There's something which lots of my readers have asked me, but which I've never
really given a proper answer to. What I'm about to say might not be too much of
a surprise, given the little hints I've dropped through the years, but I feel
ready now to actually tell the full story, and say once and for all, honestly,
if I really believe in Miloreal caterpillars.
The short answer is "yes" - I do claim to have seen Miloreal caterpillars -
back in 2001, when I was dating Jennifer, my now wife, and spending lots of time
driving from the Ice Rink in Killaloe to Huntsville - right across the
bottom of the Algonquin national park. The thing about that journey is that it
was in the evening, and the sun would set during it, so unlike many journeys it
was a drive I actually looked forward to. Out the car window you could see the
setting sun as it reflected into all those small lakes full of
driftwood and upright dead trees, and the water would seem like it was
blooming - as if buckets of turmeric and saffron had just been poured into it,
or a coral reef had grown below the surface overnight. The car was so peaceful
then, and I remember looking into the rear view mirror and seeing Ben, Jennifer's
son, sitting there in the back seats, everything soaked through with warm air,
with his hockey sticks rattling against the car's windows. That was when I saw
the caterpillars - on one of those drives - and for me, somehow the sun, and
Ben, and everything which was going on at that point in my life is so
completely entangled that I have this feeling if I am to really convince you
I did see them, and I'm not crazy, I better explain the whole thing from the beginning.
I admit, it still feels a little dishonest writing about Miloreal caterpillars
at all, because as many of you will know, in the world of insect collecting you
don't claim to have seen Miloreal Caterpillar unless you expect to receive a
little bit of mockery. To most serious insect collectors the Miloreal
Caterpillar isn't really a caterpillar at all - it's a folklore tale - told by
stoned hippies and the vaccines-cause-autism, alternative medicine crowd.
The legend's popularity must stem from some kind native American mysticism - the
first recordings of the Miloreal caterpillar come from the Alogonquian tribe
who called it something like the "dressmaking caterpillar" and to them it had a
role in the "wedding" of trees - stringing distinct silk structures between two
close-by trees and then, in spring, when there were new seedlings all over the
floor, you knew which two trees were responsible. But there have been all kinds
of variations on that story since them, and now-days the kids here in Ontario
call them "kissing caterpillars" and say that if you spread a string of
its silk across the hands of two people they are destined to get married within
But there is a much larger reason why most serious insect collectors
don't believe in them, which is simply that almost all the biologists,
naturalists, collectors, etc, who have claimed to have found, examined, or
written about Miloreal caterpillars have always described a caterpillar
which, in all physical description at least, sounds eerily familiar to the
Forest Tent Caterpillar - one of the most common caterpillars in Ontario that
swarms the forests every year in thousands.
So there it is - since I'm now a confirmed hippie who has smoked too much pot,
I don't have anything to lose in trying to convince you that I really did see
Miloreal caterpillars in Algonquin National Park in 2001. And, although I know
it wont mean much to you all as you can't actually ask him anything, Ben saw
I met Ben's mum Jennifer while I was working at Killaloe Ice Rink. Like many
kids around the age of fifteen Ben was into hockey at the time, and he came to
training after school in the evenings. Most week days there was a group of
parents that would come up into the stands and watch, one of them being Jennifer.
The parents had this habit of sitting right up at the top of the stands up by
the rafters. If work was quiet I would often climb up through the cold air to
join them at the top, and we would talk together, listening to the kid's
shouts bounce against around the walls and against the glass at the sides of
Although I knew some of the parents well, Jennifer wasn't one of them. I'd
recognized her face though, as she was more regular than most of them, because
she was a single parent she came at least a couple of times each week.
My impression of her was as a very practical woman. I must have overhead a
conversation between her and another parent where she was giving some advice
on something like how to fill out insurance forms for their dog who'd been in
a car accident or something. And, she spoke with this confident, warm voice
that sounded like sitting in front of a fire. It was the kind of voice
belonging to a person who you'd be just as confident if they were passing you
the salt as filling out your tax returns. I was shy though, as if, upon any
kind of interruption she might suddenly become this opposite, irrational
person who would destroy me with a few precisely chosen words.
"Aren't you the general manager?" She said out one day out of the blue.
