Divining the Sky

2,718 total words    

11 minutes of reading

Photo Credit: Gavin Van Horn

 “What is it that follows along the gorge, going clapping its hands? The butterfly.”

~Aztec riddle (from Daily Life of the Aztecs

I perch on a set of stone steps, inhaling brisk morning air. Behind me: North Park Village Nature Center, a little hybrid island of prairie, woods, and wetlands in the big city of Chicago. No pastoral idyll, this. Muffled car traffic swooshes within earshot; planes rumble overhead, departing O’Hare International Airport. In front of me: a woman raises a small branch aloft in both hands and gingerly shakes the twig. She looks as though she is dowsing for water—a folk practice also known as water-witching or divining—with the rod pointed in the wrong direction. As I watch, I decide this must be a new twist on an ancient practice: she is divining the sky for sunlight.

My eyes scan upward until I notice the telltale black-and-orange of a small insect at the tip of the branch. Monarch butterfly, she clings to the solidity of the known, reticent to relinquish her perch, still drowsy without the benefit (like me) of caffeination. The woman gently waves the tip of the branch up and down. A few more encouraging shakes and the monarch trades branch for sky, joining wings to the air, fluttering up and away. A leaf defying gravity. From my position on the steps, I can’t help myself: I slow-clap my approval. It’s the least I can do. The moment feels worthy of an ovation. The woman, now aware of her audience, turns and grins, gives a slight bow of her head. Then we both look back up at the sky.

Following a bit of conversation, she divulges that a few weeks ago she spotted monarch eggs on a patch of milkweed near her home. Fearing the eggs’ accidental destruction at the unmerciful blades of city mowers, she took them into her care. She mothered three monarch larvae through dramatic morphological changes until they stretched into their final shapes. Today marked the moment she entrusted them to Chicago winds. Moments like these renew my faith in human beings.

*    *     *     *

As the summer wore on, I noticed I was seeing more monarchs than usual in and around Chicago. I often check milkweed leaves and stems (the host plant for monarch caterpillars) in my neighborhood on the off-chance that I’ll be rewarded by the sight of a hungry caterpillar. On an outing with my family, we swung by a local park that contained a rain garden of native plants tucked between playgrounds. I knelt down, a penitent in the park, before a stand of milkweed. What I saw drew an involuntary gasp from me. My partner, there to witness my genuflections, informs me that it was more of a squeal. Whatever sound emanated from my throat, I was thrilled to see a monarch caterpillar undulating up a green stem toward his dinner. 

Was it by happenstance—where I chanced to be wandering—that I encountered a monarch caterpillar? Or was something more going on? I was not far from the Green Bay Trail, a foot and biking path that runs parallel to our local commuter train. Monarchs near this trail would make some sense. The rights-of-way of train corridors often provide swaths of habitat for all kinds of creatures—not just humans—to move through the urban landscape while avoiding traffic. 

The Green Bay Trail is a level and lovely path, shielded from otherwise busy streets and neighborhoods and stretching for some nine miles north of Chicago. The trail has become lovelier over the last few years due to the efforts of a particular group of volunteer stewards: Friends of the Green Bay Trail (FGBT). A portion of that loveliness involves a monarch story. 

I recently spoke to Betsy Liebson, president of FGBT and a self-described “eternal optimist.” When eight years ago Betsy and two friends turned their attention to the Green Bay Trail, they had to contend with a pathway choked by buckthorn (an invasive plant that often prevents the growth of native vegetation). After removing these trees (with her town’s permission) from one stretch of the trail, Betsy said their small group looked around and asked “What now?” The decision was simple: “We should plant something.”  

In addition to other ecological benefits, the native plants with which Betsy and company replaced the buckthorn support many types of wildlife, including monarchs. As the group grew in numbers, the FGBT realized they needed a decent icon to represent their work and, as Betsy remarked, “Cutting down buckthorn doesn’t make a very good logo.” And so the monarch. 

With the monarch as their icon, it seemed a natural progression for the FGBT to establish a monarch hatchery near the trail. “This year, particularly, it really was a great success,” Betsy told me. “We have people who will automatically—when they are walking down the trail—veer off the twelve steps or so it takes to get to the hatchery and they’ll just check in. And they’ll look. We have a little sign that tells how many monarchs there are, and how many caterpillars there are. They’ll count and see how many chrysalis we have, see if we have a butterfly today. They develop this interest.” Her neighbors’ awareness of monarchs and the trail seems to be growing. She has people reaching out to her with increasing frequency, offering milkweed seeds, bringing her caterpillars, or asking about tips for raising monarchs.  

