Startle Display: A Writer Wednesday Post

September 17th, 2014 | Posted by Irene in Essays | Publication News

gentle magenta1Bush Clover, photo & all text ©Irene O’Garden, 2014

To listen to this post, please click here:Startle Display

After a week away, I could hardly wait to get fresh flowers in the house again.

Michaelmas daisies are at it this time of year—starry blooms in fruity purples, chalky periwinkles— and this glorious shrub above (Lespedeza thunbergii Gibraltar, or Bush Clover) is at the height of her beauty. Her long stems are crowded with opulent, pea-like blossoms and if magenta can be gentle, she’s it.

I happily loaded my gathering basket, but ouch! Felt something sharp as I clipped her stems. Almost like thorns, I thought. How uncharacteristic of the pea family.

Indoors, I began arranging the stems in a vase. “Ow!” That really hurt! The heel of my hand went red and throbbing. I picked up a leaf.

Talk about startled.

Stung Startle Display, photo © Irene O’Garden, 2014


Looks like an intergalactic visitor. I promptly googled it. I had been stung by a Saddleback Caterpillar. Who knew there even were stinging caterpillars?

If defense were the ultimate expression of power, Saddlebacks would rule–they are the most well-defended creature I’ve ever laid eyes on. Those multiple spiraling spines are not only sharp, but venomous, and can break off and lodge in the sting-ee. The spots that look like a big face are meant to scare aggressors. Boo! It’s called the startle display.

When you calm down, though, and look again, you see this fellow is essentially an armored slug, just trying to get his naked, vulnerable self from here to there. He grows up to be a spikeless, venom-free, furry brown moth.  

It was worth the sting and startle to behold this creature who reminds us fierce defense is but a passing stage in growth. 


Publication News:  

John thinks I saved his life last fall. I am pleased to say that “An Argument With Water,” wherein I describe the experience, has just been published in deComp magazine. You can read it here

If you are Chappaqua, NY on Saturday Sept 27, please stop by my table at the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival. It’s a grand event, and I will be gussied up as Mother Nature once again– 


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  • Laura

    A double gift- I read both the stinging saddleback and the ‘John, saved from drowning. ‘Both so beautifully written as always. A startle and a save- what could be better?

    • IreneOGarden

      I always appreciate your wise eyes on my words, Laura–thank you–

  • Scott

    I think I would have run out of the kitchen and to the hospital before being able to google that fearsome slug. And thanks for reminding me that I don’t have to cling onto the harsh defensive armor of my youth. I never thought being a furry brown moth could be so satisfying.

    • IreneOGarden

      Thanks, my fine furry friend!

  • ceblain

    I am just viewing this THING online and have the chills. I cannot imagine seeing it in person; and I am so allergic to anything that stings or bites that who knows what would happen if I were bitten or stung. You are one brave woman to even get close enough (or use telephoto lens) to capture his image. Thank you for teaching me/us something new today. I love to learn something new each day and THIS was it.
    Hopefully, Massachusetts does not have these. The closest to this one of the big horned tomato “things” that our tomato plants and the tomatoes too would get infested with and not sure of the exact name, but those hurt too.
    Thanks again.

    • IreneOGarden

      It was a surprise for sure, Cynthia–I just grabbed my phone camera, and then took the fellow and his stem out to the compost heap! I know the hornworm whereof you speak–also a spooky fellow–happy to share with you–

  • ZarkWriting

    I think this is one of my favorite posts, Irene, I love that you got this amazing picture and the idea that “fierce defense is a passing stage on the way to growth.” So uniquely you to get the “spine” of the story while sharing the spines of the caterpillar, too!

    • IreneOGarden

      That’s a real compliment from a fierce storyteller such as you, dear Jenna–Many thanks!

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