A Question of Monarchs

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A line of people curves like the body of a giant caterpillar, twisting up the mountain into the endangered oyamel fir forest. Michoacán, Mexico—the cloud-misted overwintering site of the monarch butterfly. Near the middle of the caterpillar of people, I kept pace, thinking about Catholic peregrinos who journey on well-worn footpaths and roads, sometimes hundreds of miles, to reach a precious relic—a lock of hair from a holy person, an ankle bone from a saint, the image of Guadalupe. Pilgrims, with penitential motives as varied as individuals’ hearts, carry sins of commission and omission, secrets kept close to the breast. They “wander,” as the word peregrino denotes, in search of healing, to destinations where the sacred is rumored to breach the earthly realm.

The sacred breaches the earth at Michoacán, manifested in the bodies of millions of winged insects, each weighing about half a gram. Let those with eyes, see. At Michoacán, you would be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped into a fairy tale—an alternate universe of ruddy orange-and-black grape clusters, dripping from conifer branches, enveloping whole trunks, monarchs piled upon monarchs piled upon monarchs. Pinch yourself to be certain of reality. The single monarch that lights up a Midwestern garden in the heart of Chicago or a New England hedgerow—multiply that by tens of millions of delicate flutterings.

But numbers alone don’t account for complexity. Or mystery. Monarch migrations are sometimes described with the phrase “biological phenomenon” to suggest the staggering power of their long-distance flights. The high-altitude forests of Michoacán are a single arc in a migratory cycle that spans four generations and covers thousands of air miles.

Between March and April, with a collective quivering, a river of monarchs releases into the wind and flows toward the interior of the United States. Some branch off, following the Gulf of Mexico to the southern states, but the heart of the river pours toward the Midwest, where monarchs engage in quick romances during the warm summer months.

It is August now, nearly time for the fall migration back to Mexico. The monarchs you see alighting upon stalks of goldenrod or flitting between asters are the great-grandchildren of those that poured from Mexico about six months ago. These intergenerational migrants are readying themselves for a 2000-mile return. Unlike their parents and grandparents, who lived fast and loved hard, these offspring survive up to eight months, with the majority of their energy funneled into completing the longest migration of any butterfly on the planet.

All this from an insect whose weight is equal to a dusting of sugar.

My first and only visit to Michoacán’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve was in 2008, as part of an optional fieldtrip at an interdisciplinary humanities conference in nearby Morelia, Mexico. I didn’t know much about monarchs at the time and could claim only the dimmest understanding of their migratory cycle. This past June, however, I learned about monarch life cycles and more, much more, at a  symposium hosted by the Chicago Botanic Garden. I learned that the location of the monarchs’ overwintering grounds weren’t discovered by scientists until 1975.
I learned about all things milkweed, the host plant on which eggs are laid and monarch caterpillars feast exclusively. I learned about habitat loss and concerns about the impacts of climate change on monarch survival. I learned about the uncanny intersection between corn and soy production in the United States and monarch breeding grounds. And I learned about the withering, widespread impacts of glyphosate, a Monsanto-manufactured herbicide introduced in 1996 and designed to kill all plant life that is not Roundup Ready™. By 2011, 72% of corn and 94% of soy production in the Midwest was of the genetically engineered, glyphosate-tolerant variety. Milkweed, the sole food source for monarch larvae, is decidedly not genetically modified corn or soy. By some estimates, milkweed habitat loss due to glyphosate application now exceeds 100 million acres.

Together, these conditions add up to a troubling—nightmarish—scenario for monarchs. Their numbers always fluctuate, but in the last fifteen years, they have plummeted. This past winter, monarch estimates hit a record low. The population fell from one billion monarchs in 1996 to 33 million monarchs in 2013-14; the acreage covered by their winter colonies was 90% below the seventeen-year average.

The absolute extinction of monarchs is not in question. A western population calls California home; they reside year-round in Florida; they also travel to the Caribbean; and Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii host introduced populations. But the beating heart of the migratory population that pumps through the heartland of North America is faltering. In this case, it is not the wholesale extinction of a species but an entire suite of ecological relationships whose pulse is flatlining.