"Don't you have some managing to do, rather than chatting up here with us all
She had an odd expression on her face, a kind of defensive half grin.
"Hah - well - meant to be - but I reckon the only thing they really need me for
around here is driving the zamboni,"
Another one of the parents turned around.
"And he doesn't even do a good job of that," they added.
Jennifer laughed, giving me a quick smile before turning back to continue her
After the ice was broken, since she was one of the parents most often at the
rink, she became the person I most often went to chat to when there were some
spare moments away from work, and we soon became friends.
"I heard you took Ben to see the Leafs in Toronto last Thursday?"
"Yeah, it was a long drive down. Ben loved it though - except for the final
score, which put him into a sulk for the way back."
"Too bad, see - this is why I can't watch Hockey any more. I can't let it have
that emotional control over me. You should tell the same to Ben."
"Hey - he is fifteen - I think he is already emotionally out of control, but
more to the point - I thought you were over your phase of pretending you don't
"I'm still trying to avoid mixing work and pleasure - if you are forced against
your will to watch the same amount of terrible hockey I do you'd probably feel
"You know what - that really is too bad - because I had a favorite rink manager
I wanted to invite to Toronto to come see the next game with us, but then I
remembered he hates hockey!"
Somehow the words we said in the stands stuck - hung in the cold air up in
the rafters close to the sky. They were pinned in place - slowly rotating around,
illuminated from every side by the raw light from the
floodlights. And when all the parents spoke together it was like a little
weather system, with clouds, and wind, and rain and sunshine all passing over -
shouts and echoes and whispers vibrating around the whole stadium.
But my favorite time was when it was still, and the parents spoke in whispers,
and we huddled together, and conversation would drop like little flakes of snow,
in delicate words, that fluttered and threaded their way to the ground.
In these moments I found a kind of tenderness in Jennifer, and she began to
open up to me about the details of her previous marriage with a weighty
seriousness that at first intimidated me. He had stopped loving her - that was
the core of it.
"He had told me he wanted more adventure, and that he was becoming depressed
from the same monotony of family life. Watching the same shows on TV, eating
the same food, driving past the same places in the same small town. I couldn't
believe he would throw away everything we'd built together just to fuck off
somewhere new with a slightly different set of buildings and trees he'd not
Jennifer suddenly turned around - Ben was walking towards us, his hockey stick
propped up on his shoulder, wrapped in his coat and ready to go.
"Hey, are you ready?" Ben said peering over my shoulder.
At this point, usually Jennifer would get up and leave with Ben, but she started
getting up to leave, some invisible force seemed to pull me from my chair, and
Jennifer turned back to see my I had gotten up and what I was doing. There was a
slight, pause, and in that moment I almost felt like I could feel a small gust
"I can give him a lift if you like."
Jennifer paused, and looked more closely to study my face.
"Well, in the future, I can pick him up after school and drive him home after
practice if you like. The school is only a few minutes drive from the rink
There was more silence.
"You would want to do that for Ben?" Jennifer replied.
"If he doesn't mind waiting a bit for me after school. Oh, and he might need to
wait around for 15 minutes after practice while I shut up the rink."
She looked at me with an expression like she was trying to communicate
something important, serious to me. Eventually she turned to Ben.
"What do you think if Dan drives you back from practice Ben?"
"Sure," Ben replied, without looking up from his phone.
"Okay," she said, "I will message you about picking up Ben next week."
Jennifer got up and Ben turned to follow her as she started making her way down
After she left, I looked at the little deserted rink down below. For a second
it looked very unusual, as if the layout or color of the rink markings had
changed. But when I looked again I could see it was normal after all, and I
heard the rumbling of the air conditioning, so I went down the stands to lock
up the rink as usual.
Soon after that, me and Jennifer began dating - a series of small dim dinners at
each other's houses, and short moments together between work and at weekends -
everything was perfect, special. Then, out of the blue I got a call from my old
One of the reasons I was nervous to introduce Jennifer to Cecilia was because,
unlike me, Cecilia was a real bona-fide insect collector. She worked as a
biologist at Queen's university, and she had dyed hair blue and large black
rimmed glasses - not exactly a typical Alogonquian native - she was proud of
being a biology nerd and you never really know how Alogonquian folks would
react to that. But she had also been my friend since childhood and it was her
father who had taken us insect hunting many weekends in the Onatrio wilderness,
we had built our passions for insects together and I wanted her and Jennifer to
be introduced for those reasons alone.
