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The Magic Shoe Box

This morning, David, an old family friend in his eighties, shared with me a childhood story of growing silk worms.

As a little boy, he would gather a pile of mulberry leaves, stuff them into a shoe box, and hide half a dozen small caterpillars beneath the foliage.

The creatures were the object of fascination for David as a little boy. He would marvel at the caterpillars’ ravenous appetites as they devoured box after box of mulberry leaves.

With every mouthful, the caterpillars grew fatter. Eventually the little critters grew thicker than David’s thumb. When the caterpillars were fat and happy, it was time for a wondrous process of change.

The creatures would weave – as if from magic – cocoons made of silk, bundles of softness within which they would hide. They would enter as caterpillars, and within a couple of weeks emerge, transformed, into silkworm moths.

Silkworms, like many insects, go through four stages of development: egg, larva, pupa and adult.  The caterpillar is the larva stage, the pupa is the stage the worm enters when housed within its cocoon, while the adult stage is the silkworm moth. In the larva stage, silkworms are soft-bodied, slow moving caterpillars. They shed their skin more than four times as they grow to some 3 inches long, ready to cocoon, within as little as a month. Indeed, some growers talk of aligning with the lunar cycles to ensure maximum growth.

In reflecting on the humble silkworm, I recall my friend, William, a little boy I went to school with in Australia. He grew silkworms and brought his “magic shoe-box” into class for “show and tell”. It was fascinating as a child to watch the transformation of these creatures over time. I remember stroking the chubby caterpillars and marvelling at how soft and squishy they were before they each disappeared into their cocoons, never to be seen in that form again.

Of course, the story of the silkworm is not an entirely romantic vision. Whilst the creature originates in Asia and weaves a cocoon made of fine, strong, lustrous fibre – the source of commercial silk – the silkworm is a popular food source for domestic reptiles and amphibians.

Today, the silkworm has been domesticated out of natural existence. It only lives in captivity and no longer survives without human care. All wild populations are extinct. This is not least because the moth has, over centuries of human relationship, lost its ability to fly. The silkworm’s dietary reliance on mulberry leaves might also contribute to its demise in the wild.

Even though it is exploited for commercial interest, the humble silkworm has much more than silk to offer. As an adult, I’ve often reflected on how such a simple thing as observing the life cycle of an insect can provide wonder and imagination for young minds. The silkworm is a case in point. It provides children with a window into the natural world, a sense of wonder at the transformational capacity of nonhuman life…and all within the curious world of a leaf-filled, caterpillar feeding, silk-weaving, and child-enticing “magic shoe-box”.

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