Betsy told me that work on the trail has led to many acts of generosity, monarch-related and otherwise, which is “kind of part of what keeps you going, because this is hard work.” This may be why Betsy responded in the following way when I asked her what monarchs symbolize to her:  “Hope. Hope that [monarch care] will become more popular and supported by the general population, not only along the trail and in our country but everywhere in realizing the impact of some of our decisions on the life and health of our planet … especially the long-term impact of our short-term decisions.” 

Doing this work has certainly changed her views of urban nature. “It’s right outside your front door. It’s there. There are so many gems and jewels all around us that people are not aware of.” Those jewels were shining this summer, along the Green Bay Trail and throughout Chicago. 

*    *     *     * 

I decided to scale-up from my local neighborhood’s parks and the Green Bay Trail to see if there was more to what felt like a banner year for monarchs in Chicago. I contacted my friend Abigail Derby Lewis, Senior Conservation Ecologist and Senior Program Manager at Chicago’s Field Museum. Abigail’s expertise is in climate science, and her work focuses on how climate adaptation intersects with community concerns. One of the unique things about Abigail’s work at the Field Museum is the attention that she and her team give to cities.

When an opportunity arose to partner with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in order to assess potential milkweed habitat in the city, Abigail had been well-prepared by previous ethnographic research conducted within Chicagoland communities. “Traditionally a lot of conservation organizations don’t focus on cities, and the reason for that is a legacy of thinking nature is out there, which is a pretty strong legacy in federal and state agencies,” she observed. “But that’s beginning to shift and this project [monarch recovery] is a really great way to move the dial on that narrative.”

Monarchs are a “really good convener of conversations,” Abigail told me, because they bring people with various interests together, connecting the social with the ecological. She noted that to understand monarchs’ prospects in urban areas, there are two questions that her team needs to address: Where are the best places for milkweed habitat in urban areas? (“A straight up spatial [and] ecological question.”) And what are the best ways to get habitat? (A social question that has been “front and center” for her team.) Finding ways to build upon and align monarch recovery with existing community concerns and values, according to Abigail, is the “really exciting part of this work and fills a needed gap in conservation work.” This turns potential habitat into real habitat. In fact, as she put it, “I would argue that the social aspect of this is the most important part of the work, and also all conservation work. You simply can’t have successful engagement for conservation in the long run without having ownership of that from people from the very beginning.” 

The first phase of her team’s efforts was to do a social-ecological analysis of four large cities along the monarch’s migratory flyway (St.Paul-Minneapolis, Chicago, Kansas City, and Austin). The results and products—ranging from bilingual storybooks featuring monarchs to spatial planning tools—were released last spring. The team recently finished phase two, collecting data from small and midsize cities (Peoria and Carbondale, Illinois, and Lincoln, Nebraska). They hope to use the insights they’ve gathered to suggest best practices for engaging different people, including city officials, in relation to various land use types—vacant lots, schoolyards, cemeteries, golf courses, and residential areas, to name a few.

As we got further into our conversation, I noted the ways in which monarchs can help us think across the landscape continuum, not only from urban areas to rural ones but also by connecting our individual actions to a larger network of people along the monarchs’ migratory route. Abigail agreed, noting that the project has taken on more personal meanings to her, particularly because it intersected with when she and her family bought their first home. That home meant she had a yard to play with and she decided to use it as a data point, digging out large portions of the lawn and replanting it with native habitat. An opportunity to put theory into practice. 

“I have 454 stems of milkweed in my yard, which sounds like I have a big yard, but I don’t, I just have a lot of native habitat.” These aren’t just raw numbers for her: “The act of going out every Thursday with a clipboard, and just knowing I have forty minutes and my only task is to look at every single stem and leaf and to see what is there and to record it is such a beautiful part of my week. It’s what I look forward to. …It’s a really different view of your yard, of your life, of your world, when you think of it in such a microscopic area and connect it to the rest of the landscape that you think about most of the time in your work. Right?” 