It happened as things usually did with Cecilia - she messaged me randomly one
evening, saying that she would be in Bancroft for a couple of days running a
field trip and wondering if I wanted to grab a drink at a bar nearby.
When I arrived at the bar Jennifer was already there, glancing around nervously.
She waved me over and I noticed she was drinking a coke - she said she had to
drive home afterwards. We waited together for about twenty minutes before
Cecilia arrived, sweeping in a gust of cold air with her though the bar doors.
After the usual introductions Cecilia went to get a drink from the bar, and we
all settled around the small round bar table where we had been sitting.
"So, Dan tells me that you are a biologist Cecilia?"
"Strictly true, although the university seems to be doing all that they can to
prevent me from actually studying any insects - this term I've been covering
for another professor's course which means I've spent most of the time teaching
and marking papers. At least I get to spend a few days out here in the
the national park though now an then," she said, turning to me and grinning.
"And what do you do? I don't think Dan told me."
"Well, I work as a teaching assistant, although to be honest just looking after
my son takes up most of my time."
"Oh!" Cecilia said, looking at me quickly before glancing away.
"That's great - how old is he? You know what - I always wondered how my life
might have turned out had I'd had children."
Jennifer started to explain a little more of what Ben was up to at school and I
found myself studying Cecilia's face in profile - it was a long time since I had
seen her last, and it felt like a lot had changed.
There was something about Cecilia face now that looked so bold, sharp,
determined. In my memories she had always been a small meek girl, an introverted
collector who's Dad had been in charge of everything on those trips. And now, as I
studied her face, I couldn't help but feel somehow very proud of her - she
looked artistic, chiseled - and I felt when I looked at my own face in the
mirror I saw the opposite things - features which were sanded down,
worn and weather beaten in comparison - in Algonquin we all had beveled edges.
As they continued talking, Jennifer and Cecilia formed a sort of unexpected
comradely. Cecilia told stories about the trials of working in a male dominated
workplace, and Jennifer matched them with tales about the difficulties of being
a single mother and looking after Ben now he was a teenager. Both of them
seemed relived to be talking to a similarly minded people.
Cecilia started to ask me about any recent insect collecting I'd done, and we
began to remember those days together when we were children out in the
Ontario wilderness. It turned out Cecilia remembered a lot more than me, and
seemed to fall into a stride, telling all of her favorite insect collecting
stories from then and her time at university too. As she gathered speed Cecilia
seemed to lean in toward me, moving her head to deliver non-insect-collector
asides to Jennifer.
I could see Jennifer in the side of my vision. She was very quiet for about
half an hour while Cecilia told her stories.
"I remember when we found there were some cockroaches in our university
apartment - we'd chase them around with empty jars to see if we could catch
them. The ones we had caught we lined up on the coffee table"
"That's gross", Jennifer said laughing a little.
"No, not really, cockroaches really aren't as dirty as everyone thinks they are," Cecilia said.
"No, really - its gross," Jennifer replied.
"No, it really isn't, trust me I know,"
"Yeah and I know it is gross,"
Cecilia looked directly at Jennifer.
"The problem with you Jennifer is you are too normal," Cecilia laughed, "too
normal for people like me and Dan."
Jennifer turned to me, and read my expression, and she looked flushed with
tiredness, as if she had been carrying heavy shopping, and all the straps on
the bags had broken, smashing everything against the floor.
I took a deep breath to say something, but Jennifer jumped up before I could
work out what to say.
"You know what, I should probably go, but it has been really nice to meet you
Jennifer finished her coke and quickly. She hugged me and Cecilia before
walking out of the door.
"Well, it was really nice to meet Jennifer", said Cecilia, "she seems like a
very lovely lady."
I looked down and saw Jennifer's purse was there on her seat. I jumped up,
holding up the purse to show Cecilia.
"Let me see if I can catch her before she leaves."