At the symposium, as I put the pieces together in my head about what the loss of a biological phenomenon might mean, I reached a simple conclusion: we don’t have a monarch problem; we have an agricultural problem. We’ve sacrificed robust prairies and their plants to the gods of ethanol, hydrogenated oil, and high-fructose corn syrup.

A reasonable person might roll up their sleeves and say, “Got it. Looks like a campaign to eliminate glyphosate would go a long way in helping monarch populations rebound. We can do this. Same as getting lead out of gasoline, or banning the use of DDT for mosquito control. Sure, it took concerted efforts in public educational outreach, maybe a bestseller like Silent Spring, and facing down the money, power, and spin of giant industries, but persistence will win the day, truth will be spoken to power. Let’s mobilize.” So, I waited patiently for the Q & A and put a question to the experts about what kind of political pressure was needed to eliminate the use of glyphosate. The response was unsettling: “There are fifteen new ‘stacked’ GMO [genetically modified organism] plants awaiting EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] approval,” the speaker replied, noting that corn and soy plants are becoming resistant to glyphosate treatments and agribusiness companies are lining up to fill the chemical gap. Lop the head from the hydra, and seven more appear.

By the end of the day, my own head was in my hands. In the year 2014, I thought, the 100th anniversary of the death of the last passenger pigeon, despite the scientific maturation of ecosystem ecology, we are repeating the erasure of a biological phenomenon. A migration refined, over the course of thousands of years, by billions of tiny insects intent on completing their round in the cycle. Wiped clean.

Coal mines and canaries are notoriously poor companions. Monarchs, monocultures, and agricultural biocides are equally incompatible, and some persons have begun to designate monarchs “the canary in the cornfield.” Inasmuch as the decline of monarchs represents the general struggle of insect pollinators of all kinds—on top of legitimate concerns about the quality of agricultural products and to what non-food ends those products are diverted—some persons are wary that monarch declines may portend “food chain collapse.” As a friend of mine who works on prairie conservation put it to me, “Their lack of food today is our lack of food tomorrow.” Yet there’s no sign of a cease-fire on the land.

At the conference, we were given the take-home message to plant more milkweed … and then hope for the best.

After all the information we heard detailing the magnitude of the problems, the milkweed admonition set off alarm bells of futility in my head. Really? More milkweed? That’s the advice on which Joe and Jill are supposed to hang their despair—planting a handful of milkweed plugs? This, after we were repeatedly told that one perfect storm of inclement weather in central Mexico—a cold rain followed by a quick freeze—could forever snip the cord of monarch migration?

I noticed a feeling rising from my belly up into my chest: grief. We all swim in a miasma of negative environmental news. Panicked headlines with exclamation points once moved newspapers; now they garner clicks and retweets. I have a hard time not taking the bait. Shouldn’t I be a well-informed person, I think, my index finger twitching above the mouse? In a digital age, as never before, the world’s problems are at our fingertips (or thumbs). I sometimes wonder if the human heart is built to sustain the tonnage of such knowledge.

Science may make us informed citizens; it will not help us deal with despair. So, how do we grapple with the grim prospect of losing a migration of monarchs that may be 10,000 years old, that may reach back to the Pleistocene? How do you?

I’m not a psychologist. I don’t know the latest on productive grief-processing. Nor am I an expert on human behavior. But I can point to the possible ways that people deal with structural problems too large for any individual.

Option A. The File 13 approach. Throw that nasty problem in the trash bin of the brain and preserve a clean conscience. Delete. Delete. Delete.

Option B. The “meh” approach. Usually accompanied by a jaded shoulder shrug and outstretched palms, this shows awareness of a difficult situation … but, “meh,” what can one person do about it?

Option C. The ultimate-victor approach. Also known as the “earth bats last” defense, this tactic appeals to geological timescales, noting correctly and perhaps with a twinkle of moralistic reproach that humans will eventually go the same way as the dinosaurs and receive their comeuppance … but it may be a long time coming.

