A brief stop at Bakke Farm, then over one ridge and across two rivers to the beautiful valley farm of a friend who said, yes, she had seen a Monarch this summer. One. It was still July, and I’d been thinking about Monarch butterflies.
Her place, grown lush in the moderate summer weather that settled on Wisconsin this year, was well groomed, with paths and mown trails leading to magical places. The vegetable garden beamed from well-kept beds. Flower gardens in several locations bloomed profusely, as though claiming to be the gardener’s favorite. I noticed the mower had left milkweed plants alongside the flower beds and at the edges of the roadway, and I stopped as I went by to check for eggs and caterpillars.
I was watching for butterflies. So of course I saw butterflies. Small ones, more often than not, fluttering among the wild plants on the hillside, busily looking for their favorites, drinking nectar here, leaving pollen there, playing their winged part in the grand pattern of life and death. Interesting, how many insects have favorite plants. And interesting how each of those plants depends on specific insects to keep things fertilized and growing.
But it was the Monarch I wanted to see. Danaus plexippus. The Monarch that lays its eggs on the leaves of the common milkweed plant.
Tending gardens, taking care of animals, hiking and horseback riding, I traveled around the farm and always I was watching. A wave of orange and black — my eyes would follow, but often hope was awakened only to be dashed, and I would quickly see that the butterfly flitting from flower to flower was too small –a beautiful black and orange highlight in the summer landscape, but not a Monarch.
Not historically a student of butterflies, I needed information on what I was seeing. It looked like a Monarch butterfly, but it was too small. I extended my view to flight patterns. The Monarchs sometimes catch a breeze and leave flower tops for graceful antics in the sky; the small butterfly I was seeing stayed much closer to the earth, and it had smaller movements, winging from flower to flower in quick flapping bursts. Who was it?
I discovered that we call this perky little version of the royal butterfly the – what else? – Viceroy butterfly. Limenitis archippus.
The Viceroy, though carrying the same bright colors, has a black stripe on the lower wing that the Monarch does not have. But really, who can see or not see a small stripe on a butterfly’s wing as it moves in freedom through a summer landscape?
These delicate creatures of movement do rest. I often spotted butterflies in the field, wings folded together into one upright flag as the insect perched on the top of a welcoming flower. But no sooner did my eye make contact with the butterfly than it was gone, allowing me no time to get close enough to study the pattern of color on the wings.
For that kind of study, we are blessed with the camera, and without having to kill a butterfly to slow it down, I was able to look at pictures to compare wing patterns. Some people say the Viceroy copies the Monarch in self defense, others disagree. I say, Nature must like the Monarch coloring very much, to use it twice!
There was another orange butterfly that I saw often this summer, the fritillary. Not quite as big as the Monarch, certainly not as boldly colored, the fritillary I saw were working hard, bringing orange into the green of my summer days.
I gave a grateful thank you nod to Nature for keeping the color scheme alive, but still I longed to see a Monarch.
Finally I did. Walking up the lane, enjoying the vibrant summer greens of grasses and weedy plants accented with flowers of white and violet, Queen Anne’s lace and bergamot, I saw a Monarch butterfly.
Flying flower to flower, with flutters and glides between, a beautiful solid strong orange and black stroke of life in my landscape as I walked the familiar trail, barn to house. I felt a weight lift from my heart and I saw the landscape burst into a golden glow and I offered fervent prayers to all the gods and goddesses I know who watch over the universe and our natural world. Please, O Noble Nature, don’t let this be the last one.
A couple days later a friend saw a Monarch flying among the flowers in the zinnia bed along the back terrace, and I saw another on my way to the barn at chore time. I was starting to feel a bit better, but truly three butterflies isn’t enough to counter the stories that still trickled through news streams to my back woods domain.
Oakley was with me this summer, and she carried me on extended wanderings through fields and meadows and over woodland trails. Oakley took care to watch that no dragons leapt out at us from the shadows, and I watched for Monarchs.
So many questions filtered through my mind on those rides. Was it something here, something we were doing that discouraged the butterflies? Was it dangers on the migratory trail? How many spots without pesticides would the migrating butterflies be able to find along the way from Wisconsin to Mexico, places to dine, places to rest, hide from the birds?
Would there be safety at trails’ end for the Monarchs , to stop, to eat, to sleep and prepare to fly back north next spring? It is a long way, from egg to butterfly, and a long way to Mexico and back.
My memories of the spaces one must cross on that long journey across North America are not of lush and diverse habitats for North American wildlife.
Are there Monarch sanctuaries along the way?Do the butterflies know where safety lies? How many miles of poisoned cropland can we afford per acre of safe haven? How many butterflies do I need to see here in my northern paradise to allow myself an expectation of a spring reappearance of these noble delicate beings? What about the gmo corn?
Before I left the valley farm, I saw two more Monarchs while I was out riding in a remote meadow near a beautiful creek, and I rejoiced in the beauty of the scene without being fully convinced that all was well.
We will keep watching.