Migration Station

For the last two weeks I’ve been seeing the monarchs migrating through. No, I don’t mean that convoys of kings and queens have been trucking down the interstate. I’m talking about the most royal of butterflies, the orange, black, and white monarch.

Monarchs share the upstate with many butterflies, the brown skippers, the yellow-green sulphurs, the yellow and black and the blue and black swallowtails and others. The monarchs could be the most beautiful of them all, but it’s their life cycle and not their beauty that intrigues me most. They’re part of a group called “the milkweed butterflies” because of the plant that the larvae like to feed on. Milkweed makes them taste disagreeable to birds, and so they have a natural protection from these predators. The adults feed on other nectars, but the milkweed keeps them safe from birds for life.

Lately as I’ve been sitting on the screen porch in the afternoons I’ve seen the monarchs appear from the up the driveway (north) park for a sip of nectar on the aptly-named butterfly bushes in the side yard, and then flit off into the woods behind us. I know they’re headed south to their wintering grounds far away. It’s gratifying to have them stop for a snack in my backyard.

It’s quite a journey they have ahead of them. All the monarchs east of the Rockies fly 3,000 miles to the mountains of Mexico. (West of the Rocky Mountains the monarchs don’t have quite as far to go-they migrate to California.) Those that fly south spend the winter and fly back north in the spring to lay their eggs. After three generations of summer butterflies have come and gone, the last generation heads back south. The remarkable migration of the monarchs is “more like birds or whales,” one field guide reports.

Sitting at a football game on Saturday most in the stadium were focused on the action down at field level. I was watching the sky above, counting monarchs as they moved through oblivious to the score. Like a good running back, they had their shoulders squared and were headed north-south. By the time the fourth quarter had rolled around I had seen 22 Monarch Butterflies and that was just on my side of the field. I tried to do the math and multiply these travelers by every acre of the piedmont, but it was too many butterflies to imagine.

It’s possible to miss this grand butterfly show if you’re down at ground level and caught in a snarl of human concerns. Some years I’ll look up one day in late September or early October and see a single monarch straggling past and say, “I’ve missed it.” Other years, if I time it right, I find a high place on the nearby mountain front right at the peak of the migration, and it’s possible to see thousands of the butterflies moving past. In a high place you can focus your binoculars on the migration and pick out butterflies to what seems infinity. They’re not all monarchs, but many of them are. It’s more exciting than a homecoming parade.

Some years I make it up to see the grand parade on the mountain front and sometimes I don’t. No matter what, it wouldn’t be fall for me without the monarchs and their migration. I’m always looking to the natural cycles for inspiration and wisdom. I find it in the waves of animals coming and going, the seasonal changes, the ups and downs.

Fall is always the most reflective of times. Maybe it’s the temperature plunging, but for whatever reason, it’s this time of year I always start thinking big. I’m not the first to do this. Alison Hawthorne Deming has a whole book of poetry called “The Monarchs.” It’s a sixty-poem sequence inspired by the migration of the butterflies. “Sleep, Monarchs, rising and falling/with the wind, orange children tucked in your winter bed,/teachers of patience and faith,” Deming offers in one of the last poems in the sequence.

So monarchs migrating are a metaphor for something larger. They teach us “patience and faith,” they teach us how to live even our own brief but “purpose-driven” lives. Noting the passing of the monarchs each year reminds me how to pay attention, how something as small as a butterfly can be both fragile and strong.

Seeing the monarchs migrating each year makes me feel attached to what eco-philosopher David Abram has called “the more-than-human world.” No matter how hard we humans try to level everything-temperature, landscape, playing fields-migrating butterflies remind me we’re all part of the rounded year, the process of change, what used to be called “the great chain of being.”

A lepidopterist, that’s what they call someone who studies butterflies. Alive and aware, that’s what I feel when I note these colorful vagrants as they pass through in the fall.

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