Option D. The pragmatic fatalist approach. In the face of disaster, there is a saying (hadithattributed to Muhammad that captures this well: “If the Day of Judgment erupts while you are planting a new tree, carry on and plant it.” Keep calm and carry on, do the right thing, despite the circumstances.

Option E. Weep (It’s okay to feel and feel deeply.) …Then begin a journey toward healing.

Recognize yourself in any of those? I’ve tried them all as coping strategies, consciously or unconsciously, at one time or another.

Awareness does not suffice; confession is not enough. Monarchs don’t care if I’m sorry, if I feel they’ve been wronged, if I rage away at those who profit from producing poison. So the best way I know is to follow the example of monarchs and peregrinos. Begin the journey, keep the reminders in my heart, protect what is sacred, and maybe one further (and the largest) step: restore the sacred when and where I can.

One of the bits of swag I picked up at the conference was a single milkweed plant. It’s now in my community garden plot.

I know it’s not enough. But, for me, it’s a living reminder. A gesture toward the sky. A holy relic in the ground.

The single milkweed recalls not my own pilgrimage to Michoacán but the now perilous flight that monarchs must make. Their annual journey, thousands of years in the making, undertaken by billions of their ancestors, is a present uncertainty. Their landing pads, scattered and broken, tucked between biocidal farms and impermeable concrete, layer new meanings on the term ecological refugia.

Monarchs are speaking to us, if only by their dwindling numbers, about the health of our lands. Let us see if our respective journeys can be conjoined. The evidence will be found, in plain view, by the fluttering of delicate wings.

*     *     *     *     *

Helpful Resources for the Journey

The program I attended at the Chicago Botanic Garden was organized by Make Way for Monarchs, an alliance promoting collaborative conservation to recover the twenty most important milkweed species to monarchs and other pollinators. This group places great emphasis on productive partnerships with farmers who provide habitat for wildlife. Their website offers an abundance of accessible information about monarchs and current recovery efforts.

The Xerces Society—an organization specializing in invertebrate conservation, research, and advocacy—is involved in several innovative partnerships to protect and restore monarch habitat, and the society maintains excellent web-based resources regarding monarch butterfly conservation. In early August, the Xerces Society (and other groups) submitted a petition to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior that calls for the monarch butterfly to be listed as a threatened species under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act.

Journey North is a citizen-science program that tracks monarch migrations by recording first sightings, milkweed emergence, and monarch eggs, among other items.

Managing highway right-of-ways to allow for milkweed habitat during monarch breeding season is catching on in some places. Significant gains have been made in Iowa, in particular, which can be read about here, and to which the Tallgrass Prairie Center contributes mightily.

Want to raise your own butterflies? Backyard Butterflies is an Illinois-based initiative, providing information about rearing butterflies for release into the wild. Here’s their homespun video on a recent monarch emergence.

MonarchWatch.org is an excellent source of information, including their advocacy of a “monarch waystation” program that seeks to offset milkweed habitat loss and provide places for monarchs to continue their migratory journeys.

If you’re in the Chicagoland area, and want to directly participate in a citizen-science initiative that focuses on butterflies, then the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network is a wonderful way to get involved.

Photograph credits (from top to bottom): Pablo Leautaud, RBMM, Creative Commons license; Luna sin estrellas, Monarch Butterfly, El Rosario Sanctuary, Creative Commons license; Gavin Van Horn, monarch pair; Barb Mikulicz (@Spiderwort52), monarch caterpillar; Ernest Williams, Jr. and Lincoln Brower, graph plotting monarch population decline and increased glyphosate usage; Barb Mikulicz (@Spiderwort52), monarch; Gavin Van Horn, monarch; Gavin Van Horn, trailside sign for habitat restoration, near Glencoe, IL; Barb Mikulicz (@Spiderwort52), monarch in Chicago.

  • Gavin Van Horn

    Gavin Van Horn is Executive Editor for the Center for Humans and Nature Press Books. He is the author of The Way of Coyote: Shared Journeys in the Urban Wilds (University of Chicago Press, 2018), and co-editor of Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations (Center for Humans and Nature Press, 2021), Wildness: Relations of People and Place (University of Chicago Press, 2017), and City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

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