Almost without my knowing it, my musing mind has been hard at work, mulling over the annual changing of the guard we call migration. But this time, my thoughts weren’t prompted by the departure of our osprey friends or by those tiny flying jewels, hummingbirds, stocking up on nectar before heading off to Central America. Nor was it the recent arrival of our Canadian cousins who have just started to announce their presence back here in great honking V formations that got me pondering migratory patterns. No; this year, my harbingers of seasonal change were the drunk drivers of the airways, the ones who couldn’t walk a straight line from one side of the garden to the other if they had to, those beautiful flitting stained-glass creatures we call monarch butterflies.
As summer has lingered for the past couple of weeks like a happy houseguest blithely prolonging her visit, I couldn’t help but notice (as I swung in my hammock) the profusion of monarch butterflies crashing my end-of-summer party. They were all over and around the phlox that remained, in and out of the fragrant grape ivy atop the fence. I kept hoping one would come and land on me so I could observe it close-hand, but the kings of the butterfly race had better landing pads in my mind so I imagined myself to be Chauncey Gardner, the hero of Jerzy Kosínski’s novel Being There (and also portrayed by Peter Sellers in the film of the same name) who always just “liked to watch.”
As beautiful as monarch butterflies are, there is, I’m afraid, sad news to report. Despite their proliferation in my garden this year as well as their reputation for being “the personification of happiness,” monarchs are on the tipping point of extinction, that moment when their numbers drop to such a low point that the species can never recover. Climate change, loss of habitat, and pesticides (among with many other man-made problems) have wrecked havoc with monarch butterfly populations; scientists estimate their number has decreased by more than 80% over the past 15 years and they may well be extinct within the next 20 years. Greta is so right: how dare we!
And the sad news keeps on coming, hitting ever closer and closer to home. Just a few days ago, folks on Kent Island collected bucketfuls of dead monarch butterflies; mosquito spraying is thought to have been the culprit.
In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is an example of planetary interdependence in which a small change in one nonlinear system can effect a much larger change in another unrelated system. The term itself is associated with the work of Edward Lorenz who metaphorically postulated that the flapping of a single butterfly’s wings in the Amazon rainforest could influence the formation of a tornado in Kansas. If that notion seems far-fetched to you, think about what is happening in the Amazon rainforest today and what effect that disaster will have on us for years to come!
But back to my garden and the monarch butterflies who are apparently using it as a rest stop on their long journey (almost 2800 miles!) from Canada to Texas and then, over or around the wall and onward to Mexico. During the summer breeding season, monarch butterflies live for only 2-6 weeks but we now understand that the ones who migrate to Mexico are born in late summer, stay alive all winter by hibernating in oyamel fir tress south of the border before migrating back north the following spring. In all, it may take several generations to complete the migratory cycle from Canada to Mexico and back again.
What a mysterious and wonderful world we live in; how sad we don’t keep a cleaner house. So please: plant some milkweed; don’t buy or eat genetically altered food; wear long pants when the mosquitos are hungry. If all else fails, then at least be like Chauncey Gardner and just watch. You might see something.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com