Because she often does these yard surveys with her two young children, she found it especially gratifying to see “light bulbs going off in my own kids’ heads” as they discovered all the creatures who made use of their backyard habitat. The kids also got to help with “headstarting,” raising monarchs in their home until they were ready for release. Such intimate contact with monarchs affected more than her children. One surprising moment occurred when her family released a monarch they had raised together. “I really thought that the kids would be the most emotionally invested because it’s a living being that you are responsible for for a month,” she recalled. “We all went outside, and you know I’m taking video of it, and I notice that my kids are laughing, and my husband was like crying. And I was like Are you crying? He was really emotionally invested. And I think he represents what a lot of us feel in like look what I did, look what I hope to do, and it’s this unexpected feeling of excitement and pride that you have. Even though its only one little butterfly, it represents so much more about what one person is capable of doing. I think that’s a really special part that I’ve been able to share with a lot of schools and organizations. It works.”

Up until fairly recently, there was little to no data on natural habitat in urban areas. According to Abigail, for this reason, the research that the Field Museum is doing has “got a lot of heads turning.” The paradigm seems to be shifting, opening new possibilities: “Nature can be and often is already embedded in our cities. And we have this moment now to get cities right.”

*     *    *     * 

Something seems to have gone right this year. In early September, while I was walking through downtown Chicago, I spotted monarchs at different elevations, fluttering on gusty breezes that were saturated with humidity from a recent rainfall. I’d never seen so many monarchs in one place. Anywhere. And I was walking down one of the more human-imprinted places in Chicago, with office high-rises reaching cloudward and condominium balconies making the most of the available space, protruding into the air over the sidewalks below. In between, monarch butterflies danced in the wind. 

The monarchs didn’t appear to be seeking nectar, didn’t seem interested in alighting on the nearest park’s butterflyweed bushes, didn’t seem interested in anything but revelry. I wondered if they were celebrating—an airborne version of the post-rain exuberance of children jumping in puddles. Rising, falling, circling, clapping their wings against the air. Some of the monarchs I was watching may have been raised by hand: like the one released by the woman I met at the nature center; like the ones at the monarch hatchery along the Green Bay Trail; like the ones nurtured to adulthood by Abigail and her family. If so, here they were in downtown Chicago, readying for the long journey, a migration that would no doubt present many challenges—scorching drought, wind-whipped storms, and acres and acres of pesticide-soaked fields. 

Given these challenges, the sources of the uptick in monarch numbers this year in Chicago are difficult to trace. Abigail mentioned the admirable efforts of the Illinois Department of Transportation, which has been replacing nonnative grasses with a variety of native plants alongside roadways. It also could be that monarchs are concentrating in urban areas because agricultural pressures are more extreme. Many cities are shifting their plantings from turf to native landscaping, and, according to Abigail, that “just wasn’t there fifteen years ago.” And, of course, there are volunteer ecological restoration groups, faith organizations, and nonprofits such as the Friends of the Green Bay Trail, whose collective efforts contribute to the city’s biological vitality.

Whatever the factors, it adds up to what Betsy, president of the Friends of the Green Bay Trail, mentioned about monarchs’ symbolic importance. Hope. Maybe hope is precisely why we scan the sky for burnt-orange jigsaw puzzle pieces fluttering against the blue silk sheet above our heads. 

Recently while walking in my neighborhood, I raised my nose to the air, arrested by some untraceable scent memory—a hint that October managed to nudge her way under summer’s door. I inhaled to feel the flood of my favorite season’s prospects: the shiny red crunch of apples, the creamy oranges and golden yellows of hearty soups, the steaming warm mugs of coffee that defrost chilled hands, the crisped whispers of leaves carrying secrets as they skitter across the street. 

This is when my attention was drawn to a dip of motion, like a maple leaf caught in a swirl of air. A solitary, late-departing monarch flickered across the sky. I imagined her as the last one to leave the party, hesitant about the daunting journey ahead, enamored with the remainder of summer’s nectars, until finally the inner compulsion for warmth could no longer be suppressed. Some vital force filled her wings, pulsing to the veined edges of a body sculpted to cavort with currents of wind. She dipped and rose, a blip of heartbeat registering on air. 

Perhaps she is following relations gone before her and can trace the hints they left in their wake, tracking currents that will bring her companionship. And perhaps she knows: somewhere, many miles away, the aerial trickle of insects becomes a stream of bodies caught up in a collective desire to reach their ancestral homes. Squint hard enough into the sunlight. You’ll see it. Crane your neck. A river of monarchs is flowing toward their source—in the same way that water is determined to find the ocean—eager to renew the cycle with their own lives.  

Hope. Theirs and ours. You don’t need to hold a forked branch aloft to sense this current flowing. 

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  • Gavin Van Horn

    Gavin Van Horn is Executive Editor for the Center for Humans and Nature Press. 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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