THE HISTORY OF THE CATERPILLAR LAB
History of The Caterpillar Lab
By Founder Samuel Jaffe
People often ask me when my interest in caterpillars and the natural world began. Was there some particular event? A moment of discovery that set this lifelong passion on its course?
Well, there are many stories to tell and many moments of discovery to describe. However, the truth is, I cannot remember a time when my curiosities were not peaked, my mind not distracted, by the tangled undergrowth, by the world outside my window. The natural world has always been central to my identity and my interpretation of life. In many ways the roots of The Caterpillar Lab stretch back to my very first encounters with backyard insects as a toddler.
Our Roots in a Place
My preoccupation with nature only increased with age. I spent almost all my time in a local suburban park learning the secrets of its animals and plants. A single downed oak tree represented years of exploration - beetle species moved in one at a time, parasitoid wasps searched for their larvae, and tendrils of fungus wormed their way under bark and wood.
I quickly started to see my own neighborhood as a valuable natural landscape, even as others walked by without noticing.
I documented much of what I found in the park with photographs. Sharing my early discoveries through the images I captured was addictive and pointed me towards a career in photography and education.
An Opening of Sorts
In 2008, after graduating from Brown University, I rediscovered my joy of hunting for and rearing caterpillars. I began a project to photograph all the larger and more charismatic caterpillar species in New England. By 2009 I was already showing my work in local galleries.
That summer I was asked to host an opening for one of my photography exhibits, a classic wine and cheese style event. I surprised visitors when I delivered not just refreshments, but a few hundred live caterpillars to explore as well. This opening represents my very first live caterpillar show -something that would later become a staple of The Caterpillar Lab's activities.
In 2011 I developed an exhibit on caterpillars with Boston Children's Museum and performed six daylong live caterpillar programs. I enlisted the help of friends and family and for the first time my work with caterpillars entered into the realm of "we," rather than just "I." It felt right.
Kickstarting The Caterpillar Lab
Early in 2013 I launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a full summer of educational programs about caterpillars. The BBC (British Broadcasting Company) had expressed interest in filming caterpillars with me, which seemed a good excuse to plan my most caterpillar-filled year yet.
I was attending Antioch University New England at the time and found two interested and devoted peers to help with the project. We rented a space to raise caterpillars and referred to our project as "The Caterpillar Lab" for the first time.
Throughout that summer we put on caterpillar shows across New England, at major museums and local farmers' markets. We filmed with the BBC for three weeks and became fast friends as we worked day and night to bring our vision to life.
In 2014 The Caterpillar Lab moved into a new space in The Colony Mill Marketplace building in Keene, NH. We began to offer free public open hours every week and our outreach programing continued to expand. We brought on additional staff members and started an internship program. The year was a tremendous success and we were able to reach more people with our programing than ever before.
The Caterpillar Lab Facebook page grew quickly as we posted a near constant stream of images and videos of our unusual creatures. Our thriving Facebook page has allowed us to broadcast our work far outside the boundaries of New England.
Taking flight in 2015
In spring of 2015 The Caterpillar Lab registered as an official NH non-profit corporation. Long-time supporters of our work came together to form our board of governors. Our board has helped us develop our organization with the goal of becoming fully sustainable and persisting for years to come. We also formalized a partnership with Antioch University New England, working with their students as interns, assisting with classes, and collaborating on a diverse range of projects.
We reached over 16,000 people in 2015, at a myriad of venues including Boston Museum of Science, Boston Children's Museum, Tower Hill Botanic Garden, Montshire Museum of Science, Hudson Highlands Museum, Drumlin Farm Audubon Sanctuary, Brattleboro Farmer's Market, Vermont Institute of Natural Science, and many more. We entered a more formal academic world by leading dozens of in-school programs, and we developed our first teacher-naturalist training workshops with Massachusetts Audubon.
Updating our history page, now in 2019, I cannot express how excited I am that The Caterpillar Lab continues to grow, evolve, and remain as creative and full of passion as it ever was. This year we have a full season of programs planned, big exhibits going up at area museums, installations at botanical gardens, and many conservation, ecology, and evolutionary biology research projects to take part in. We'll even be hosting film crews again!
The Lab is alive, it grows organically, following our audiences excitement, and the combined imaginations of the people who work here. I look forward to updating this page again and again in years to come!
The Caterpillar Lab continues to work towards our underlying mission of helping open people’s eyes to the natural value of their backyards, neighborhoods, and green spaces. By increasing our audience's excitement for and investment in their local natural surroundings, we hope to inspire people to make more caring and thoughtful decisions, not just about the natural world, but about their communities as a whole. We will take any opportunity to broaden the reach place-based messages.
We continue to expand our outreach efforts and explore new ways to interact with the public. A larger web presence with online support and curriculum for families, teachers, and naturalists would help amplify our message and reach. We dream of a larger, more dynamic facility that could house The Caterpillar Lab’s operations and provide a location for educational programming and collaboration with nature photographers, artists, and researchers. We seek ways to replicate our programing in other geographic areas, which may be achieved by creating a long-term traveling exhibit or beginning satellite programs in other regions.
We aim to establish The Caterpillar Lab as a powerful support for the natural history pastime in New England and beyond. We hope to bring together other natural history professionals and help support and promote their efforts as well. Eventually, we hope that The Caterpillar Lab facility may act as a meeting place for other nature-based groups, a gallery for nature-inspired artists, and that The Caterpillar Lab’s web resources could expand to incorporate others working in this field.
As we grow, we will never forget our roots in free exploration, scientific curiosity, and the arts. We will keep broad perspective even as we delve into all the minute details of our very specific subjects—the caterpillars you’ll find in your New England backyards, rail trails, and abandoned lots.