In the early 1970s, I recall running along the roadside of Illinois Route 38 just north of Elburn where we lived. The east-west orientation of that highway with its raised road bed made it a perfect monarch-killing machine. Over just a milelong stretch between the intersection of Route 47 and 38 and the Elburn Forest Preserve a mile to the west, dozens of dead monarchs could be found lying in the gravel. They were all hit by speeding cars.
My brother and I collected them. We’d gather shoeboxes full of the insects. All that carnage was an indication of several likely scenarios.
1) there were more monarchs alive in those days or
2) our little town was right in the path of an important monarch migration route
Likely both scenarios were true. In all cases, the numbers of these insects was stunning. It is also amazing how far this species travels in stages from Mexico up to Canada and back.
Perhaps you’ve become familiar with the lifecycle of the insect called the monarch butterfly. Millions of monarchs that breed in the United States and Canada overwinter in the mountains of Mexico. That’s where conditions typically favor their survival during the winter months. But monarch lifecycles are changing.
As the linked article on phys.org describes, many monarchs have ceased journeying to Mexico and are hanging out in the southern United States where a certain species of non-native milkweed survives all winter. That has attracted monarch breeding, yet set the monarch population up for increased risk of disease.
The article states: “Long distance migration can reduce disease in animal populations when it weeds out infected individuals during the strenuous journey, or when the migrating animals get to take a break and move away from contaminated habitats where parasites accumulate,” she said. “Our non-migratory monarchs don’t have those benefits of migration, so we see that in many cases the majority of monarchs at winter breeding sites are infected.”
Some of this may be the product of climate change. As global temperatures continue to rise, the range of existence for a wide diversity of life forms expands and contracts. At climate extremes, such as high mountain terrain, alpine species are forced higher up the mountain face as increased temperatures alter the zone in which they can survive. But ultimately, they can run out of vertical and the adaptations of many species to their climate zones are formed over hundreds of thousands of years, not just a century.
When the “norms” no longer apply, human beings typically turn to technology to solve such problems. But other livings things aren’t always so fortunate. This much we also know: even technology can’t always compensate for the habits of greedy, stupid or stubborn people. We’re typically born with a fine brain, but survival all depends on how we use it.
So we depend on beautiful things at times to remind us not to be wasteful with creation.
The facts are in across the land: monarch numbers are down these days for a number of potential reasons. The chief problem appears to be the agricultural eradication of the native milkweed plant species upon which monarch butterflies depend for breeding. They lay their eggs on the plants. Then small caterpillars emerge and munch out on milkweed leaves. It helps to “ranch” them to protect them from natural and unnatural predators.
Thus to help the monarch population, our family planted and grew milkweed in our garden. First, we’d search for eggs and pluck sections of the milkweed to bring inside and put into a water-filled jar. Soon the eggs would hatch into tiny caterpillars and those would start eating the milkweed leaves. They grow quickly into fat striped caterpillars and wind up reaching 1.5″ long. Then they’d climb to the top of the aquarium and affix themselves with tough silk to the screen top and curl into a tight ball. It all happens fast as the insects change from pudgy caterpillars into a bright green chrysalis with shiny gold flecks.
My daughter Emily is an incredibly observant and patient photographer who documented all these stages in a series of images. She built a poster from these images. You can order one by contacting me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Payment is $21.60 by Paypal only. Size is 16″ X 20″ in high-res imagery. Shipping is $4.50. Total $26.10.
Watching the insects develop is a fascinating treat. But the real reward comes when the chrysalis form turns dark black and transparent after ten or so days inside the green chrysalis. That means the insects are ready to hatch into a full butterfly.
One year we ranched 50+ monarchs. There was a day when I released seven brand new butterflies outside in a period of several hours. The experience of watching these insects hang on their empty chrysalis shells while their wings pump into full form is incredibly inspiring. Being present for the “birth” of a living thing is both a humbling and affirming moment.
Holding a fresh new monarch as it clings to the end of your finger truly lifts your heart. Watching it hang a few minutes on a flower stalk in July with sunlight striking its brand new and colorful black and orange wings can be breathtaking. When the insects flap their wings and take off into a blue sky, it truly gives you a sense of wonder.
That’s a rare gift in this world where cynicism and the habit of taking the natural world for granted is so common.
The light in our eyes
So you might be asking, what does all this monarch talk have to do with running, riding and swimming? Well, I’ve known many endurance sports coaches who get the same sense of joy watching their athletes go through stages of development. That’s the literal take on how this all relates to running, riding and swimming.
“WE’RE ALL BUTTERFLIES!”
Okay, now that we got that one out of the way, let’s talk about a deeper perspective.
The richer meaning rests in all those days my brother and I spent walking the roadside during the height of monarch migration 40+ years ago. For it’s always hard to know, as young kids, what we’re supposed to recognize and know about the world. But when we grow into adults, it is important not to become jaded to what the natural world has to tell us. Because in that pattern of existence, we can begin to harm ourselves and others without ever knowing it.
We knew even back then that piles of monarchs along the road was not a good thing. But multiply that times how many east-west roads across the country? That meant millions of monarchs dead and wasted. So we collected them, and pondered that, and an environmental ethic began to form. Being nature-loving kids, we recognized that obvious lesson.
Butterflies aren’t free
But the deepest lesson of all is that monarchs are fortunately still with us. They have not gone extinct, as yet, and they are not “free” in the sense that their existence does not come without a cost. That would be protecting them. Advocating changes in agricultural policy. And even ranching them by hand.
Thus the arc from collecting those dead monarchs to raising and releasing them as grownups into the wild signifies a connection between ourselves and the earth’s systems. Even the Bible recognizes this important relationship. The parables told by Jesus were often founded on deeply organic symbols in a literary device we call metonymy, “the use of the character of one thing to represent the nature of another.”
We find this method of communication throughout the entirety of scripture. It is the organic foundation of the Word of God. Those who ignore that deeper symbolism do so at their own peril, for they miss the critical nature of what God is truly trying to tell us when we’re warned that life and creation are gifts from the universe. We’re not the center of it. Instead, it resides at the center of us. That is the heart of God.
Passing something of value along to the next generation and the generation after is the greater gift of existence. Some of the monarchs that migrate north to Canada stop to breed, and the succeeding generation is the foundation of what travels south to Mexico. There is altruism even in nature, the sacrifice of one individual to pass along life to another.
This is a lesson important to human beings as well. Even if it’s the simple act of protecting what already exists, or at least not squandering creation on selfish grounds of greed or neglect, that is the basic responsibility of all human beings. Because despite the fact that some religious people see themselves as specially created and thus separate or superior to nature, they live in denial of what scripture actually tells us. Jesus saw beyond the legalism of such literal notions of relationship to God. His parables launched listeners into a greater spiritual connection, but they worked by using everyday examples from life and nature to do so.
So it’s not the end-all, be-all to simply say “God made this and I love it.” We have a duty to discern the greater patterns of nature and how they reflect creation as a whole. I personally embrace the notion of God but I also welcome the insights of those who do not. Wisdom comes in many forms, and butterflies can talk to us if we listen.
All a person has to do is hold a monarch butterfly on the end of their finger to know that life connects to life. Yet lacking that immediacy, we should at least appreciate that the insect fluttering over the fields has a long journey to make, and that our running, riding and swimming is a pale yet important imitation of the real thing.
That should be both a humbling and inspiring lesson to us all.