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.