Mother of Monarchs

I feel like a mother of monarchs!  It’s the only way I can describe the feeling of pride I have when I see one of these orange and black beauties floating by in my garden these days.  All I’ve done is acquire 8 milkweed plants so this sense of accomplishment is ridiculous, especially in light of the metamorphosis that Mother Nature performs.  But my participation in this miracle has awakened in me a new connection with the natural world and an excitement that has enriched the summer.

Monarch-to-be in the caterpillar stage, munching on milkweed.

Monarchs-to-be in the caterpillar stage, munching on milkweed.

Early last spring, I watched the wonderful IMAX film, Flight of the Butterflies, that traces the migration of the monarchs each autumn from Canada and the eastern United States thousands of miles to hillsides in Michoacan, Mexico.  The story of these lovely, delicate butterflies migrating so far as part of a generational cycle is very moving.  Their winter home in Mexico is stunning — thousands of bodies pulse with life and shimmer like leaves on the oyamel trees where they congregate.

However, we learned later in the film that in spite of the numbers we’d just seen, monarchs are actually endangered.  Migrations are smaller this year than ever before, largely because the only plant where they can begin their life cycle, the milkweed, is being destroyed by agribusiness.  GMO corn and  soybeans are being sprayed with the herbicide Roundup, and milkweed, after all, is just a weed to Roundup. This habitat destruction has been happening years, but now the shimmering trees and these dire reports had me paying attention!

I started calling nurseries in my area, and sure enough, most of them carried milkweed- in fact, 4 different varieties.  I bought three plants that already had a few teeny caterpillars on them and put them in the driveway to be planted the next day.  But by the next day, the caterpillars had almost doubled in size, and monarchs flew by quite often, zeroing in immediately on the milkweed.  By the third day, I could see little white eggs on the leaves, and two couples lay entwined in the driveway.

Duet of caterpillars

Duet of caterpillars

By this time I was coming out every few hours to check the “babies.”  I could almost watch them grow.  Within days I went from being repulsed by the soft, squishy bodies of caterpillars to fondly admiring these little guys with their perfect black and yellow stripes and miniscule black antenna.  They were so single- minded, munching all day and leaving piles of rich droppings below.  The leaves of the three plants disappeared in a few days, but new babies had been hatched.  Horrified that the newborns might starve, I bought three more plants.   I watched those three quickly become just stems and bought two more. 

Glorious monarch ready for flight

Glorious monarch ready for flight

Seeing a young monarch emerge from its chrysalis and dry its wings in the sun would be a thrill, but I’ve learned that they spin their chrysalis 20-30 feet away from their birthplace.  But now as these rays of sunshine flutter through my garden, I look at them and smile, thinking that by this time some of them must be the babies that grew up right here.  Sometimes they hover over the bare stems of the milkweeds, and I wonder if they remember their childhood home and are stopping by before heading out to new adventures.

I have been so enchanted by what’s happening in my driveway that it has become a frequent topic of conversation this summer.  Friends and family receive the monarch report each week.   I took a plant covered with caterpillars to my ESL class, where my Japanese students took photographs to show their children, and a teacher friend has bought plants for her kindergarten class.

Monarch 4I have now transplanted 4 of my 8 denuded plants and eagerly await the spring butterfly season.  I’ve passed the others on to neighbors and grandchildren in hopes that they will become as fascinated as I am.  This is way better than TV and Youtube!  Instead of sitting passively in front of a screen, I feel I’m playing a small part in fighting habitat destruction while nurturing a creative process and deepening my connection with the natural world.

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