Leadership Library Review – “The Black Swallowtail” by Mary Oliver

October 2019

“The Black Swallowtail” by Mary Oliver

What are the big take-aways?

Last week, I celebrated the 10th anniversary of my business by hosting a party in Montpelier for local friends and clients of my leadership development practice.  It was a lively occasion in which I was able to express gratitude to my clients and colleagues, here and around the globe, for a decade of honoring human growth – including, of course, my own!  One of the guests, whom I have known for about a dozen years and worked with in several different capacities (as is often the case in intimate Vermont), had written me a heartfelt note into which was tucked this quietly dazzling Mary Oliver poem:

The Black Swallowtail

The caterpillar,

interesting but not exactly lovely,

humped along among the parsley leaves

eating, always eating.  Then

one night it was gone and in its place

a small green confinement hung by two silk threads

on a parsley stem. I think it took nothing with it

except faith, and patience.  And then one morning

it expressed itself into the most beautiful being.

By using this unsentimental version of the caterpillar-to-butterfly metaphor, the poem underscores how mysterious and fragile and unstoppable the natural process of transformation truly is.  Supporting change and transformation in other humans is the business I am in, even while I am being mutually transformed by that work.

Why do I like it?

I believe that we are all leaders: we are each the leader of our life, at the very least.  In my interpretation of this poem for the purposes of the Leadership Library, the simplicity of its analogies to leadership development – on any scale – are rich and powerful.  Are we not, every single one of us, both interesting and “not exactly lovely”?  Are we not all living snugly within the confines of an identity structure of our own making (though we’re mostly unaware that we’re building it, and why), and aren’t we constantly grappling with a vague consciousness that it’s hanging by a thread?  Isn’t the most we can do is bring faith and patience to the possibility – perhaps more accurately, the inevitability – that our “confinement” will somehow end one morning, allowing us to become who-knows-what?  Our next expression, that’s what: whatever that may be!  I like that Mary Oliver describes it as a “beautiful being.”

In what situations would this be useful?

Currently, I have a particularly large number of clients going through significant personal and professional – e.g., biological, social, strategic, financial and spiritual – transitions right now.  Some of the changes are rather confusing and intense.  “The Black Swallowtail” is useful as a reminder that change is simply what happens when time passes, and that transformation is fundamentally nature’s way.  From this perspective, every moment is an emergence, and faith and patience are the most effective strategies for rolling with it.  “You can’t push a river,” and if you try, you’ll exhaust yourself.  Nor can you avoid transformation; it doesn’t care if you ignore it, because it’s always coming for you, regardless of your attitude.

However, the perpetual opportunity is to choose to make meaning from it; perhaps faith is the crux of this.  As the sociologist and founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal, Parker Palmer (no relation), observes in Healing the Heart of Democracy and elsewhere: heartbreak is unavoidable but we can influence whether the heart breaks open or breaks apart.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

Mary Oliver died earlier this year at the age of 83, and her final collection of self-selected poems is a gorgeous volume entitled Devotions (Penguin, 2017).

I heartily recommend Krista Tippett’s “On Being” interview with Oliver, “Listening to the World.” Consider pairing it with the episode featuring poet David Whyte, “The Conversational Nature of Reality,” previously reviewed here in the Leadership Library.

For basic information about the Black Swallowtail butterfly, papilio polyxenes, here is the Wikipedia entry.

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2 Responses to Leadership Library Review – “The Black Swallowtail” by Mary Oliver

  1. Miriam Novotny says:

    A sentiment so beautifully expressed. Congratulations on 10 years of service. You are an elegant light among us.

    May the gifts of this world catch you today.

    Miriam Novotny


  2. Pingback: Nature, Human Nature and Leadership | Susan Palmer Consulting, LLC

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