I remember the day distinctly. July 15 of this year — also my birthday, also my parent’s wedding anniversary. One of my dozen or so Liatris ligulistylis had opened its first bloom and I thought nothing of it. Summer was progressing at warp speed, more warpier with each passing year. In 2013 I raised 5 monarchs from egg to wing, the year before 25, in 2011 I had 150, in 2010 it was nearly 200. To put it simply, I’d forgotten the power of Liatris. I had seen only one monarch so far this summer, and that was out in a prairie filled with milkweed. My garden had been decimated for a second year in a row by the black stem weevil, and I had far fewer milkweed than I’d intended.
July 15. I think it was late afternoon — hot and bright. But there it was, that almost hazy memory streaking orange in the distance. I rushed for the camera. Oh, you glorious poster child of pollinators, you found the Liatris. You found me.
As they are for many folks, monarchs brought me deeper into the garden. In 2007 it was my first year gardening with total madness, and I’d picked up a milkweed at a nursery. I don’t remember why. When caterpillars appeared weeks later defoliating the tiny plant, I almost reached for the spray. But instead I went online. The monarchs found me and made me aware of so much more in my garden — what a garden means, that selfless act of love and passion, giving for others you know nothing about and may never see again. Strangers. Everything in nature is a stranger to us until we sit down on knees or rumps, shut up, and listen to the silence (that great cacophony of inspiration). I am as much a part of nature as a soil microbe, a blue whale, or a butterfly, and we are all equal.
But I’d given up hope. I had, and in many ways still have, written off the monarch. And the bees, the topsoil, the clean water — I just read too much. Kids growing up today will see 35% fewer butterflies and moths than their parents did 40 years ago. Add to that number 28% for birds, amphibians, and fish. Whenever I’ve raised a monarch I’ve known what the stakes are, how small my actions seem and perhaps will always be, but this is the only tactile act of defiance I’ve ever known.
Today I’m crawling with caterpillars. 47 in the ten gallon aquarium, another 20 in eggs, 7 about to come out of a chrysalis. There are so many I can hear them eating from across the room, so I just sit down and listen to them for a while like some collective heartbeat. But I see the glass as half empty. Maybe it was just dumb luck to have monarchs again. Maybe it was the milkweed seeds I’d sown last fall in big nursery pots, fresh seedlings up off the ground away from weevils and mobile so I can place them near the Liatris. There is a part of me that wants the monarch migration in the eastern U.S. to vanish because maybe that will fully waken us to the new silent spring — the overuse of chemicals in monoculture row crops, the loss of topsoil, the poisoning of soil and water, vanishing bees and birds, the erasure of Northern Plains prairie where most wintering monarchs come from.
After cleaning frass out of the aquarium/ terrarium, I move the monarchs back in after holding them in a large soup bowl on the table. Hours later my wife gasps — one caterpillar was crawling up the dining room wall. Sometimes I think freedom is ignorance, the illusion that everything is fine and that my modern life holds no repercussions for others in the world around me. But more and more I know freedom is learning — facts, science, and history, as well as learning to let go of privileging myself over other lives. It’s likely that raising monarchs isn’t as selfless or grandiose as I imagine or want it to be, but watching them transform is the surest metaphor of hope and empowerment we have for our own species in a time when we need to be asking more questions… and in a time when we need to be listening to monarchs eat milkweed.
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