For years we’ve only seen one or two monarchs float by in the summer. There were swallow tails and sulphurs, but very few monarchs. We heard about their habitat being ruined by a big frost in Mexico, and then their major flight route in the Midwest was ruined because the milkweeds were all mowed down or poisoned by the weedkiller Roundup, It’s funny how one species needs another to survive, isn’t it.
The Monarch’s life cycle is not easy. The ones who are born here go south in one long trip, but it takes 3 generations for them to travel back up to the Adirondacks. They winter over in the south, lay eggs in the spring and die, two more generations must be born for them to travel to the north. The generations coming north must have milkweed for the caterpillars to feed on. People planting milkweed in gardens and in vacant lots and elsewhere away from the herbicide tide are a main reason for their rebound. My neighbor stopped mowing the milk weeds on the side of his house a couple of years ago. They are big and messy, but he left them up in hopes for the future.
So year we began to see Monarchs early, I think it was June when we saw the first one. My husband said, that can’t be a monarch it’s too small, it must be a viceroy. But we kept seeing them. Then in August there were bunches of very hungry caterpillars everywhere, Monarch caterpillars. Star said to get a few and put them in a gallon jar so that my grandsons could watch their transformation.
We found three caterpillars and put them in a container. If you follow Weaving Home on Facebook you can see the two that survived and were hanging on the cover of our gallon jug. Every day we checked the caterpillars. The caterpillars attached themselves to something with a magic kind of glue, their bodies contorted into the the shape of the the letter ‘j’ and then the chrysalis formed. It is not an easy process, the caterpillar seems to be struggling in the throws of death. But the chrysalis is beautiful, light green with golden specks around the top.
We waited and watched and while we were waiting more chrysalis appeared on our porch. We lost count after twelve. One attached to Lucas’ bicycle tire, so he couldn’t ride for a couple of weeks. The shining green capsules holding a hidden life then become darker, and almost translucent so that you could see a wing through its skin. Now I never watched this process so closely. Some schools have butterflies in the classroom so that the kids can watch this amazing transformation up close, but I’m glad I got to watch it with my grandsons, it is such a gift. We worried and hovered, but the butterflies were born in their own time, struggled out of their tomb, practiced and stretched their wings and then took off, first to get some nourishment at the hydrangea bush and then off to places south. Star says that the Wild Center in Tupper Lake had a lecture on how to tag a butterfly so you can see how far it travels. That must be amazing.
The life process of the monarch is so complex, and you can see why butterflies are used as religious metaphor. The chrysalis - the tomb, the emerging butterfly - the resurrection. Scientists have studied this process of metamorphosis for centuries, and naturalist Bernd Heinrich asks “can a butterfly be an amalgam of two very different organisms that fused in antiquity, each providing a separate set of genes that resulted from selection of different lines?” That is an interesting thought too, butterflies never cease to give us something to consider. He goes on to say: “In this case, one organism could arguably be considered a symbiosis between an older organism and the resurrection of another within it.” However you look at this process, it’s awesome. He concludes by saying: “Regardless of the mechanism of transformation, for a caterpillar to transition to a butterfly, different sets of genetic instructions must act consecutively: one set to dissolve its body into constituent parts, the other to reassemble it into something else.” (Natural History, 06-16)
Not even considering the complexity of the genetics that result in a monarch, what strikes me is the difficulty of this life process. at any stage there is danger, and risk. The caterpillar is food for the birds, there are fungi that attack the caterpillar. The chrysalis is vulnerable to the weather and elements, totally unable to protect itself. And even if the butterfly emerges there is no guarantee that it will get to where it needs to go. We saw monarch on the side of the road, hit by cars, captured by a cat, unable to get out of the fence around my garden. The miracle is that some butterflies do make it, and go to Mexico. Just think, some of the butterflies that hatched on our porch are on their way to places warm and sunny!
What does the butterfly teach you about life? Does it give you insight into the resurrection, or new life, or the strength of life itself? Does it inspire you to keep on striving for wholeness in spite of all that life has thrown at you? My time with the monarchs has reminded that I am not in charge of life, some monarchs hatch and some don’t and I couldn’t do anything to change that. They have inspired me to think about the spirit part of me, that may feel encumbered by a body that sometimes does not behave the way I want. And most importantly they have taught me to see beauty in a wonderful miraculous creation that inspires awe. In his book Beauty, John O’Donohue says: “in the Phaedrus, Plato has that remarkable passage where he describes how the soul awakens in the presence of beauty and recovers and grows her eternal wings; gravity and finitude can no longer contain her.” (page 224)