On one of our regular family visits to Kings Park, we’d taken a wonderful wander down our favourite route, including a completely non-linear journey through the wildflowers, over the treetop walk, past the waterfall and its meandering creek, and on to a bench in a shady, grassy area for a drink and a snack break.
It was moments into this rest stop that Mr 5 found a caterpillar. Not an ordinary garden variety caterpillar, but a gloriously spiky yellowy greeny one, with a mohawk “hairstyle”.
She was lovely; undulating quickly across the grass, cleverly climbing the stone wall, travelling along the wall top. A conversation was struck up, asking the caterpillar what she ate, whether she would like a green leaf or some grass, and whether her spikes would sting if they were touched. I did my best to field these questions, but ultimately it was the (rather one-sided) conversation with the caterpillar that he enjoyed the most. Complimenting her on her climbing skills, admiring her fine coloured spiky “hair”, absolutely rapt in her.
We were seconds away from moving on from our bench rest, when tragedy struck. I saw the flicker of black and white from the corner of my eye, heard the sound of beating wings, and made a grab for Mr 5, pulling him to me as the magpie swooped towards us. My concern was for my son, but of course, the magpie was not interested in him, but in our new-found friend.
The next five seconds seemed to stretch on forever, running in ridiculously slow motion. The magpie landed, snatched at the caterpillar, picked it up, dropped it, and then successfully grabbed it firmly in its sharp beak. It ruthlessly smashed the caterpillar against the stone wall, scraping it along the hard surface to remove the spikes, and then proceeded to devour the hapless creature.
Mr 5 reached desperately towards the caterpillar in a vain attempt to save her, while I held him and tried to shield his eyes from the action as it unfolded. The magpie, oblivious to the horror, hopped a few metres away to finish its meal, while I held a sobbing five year old in my lap. “Whyyyyy did the magpie have to hurt the caterpillar?”
Baleful, doleful, plaintive cries of “Why?” at the unfairness of it all were (poorly) met with my pathetic attempt at a measured response. “Well, all animals need to eat, sweetie. It’s just a shame it was that caterpillar.” I uttered soothing platitudes of “I know, honey. I know”, and tried to speak in a calm, matter of fact way. All the while a million thoughts were rushing through my mind; why hadn’t we left 30 seconds earlier? Why didn’t I realise it was the caterpillar the magpie was after and brush it off the ledge out of harm’s way? And, aren’t there about a million caterpillars in this bloody park? Why did that bloody bird have to choose that exact moment to hunt?
And of course, the answers to those questions are: because you didn’t, because you didn’t, probably, and because it did.
After a bit more crying and whys, the visceral response to the sad act waned; the crying became sniffles, and the tears were dried away. “I know magpies need to eat, I just wish it hadn’t eaten my caterpillar”. “I know buddy, me too” (me bloody too!) The feelings of anger I had at myself for failing to stop it happening, and futility at thinking I could have, began to fade.
With the conversation now on our own lunch (yes, you can have hot chips with aioli), we left the site of the carnage and wandered uphill towards the closest café, to eat our feelings.
I can’t control everything that happens in my children’s lives. I can’t always protect them from disappointment, especially when things that are so upsetting can also be every day and mundane (the life and death of the caterpillar, the hunting instincts of a sharp-eyed magpie), but I can be there to hear the sadness, acknowledge it, empathise with it, and help them work through it.
Upon finishing our meal and heading back to the car, the conversation turned again to caterpillars. Not the one we’d just lost, but the ones we’d yet to meet. “Perhaps we’ll see another caterpillar today,” piped up Mr 5, “We might even find one in our yard at home!”
“Yes mate, I think we just might”. I breathed a soft sigh of relief, glad that we’d (seemingly) made it through witnessing the harsh reality of creatures in the wild behaving like, well, wild animals.
Time spent in nature doesn't always come with a Disney ending. We don't always have the luxury of idyllic beach strolls and beautiful sunsets, and that's OK. Our children build resilience through experiencing struggles and hardships, and working their way through them. We cannot control their world, but we can support them as they navigate their way in it.
Now if only I could get to the point where I stop cursing that bloody magpie for ruining such a beautiful friendship.