Tuesday, August 21, 2018 

The Butterfly Tale

October 30, 2014

sunset in Madison

The sun sets over Lake Mendota. Madison, Wisconsin.

We got to Wisconsin in the summer. It was July, and we saw a few fireflies. There was a feeling in the air. I had to ask. “Seen any Monarch butterflies this year?”

We visited a lot of people and I asked often. No one said they’d seen more than one, most said, “No, none this year so far, “ and my heart sank in a deep and wondrous way that no other loss, I believe, could match.

I’d been hearing news of extreme drops in numbers of Monarch butterflies, and it was news I wanted to keep in a cloud at my back, to blow away lest I have to think about it, acknowledge it. Unacceptable news.

The Monarch is a North American butterfly that accents life in beautiful waves of orange and black from Canada all the way to Mexico. I grew up with this butterfly. It just was a part of my world, a part of the pattern and color of my life, and it was so plentiful a part of life in North America that virtually every American could recognize it, call it by name.

No Monarchs? The feeling of how that would be came on me in a full sweep that changed how I looked at everything.

Lower hayfield on Bakke  Farm.

Lower hayfield on Bakke Farm.

Was the landscape not a bit dull, the land not so green, the sky not so blue?

I considered death and the feeling of loss: it is hard to lose someone I love, a family member, a friend, or even a beloved pet. I remember the sadness at past partings and sometimes feel sadness still, in remembering, but I knew and know that it had to be, that I had my trail to travel different and ongoing from others, that old made way for the new, that there is no life without death. There is comfort in the natural order of things. These were not new thoughts; they were not new feelings.

There will always be someone left to carry on.

But a species passing? The Monarch? I know of other species disappearing from earth, I’ve heard stories, heard statistics, hear people say 20% are gone, 50% are gone, of this plant and that animal.

I know about the dinosaurs. I’ve been worrying about bees.

And I met Martha one year at the Cincinnati Zoo.
Martha was a passenger pigeon.


Passenger Pigeon By J. G. Hubbard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Like the Monarch, Martha and her kind were at one time very plentiful. A bird of the North American eastern deciduous forests, they flew in such numbers that they darkened the sky. Those are the reports: “They darkened the sky.”

And, like the Monarch, they were threatened by the works of man, by poisons and destruction of habitat and outright killing.

There were great flocks of these birds, and most of them were shot by people, killed for sport. Martha, the last of them, spent her life in captivity – 29 years in the Cincinnati Zoo –, and then she died, and all the passenger pigeons were gone.

When I passed through her memorial exhibit, years ago at the zoo, I was profoundly saddened. Scientists called the birds Ectopistes migratorius, and they were once the most common bird in the United States. Migrating flocks extended a mile wide in the air, and they lived in communities of nests, sometimes as many as as one hundred nests in a single tree, but I’ll never see one.  There were so many powerful images that came to mind with these descriptions, that my ponderings were powerful as I tried to understand the thought of species death.

Once there were billions of these birds, now there are none, and that is just hard to comprehend.

When Martha died her body was sent to the Smithsonian, the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., where it is preserved, a reminder that the unimaginable is possible.

Martha left an impression on me, but there was distance. Martha died in 1914, long before I was born. She wasn’t a personal friend.

The Monarch butterflies are different. They are friends, and they are not gone. Yet.


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