"Sure," said Cecilia taking another sip of her beer and leaning back in her
Outside the temperature had dropped, and I couldn't find Jennifer anywhere so I
started doing a lap around the parking lot. To the left I saw Jennifer's car
pull around the corner and pass by in front of me. I shouted her name and waved
the purse, but either she had not noticed me, or not wanted to, and as she
pulled out onto the road I saw something in the rear view mirror I hadn't see
yet - Jennifer's eyes looking back cold and full of fear.
Naturally, I apologized for what had happened at the bar, and for the fact that
Cecilia had called her "too normal", but really, it just made things more
awkward between us - the cruel reality was that Jennifer was, as she admitted
herself, a fairly normal person - she did not want me tell her she wasn't
or, in her words, "lie to me to make me feel better". And then, she was
unable to talk about the whole thing at all, and there was a misty coldness
between us that wouldn't rise.
And slowly things changed. In our conversations I couldn't help seeing her
practically more like a kind of stubbornness, and found it annoying the way she
would interject into our little conversations with reasons why what I was
saying was stupid, or didn't work - she seemed to always be able to find reasons
why I was always wrong.
But I continued to take Ben to and from the ice rink, and picked him up and
dropped him off as usual.
Even when we first begun, the journey with Ben had been mostly a silent
experience. We would sit together, and, with the rumble of the engine in the
background he would spend most of the time playing pokemon on his gameboy. I
had always had a soft spot for pokemon, and sometimes I would ask him
about what was going on his game.
There was something that I found amusing and a bit frustrating about Ben's play
style. For one, he seemed to have practically zero interest in actually
catching any pokemon, and his whole team was filled with weak and common
pokemon you find around the starting area. And, since he didn't actually train
up any of these pokemon, he did all the fighting with his immensely powerful
When I mentioned this to him, he didn't even seem to understand what the
problem was - to him this was the way of playing the game. And, for some weird
reason, this reminded me of the whole situation with Cecilia and Jennifer, and
I decided I would ask him what he though:
"Ben, do you think your mum is normal?"
"No," Ben said, without looking up from his gameboy.
"But I mean, objectively." I replied.
"No," he said frowning, he eyes still fixed on his gameboy.
With that it returned to silence, and beyond the windscreen the trees whipped
quickly by the side of the car. The sun, which was just starting to set, gave
their bark a kind of watery look, as if it were delicately brushed with the
blue and orange paint.
The endless stream of trees reminded me of a zoetrope - an endless film of
unique evolving bark patterns, ticking by in a kind of fractal, repeating
stutter, flickering and jumping like someone running the pages of a book
between their fingers. The feeling reminded me of those first biology lessons,
looking down the microscope at a leaf, and, for the first time understanding
that nature had this kind of infinite scale of beauty to it. Understanding, for
the first time, that when you picked up a leaf from the forest ground and put
it to your eye, you were only scratching the surface of what was there - and
that from every possible viewpoint it was possible to find this new and
incredible wonder - it was all fantastic - bare eyes, under a microscope, the
bird's eye view of an airplane.
This was the real truth of nature - that nothing was normal - and while a
forest like this was regular and repetitive if that was what you wanted to see,
in every corner there was infinite unfathomable detail and beauty if you wanted
to find it.
I imagined myself walking off into the forest - finding a small square meter
in the middle of nowhere. There would be a little layout of leaves and twigs
lining the floor, with its own different selection of plants, undergrowth, and
insects. I had no doubt, that if I dedicated my life to this square
meter I would find an endless range of angles that could produce beautiful
paintings and photographs - and find a life's worth of scientific discoveries
that could fill a journal. And, it would not just be scientific, there would be
hundreds of stories too, from the trees which had stood there for thousands of
years, to the small, immeasurable wars and struggles that raged between the
micro-bacteria and fungus.
That was the scientific fact - that each square meter of forest was worth
dedicating your life to in this world - that each square meter of forest had an
endless capacity for exploration, discovery, beauty - adoration.
And, Jennifer had not been upset at being called normal - she knew herself that
she was, objectively, statistically, and like everything and everyone, normal -
she was upset that in that moment I had not seen her as more - that I had
thought she was normal.
But nothing is normal when it is loved, and I did love her.
All of a sudden, a large black patch flew past the windscreen, and then
another. I look more closely - they were patches of swarming Forest Tent
caterpillars, pilled on top of each other in their hundreds, lining the bark of
the trees all around. For some reason I decided to make a joke about it to Ben.
