29.3.11

The Vegetable Caterpillar

Tuesday, 3 October 1893
Tasman Sea, off the coast of North Island, New Zealand


I am currently aboard a steamship headed south back to Wellington so I can “catch my flight” back to 2658 in my awaiting time machine. I spend the day above deck when I can watching the coast, the Tasman Sea and the seabirds. Occasionally I’ll run into some chap eager to show anyone his pursuit. It’s something he is passionate about but which most people would find boring. I never find these people boring at all.

A chap had a box of odd looking objects, no one else seemed interested in. Curious I went over to look over his shoulder. He was holding what looked like dried caterpillars with horns.

“Excuse me, sir.” I said. “I don’t wish to be rude, but what on earth is that?”

“That, sir, is the Aweto. Also known as the Vegetable Caterpillar, a creature that is both insect and plant.”

I introduced myself as a history scholar. He introduced himself as Professor Reginald Harrison, an entomologist from Oxford who had come to collect New Zealand insects to take back to the university. (I didn’t tell him I was from Cambridge, for fear the conversation would have digressed into who would win the next Cricket match.)

Instead he gave me a lecture on the Vegetable Caterpillar: “The aweto is the most extraordinary animal in New Zealand. It lives in the ground and when it grows to be about 2 inches, it sprouts a fungus from its neck. The plant shoots out of the ground with one leaf-less stem with a dark-brown head, like a tiny cattail. You can find them around rata trees. If you dig it up you will find the caterpillar, with the roots filling all of its body. Then both the caterpillar and the fungus die and become mummified. We are at a loss as to how this creature can propagate itself.”

I told him I had every confidence that science would solve the conundrum of the aweto.

Harrison also told me the Maori burn the mummified creatures and use the charcoal as black pigment in their tattooing. He said he wasn’t sure if they felt the aweto had magical properties or it just made really good pigment. He said if he wasn’t a scientist, he would be tempted to call them magical himself.

After I left Harrison, I pulled out my “pocket Bible” and checked my computer records. This odd creature is in fact an ordinary underground-dwelling caterpillar that should have grown to be a moth. Instead the poor thing got infected by the fungus Cordyceps robertsii. The spore begins growing inside it’s host, using the nutrients from it’s tissue until it kills caterpillar, then mummifies it. It then shoots up a stalk out of the ground with more spores to find more hosts. A rather insidious slow death, like something out of a horror story.

Also, the “vegetable caterpillar” is not only found in New Zealand. A similar fungus attacks caterpillars in Tibet and the resulting carcass has long been used in Chinese Medicine. Known as dong chong xia cao, it is considered the perfect combination of Yin and Yang, since it’s both animal and vegetable. It has been used to treat everything from acne to cancer.

I’m not sure if I could ingest an aweto. I think would be reluctant to let one poor creature‘s misfortune cure my own.

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