chest, settle inside an unknown pit in the stomach.
The speaker told of warning signs that may indicate a friend is contemplating suicide. I remember a list of phrases on a carefully prepared handout, all printed out with purpose, like a guide to birdcalls. One in particular struck me: “I just want to go to sleep and never wake up.” It must have had a greater impact on me than I thought it could because several days later, while packing my backpack for the day at my locker, I uttered a variant of it: “Just let me fall asleep and never wake up.” I do not remember why I said it. I do not remember being particularly depressed, just burnt out, sick of building my self-worth completely out of academics and my own words, sick of feeling as though in order for peers to accept me for who I am, I always have to rebuild my identity from the ground up just to prove, at best, that I am smart enough to help them with their homework. No matter why I said it, a girl whose locker was situated right next to mind, who also happened to be in my health class, overheard me, shot a look of sympathy, and said, “I hope you feel better.”
Eventually, I felt better. Eventually, I took back what I said, internally, and apologized to myself. Truthfully, I never wanted to fall asleep and never wake up. I just wanted to turn myself inside out for a little while and emerge better understanding how my skin fits me not loosely like a hospital gown, but snugly like Saran wrap over something worth preserving. I just wanted to close my eyes, sit alone in darkness for the evening, come out into the dusk without my school uniform on, without anything covering my legs for once.
For gym class, I would always change my uniform shirt with my designated gym top but would never exchange my pants for my shorts. At first, the gym teacher was perplexed, but after about a week, she stopped paying any attention to it and never marked it against me. I braved out into the gymnasium with shorts one day and felt half-naked. My legs were foreign to me, or maybe that is what I told myself to cope with the sting of cold air I felt on them whenever the janitor came through the gymnasium entrance. These legs were not mine. When I ran laps, those were not my feet hitting the gleaming floor. Instead, a nimble faun sprinted beside me, youthfully, while I wallowed in the deeps of some algae-cloaked water, unwilling to step into the sunlight of a new life stage.
“I said to the sun, ‘Tell me about the big bang.’ The sun said, ‘it hurts to become.”
–From “I Sing the Body Electric, Especially When My Power’s Out” by Andrea Gibson. Throughout his book, Frank Ryan stresses again and again that metamorphosis is taxing on most organisms’ bodies. Contrarily, he portrays metamorphosis to be dynamic and transcendent, like plate tectonics; no transformation is a stagnant act. One of Ryan’s most poignant passages juxtaposes both metamorphosis and biological destruction with such force:
[The] metamorphosis is accompanied by massive internal change coupled with catastrophic destruction of the larval tissues. Huge chunks of the larval body, its tissues and organs, are digested and reabsorbed, or simply discarded (40).
This passage invites so many trite insights celebrating the theme of growth and change. While I wish to spare both myself and the reader such stale discussion, I would like to ache over these words, my words, for a moment. I would like to lament but at the same time rejoice at the thought of transformation.
I often remind myself to take risks, often in the form of reluctant self-talk. Risks tend to yield less than perfection, which is hard to cope with at first. But then I recall the evolutionary tree of life, how many remarkable creatures that stay the same never maintain a high place in their respective ecosystem, a flourishing one at least. I know all of the worn motivation phrases: take a leap, take a chance, take flight. They sound like the commands an emerging instinct might give, in a new startling voice, to the butterfly who has just grown out of the darkness and aware of its own wings.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Often, this adage serves as a lament, uttered with a deep sigh and a distant gaze indicative of troubled brooding. Even in a less dismal tone, the phrase implies a stagnancy of innovation and growth; however, when I analyze it in the context of metamorphosis and evolution, I come away wanting to cocoon myself in the double helix of some Cambrian explosion-born creature’s genetic code, revel in that darkness for a moment before inflicting a slit toward the sunlight, so that I may emerge—not unafraid, but not without complete reluctance either.
Melina Papadopoulos is currently a junior at Baldwin Wallace University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Roanoke Review, River and Sound Review, Stone Highway Review, apt: Online, among others.