"Did you see all those kissing caterpillars?"
Ben sat up.
"No?!" He said, surprised and excited.
It was not what I had expected. I had expected him to know already that
kissing caterpillars were just a myth (as I believed at the time), and that
it was just the common Forest Tent caterpillar. For whatever reason I decided
to run with it...
"We can stop at the next spot if you like and take a closer look - seems they
are starting to swarm."
"Oh really?! Amazing!" Ben said, sitting up and peering out of the windows into
the forest, the setting sun reflecting off the glass.
I spotted another patch ahead and we slowed down, pulling over into a little
grass embankment. Out of the trunk I pulled out a couple of glass jars and a
torch which I handed to Ben.
"We're going to catch some?!" Ben's eyes lit up.
Back up the road near where I'd see the caterpillars there was a kind of mossy
green bank. Ben jumped up it, sending small chunks of turf rolling down. He
shone the light onto the patch caterpillars, illuminating their yellow and blue
"They're all crawling over each other, like one huge creature," Ben said.
"Insect collectors call them Miloreal caterpillars."
He got down on his knees, resting the torch on his thighs. The long beam shone
distantly into the forest, casting long shadows across the mossy ground. In the
darkness, a few specks of blue and yellow twinkled in the torch light.
"Look," Ben said, "there are loads of them!"
We walked deeper into the forest and came into a small clearing. From there we
could see a patch of the sky, illuminating the ground with a faint blue glow.
Surrounding us were hundreds of caterpillars, glinting in blue and yellow. In
front of us silk hammock-like structures connected the trees together in long
arcs and folds.
Ben skipped by me, whipping up the corner of my coat, and suddenly I felt a
flush of happiness, and I couldn't help but smile, dropping down in the
clearing and sitting cross-legged while Ben went from one tree to the next with
He turned and shouted to me, "these things are amazing!"
I pushed my hands deeper into the twigs, leaves and dirt on the floor. In the
quiet I started to think I could hear something - like a faint singing, a kind
of rustling and squeaking, as if the movement of the caterpillars across their
silk strings were producing the awkward vibrations of a tiny string orchestra -
that was it, like a thousand tiny choral voices, humming, buzzing, and
vibrating in unison.
I was reminded of something written by Hamming Friedman - a famous collector
who had been a strong advocate of the Miloreal caterpillar. In one recount he
too had spoken about a noise, a kind of drone made by the caterpillars. Of
course I had ignored it at the time, just like the rest of the mythology
that accompanied the Miloreal caterpillar, but there, in that moment I could
not avoid thinking about what he had written.
Ben came back over to me, shining the light directly in my eyes and blinding me
for a second - I got up and we walked over to the largest of the silk hammock-like
structures spanning two trees. Up close the caterpillars looked even more
delicate, and they had an almost transparent feeling to them when you shone the
torch directly on them.
I plucked a few from the silk thread and put them in two jars - Ben foraged
around for some leaves to add, and then we screwed the top and headed back to
All the way back to the house Ben could not stop examining the caterpillars in
the jars, peering around the glass at different angles. Once we got to the house
he rushed to the door.
"Look Mum, we caught some kissing caterpillars", Ben said, thrusting his
jar into Jennifer's face.
Jennifer looked up a me with a curious grin. The other jar felt weighty in my
"It's for you... well, actually, I hoped they could be for us - I hoped that we
could look after them together."
"I didn't think you believed in kissing caterpillars Dan?"
I didn't know what to say.
"Come in - lets put these guys in a safe place."
And together we shuffled into Jennifer's living room, and she made us coffee
while we sat and chatted and watched TV.
So that is it - the story of how I came to believe in Miloreal Caterpillars. In
honesty I doubt I have convinced many of you that Miloreal Caterpillars exist
but in a way it doesn't matter.
Miloreal Caterpillars are my hill to die on not yours. What I really hope is that I have convinced
you of is that there are some points in life when you must discard your usual instincts - to vouch for things that are usually vouched against - to invite some
amount of ridicule and scorn on yourself - to say things that may not even make
sense to yourself - and that at those points in life you should not be scared -
you should not hesitate - because some of life's most incredible discoveries
cannot be found with the scientific method - many of them require faith.