Funny how overheard remarks get caught in the memory. A lifetime ago, I published a weekly newspaper in a small rural community, and one day I overheard a nurse in our medical clinic talking about me. I don’t think she knew I was there in the clinic lobby, while she was one room deeper inside identifying me to the new bookkeeper. It’s not that she slandered me; it was a small town and she and I got along pretty well. Still, her remark has stayed with me all these years, and I continue to ponder the implications.
“Kate Walter?” I heard through the hall. “She’s one of those earth people.”
It made me shake my head then, and through the years my disbelief and confusion have only grown deeper as I observe and encounter people who think it is all right to spray poisons into the air and let them settle onto the soil that supports our life; people who think it is all right to turn our living continental waters into many fingered toxic sewage canals, who want to cut down the national forests and who willingly extract volatile and toxic substances from the earth and use them to pollute the air we breathe, as long as there is a dollar profit to be made.
Thinking about the perspective of people who identify as anti-environmentalists, I realize that there are people who feel a connection to the earth and then there are other people who don’t, people who don’t seem to care that this is our planet and who think it is all right to completely gut and hack and trash and kill . Surely those people are not from here.
Now I hear news of plans for a resort development on the east rim of the Grand Canyon.
Really? The Grand Canyon? Really? For millions of people who visit the canyon already, the Grand Canyon offers an awesome show of the unsurpassed brilliance of nature, and the thought of the rim of that canyon becoming a developer’s vacant lot is grim beyond reason.
A commonly promoted thought is that it is human greed that drives rampant pillaging, but look closely – can’t you see cruelty down there in the greedy souls who willingly destroy nature for a financial return? Is perhaps cruelty the human characteristic we are called upon to transform?
These thoughts feed and compound the grey heavy feelings that can accompany morning coffee and news of the world.
But it is almost spring — what about the butterflies?
The butterflies, I am happy to report, are doing a little better.
I am thinking about Monarch butterflies, the intense bright orange and black butterflies that pollinate North America, streaming north from southern California and central Mexico every spring to fly around fields and orchards and gardens all over the continent, all the way into Canada, all the way to Maine. In the fall they stream back to the southwest for the winter. Millions and millions of butterflies. There once were billions. Now, millions.
The Monarchs have been on my mind for a long time, and while we were staying at Bakke Farm last summer those thoughts became a focus of my summer and fall experience.
We always took the Monarchs for granted. We took a lot of things for granted, raising children and animals and gardens on Bakke Farm in the 1980’s. We took for granted that the coyotes would howl, that nettles would come up in the spring, and that the Monarch butterfly would innoculate our summer fields with the special vitality it carries.
We watched for eggs and caterpillars on the underside of milkweed plants.
The land on Bakke Farm has never been sprayed with toxic chemicals, and we always had plenty of milkweed. It was more usual than not to find clusters of eggs, and it was more usual than not to see ragged milkweed leaves being rapidly eaten by the very hungry Monarch caterpillars who went through the most amazing transformation to become Monarch butterflies.
All chrysalis and cocoons are awesome, but somehow the gemlike visual quality of the Monarch chrysalis lifted that transformation one notch higher, if that is possible, to an even more awesome plane in our thinking. Nature, a constant source of nourishing phenomena, clearly marked the Monarch to be a gem in the crown of creation.
We often brought milkweed stalks into the house, stalks feeding captured caterpillars, and we were able to watch the changes as the caterpillars grew and grew and then one day dropped into a “J” position, hanging by a slender thread from the stalk. Big changes happened, and soon the golden green chrysalis was hanging there, and big changes were afoot, because one day the chrysalis faded and the wet and folded Monarch appeared, stretched its wings, and paused for a moment in our house, a final blessing on the fall, before we released it to the out of doors.
Watching the butterflies head out in the fall was a part of our preparation for winter. The nights grew colder, the birds began to fly around the farm in formation and form raucous community gatherings discussing travel. We started to wear jackets. The Monarchs flew away.
We thought about courage as we watched the delicate Monarch fly off in brisk autumn winds, knowing we would need courage of our own to stay home and face the cold of winter. But how did the butterflies do it? We knew they went to Mexico; how ever could they fly so far? Could we ever be so sensitive we could measure the current of strength that was invigorated with the flapping of those beautiful paper-thin wings? How did they know where to go?
For most of the life of North America, people all over the continent knew the presence of the Monarch butterfly as a regular part of the year, and it was easy to observe that Monarchs came and went. But no one knew where the butterflies went; knowledge was local and not shared abroad.
Students of the butterfly are answering many of these questions now, delving deeper and deeper into the mysteries of life as we learn about the kingdoms of life around us.
In the 1930’s Norah and Fred Urquhart, Canadian zoologists, observed the coming and going of the Monarchs and became passionately interested in learning about where they went.
They raised and released Monarchs and found other people to help them. They counted Monarchs and devised means of tagging butterfly wings to follow individuals on their flights. They set up an organization, the Migration Association (now Monarch Watch) and recruited volunteers to help gather data.
