I woke at 1.56am with a strong conviction that I had to be somewhere, and I was already as good as late.
Somehow combining haste with being still half asleep, I pulled on my clothes, grabbed a bucket, and started to walk out into the moonlight.
By 3am I had reached my destination - a small village a few kilometres from where I am currently living. On my way, passing some familiar trees, I switched on my torch a few times. My eyes did their best to adjust as I scanned the lower trunk and base of each tree. I did so hastily, not expecting to see anything as it was not yet 3am, not quite yet. But on the fourth or fifth tree, I saw them - unmistakably striped caterpillars, each one larger than my little finger, shuffling down the bark towards the soil below.
‘If their spit is green, they’re not ready. If it’s chocolate-brown, take them’.
I remembered the words of my teacher and picked up one of the descending caterpillars. They spit on defence, so I quickly saw brown discharge splash across my palm and knew that my poor captive was indeed ready to be harvested.
I dropped it into my bucket. At this point I had a mixture of emotions - awe (the caterpillars are beautiful, fascinating, and for the moment prolific - a rare and awe-inspiring combination), guilt (it’s not my tree, it’s not my caterpillar, yet I’ve just taken it like a thief in the night, and in one way or another I will profit from having done so…), pride (I have been looking forward to this moment!), and of course greed (now I have collected one, I know where I can collect so many more…).
I continued on my path. One by one little pools of light began to light up the bark on each of the many shea trees that dominated the landscape, and I could see the outlines of many, many figures - head down, eyes to the ground - pacing the fields.
I retreated to the forests that I knew well, anxious for this short while to make the most of the anonymity given to me by the night, and knowing that my GPS would save me if I were to get lost. The forest was empty of people – but the trees, albeit surrounded by thorns, were plentiful in caterpillars! By 5am I had quite a lot at the bottom of my bucket, and I decided to go and find my friend. She took me to the fields and I began to understood why no one collects in the forests – the shea trees in the fields are larger, evenly spaced, easy to find, and surrounded only by bare soil and young crops. This means that caterpillars are at a higher density, and are easier to spot. We wandered the fields, eyes to the ground, as a classic, enormous and spectacular sunrise flooded the sky above. Walking back, I met nearly every woman and child – and several men – whom I knew in the village, and we compared our bucketfuls. I resolved that today I’d go along to sell these caterpillars with my friend, and find out a bit about the local trade.
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