If I had a blog, today I would write about the lesson of the monarchs.
It isn’t easy being a tree-hugging dirt worshipper these days. Every new report seems to carry another prediction of gloom and doom for the natural world. Songbirds, sea turtles, polar bears, and countless other species teeter on the brink of extinction every day. Even here, in the quiet valleys of the Ozarks, we’ve noticed disturbing changes: Each fall there are fewer spiders spinning webs on fence rows to catch the morning dew; fewer flocks of geese soar overhead on grey November afternoons, and fewer monarch butterflies visit our wildflower garden on their long journey south.
This year, the monarchs have been unusually scarce. From the earliest days of spring, sightings of these magnificent lepidoptera have been few and far between. Throughout the summer we diligently searched the leaves of the milkweed plants for caterpillars, but our search was in vain. We should have seen three generations of monarchs come and go over the course of the summer, if they followed their normal pattern, but this year, their numbers were too few to tell. This global change, it seems, is real and hits much too close to home.
This year, my joy at the arrival of autumn is tempered with melancholy. Fields of asters, goldenrod, and thistles that should be teeming with butterflies are almost vacant, their usual inhabitants gone, as if they have vanished into thin air. I want to believe that, given a chance, species at risk can adapt and overcome the ignorance of humanity, but some days I can’t access that kind of hope. Sometimes I despair that the food plots, bird houses, and wildflower gardens we tend year-round are doing any good at all, but then there are days like today.
This afternoon, walking back to the house after chores, I noticed flashes of copper dancing among the asters. As I drew closer, I saw the performers were monarchs – dozens of them! They drank from the chalice of the flowers, renewing their strength for the long flight south. I stood in the pale sunlight for a long time, letting the butterflies swirl around me. In their dance I felt courage, determination, and hope – hope for the future and hope for ourselves. After all, if the monarchs believe in the future of our planet, then I can do no less.