Where were people seeing butterflies? Norah and Fred Urquhart kept records and marked out a trail as reports filtered in from across the United States. The trail went from Canada all the way south to Florida and then across Texas, and eventually the trail took the researchers to Mexico. In Mexico the Urquhart team met up with Mexican colleagues who had been researching the Monarch butterfly from a southern perspective, and the mutual trail led finally to discovery, in 1975, of a wintering spot in Michoacan where millions of Monarchs covered the forest in a miraculous community resting place.
That was 1975. Now, in the twenty-first century, when we stopped seeing butterflies enough to count in Wisconsin, we worried.
The people in Mexico are worrying, too. The return of the Monarchs punctuated Day of the Dead traditions in that country, the insects typically back in Mexico by November 1, and people in recent years have begun to notice changes. The Monarchs are late in arriving, the numbers are down, fewer and fewer of them are arriving at all. Reports came from Mexico of diminishing health in the geography and diminishing numbers in the wintering butterfly populations.
I’d been reading the news. I am sharing the concern.
My horseback rides last fall in Wisconsin took me around the ridge hayfields of Bakke Farm, and by late summer I was breathing deep the strong air fortified by the colors of the autumn leaves in our surrounding forests. Gold and orange, set against the green hayfields where purple clovers were blooming for seed, the colors were invigorating, and I was nourished by the activity in my environment. Always, I watched for butterflies.
And I was seeing some. I was able to count – six one day, three the next, not great numbers but some, some.
My soul felt some relief: Good. They are still with us on earth, they could not be added yet to the growing list of extinct species.
I was working on a drawing, inspired by a friend who delivered mail on a rural route and told me one day, “I brake for butterflies.” I started seeing bumper stickers on cars across the continent reminding us of our responsibility to flying things.
I’ve driven many times from the northern land of the Monarch summer home to the southwest United States, a journey across forest and farm land, plains, mountain and desert. It is a long and arduous trip, and I am in an automobile, not flying unprotected through wind and weather, dodging predatory birds or looking for flowers to sustain my energy. The Monarch travels much farther still, going all the way to sanctuaries in central Mexico for the winter.
Driving through mile after mile of chemical farm ground that lies monocropped and pallid in what used to be a rich and diverse landscape of the central United States, driving through concrete cities and industrial zones over what used to be living earth, seeing the territory of the modern Monarch migration, with oil wells and drought stricken pastures adding danger zones to an already dangerous journey, I can barely imagine how a creature as small and vulnerable as a butterfly can make the trip.
It is almost spring now, almost time for the butterflies to be on the move, and I’m going to take up my watch again. My last sighting of a Monarch seems a dream from way last summer, a technicolor dream at the end of a gloriously mild midwest summer when blue skies and orange and red fall foliage were the back drop for an October preflight gathering of Monarchs in the hayfields at Bakke Farm.
I had saddled up my mare and set off across the field. She’s a wonderful, wise and generous horse, and she was feeling good. I was delighted. There were a couple of Monarchs feeding on clover as we set off through the patch of hay growing below the north orchard apple trees on the edge of the hayfield. What could be better? I felt blest.
I think Oakley did, too. It was a beautiful day, and we were meandering.
Down the slope toward the north fence line, more butterflies. They flew about us, resting on clover blossoms with wings erect and tightly clamped together, and then, wafting off on the fall breeze, they surrounded us with delight.
I started to count, and I reached ten before we turned to follow the north fenceline back up the field toward the eastern edge of Bakke Farm. By then I realized something special was happening. I felt like the princess in a Disney movie, the air around me filled with busy and energetic Monarchs. They flew by us, brushed my hair, filed the air with eager anticipation for something great and wonderful – like a last festival picnic before the long journey.
I rode out across the highest field on the farm, picked a couple apples off a favored wild tree in the hedge row, and reached the southeastern fenceline before turning back to ride through the oak plantings and back to the house. Before I made the turn, my butterfly count had reached sixty, and I stopped counting. I couldn’t really tell, anymore, which individuals I had counted and which were new, a great dance of butterflies and sunshine and glowing vibrations from the clover field surrounding me on this glorious autumn day.
I wished them all bon voyage, safe traveling, somehow knowing I wouldn’t be seeing them again on the farm that summer. And sure enough, the next day the field was empty, the butterflies gone.
I like to think that all of those Bakke Farm butterflies made it to Mexico. I was glad when reports started to emerge from Mexico, giving butterfly counts that at least weren’t as bad as in years past. “Some slightly good news on the butterfly front,” Texas A and M TODAY reported February 13. So, unless some major weather event hits Mexico before the migration north begins, things are better than worse, anyway, and that is good news.
As spring approaches, it is time for us all to engage. As the Monarch butterflies begin heading north, meeting the countless dangers of the journey, they will be passing by many people and organizations committed to helping these lovely creatures survive. I believe we call these people Earth People, and I am proud to count myself among them.