I will never forget that sun-washed September day back in the 1970s, when a Monarch butterfly landed on my finger and hung on there trustingly, resting its gaudy black-and-white polka-dotted abdomen on my warm skin.
A girl of about ten, dreamy and prone to tree-climbing and rock-sitting, I froze and observed the butterfly’s gorgeous gleaming wings, which beat back and forth slowly as it perched; and then, to my great delight, it unfurled its long, slim black tongue and began gently probing my skin, daintily sipping the beads of sweat it found there.
After a few minutes, it gave a carefree beat of its wings and caught an updraft over to a nearby stand of purple asters. I watched it with delight, wishing it luck and Godspeed on its long migration south to Mexico, which I knew about thanks to my avid reading of Ranger Rick and National Wildlife.
Many years later, my son, also a keen observer of the natural world, brought a Monarch butterfly caterpillar that he’d found on a stand of milkweed home to munch milkweed on our kitchen counter.
We watched, fascinated, as the caterpillar hung itself upside down in a J-form from a branch of milkweed. Overnight, the soft striped body of the caterpillar hardened into a glossy green cocoon, and its the rear feet solidified into a strong stem, firmly cemented to the branch.
The cocoon hung quietly, quivering now and then as the mysterious transformation took place inside.
One morning we began to see the familiar black and orange outlines of the Monarch wings coming into view just beneath the green wall of the cocoon, now turning translucent.
“You’d better put it outside,” I told my son. “We don’t want it to hatch in the house!”
He put the vase with the milkweed and the trembling cocoon out on the porch, and we left for work and school. By the time we came back, the miracle had occurred—the cocoon had been abandoned, and the beautiful Monarch had sailed away regally, following its destiny.
This year not a single Monarch butterfly visited our garden, although I planted two butterfly bushes for them, and a stand of Asclepias, a whole bed full of bee balm, phlox and asters, and even left a few stubborn stalks of milkweed growing up through my roses.
“Did you see any Monarchs?” my son and I kept asking each other, knowing the answer but still hopeful.
This is how extinction happens. One year, a beloved species just doesn’t show up. Life goes on. But a hole opens in the tightly stitched fabric of the ecosystem. When there are enough holes like this, the whole fabric begins to unravel.
“On the first of November, when Mexicans celebrate a holiday called the Day of the Dead, some also celebrate the millions of monarch butterflies that, without fail, fly to the mountainous fir forests of central Mexico on that day. They are believed to be souls of the dead, returned.
“This year, for or the first time in memory, the monarch butterflies didn’t come, at least not on the Day of the Dead. They began to straggle in a week later than usual, in record-low numbers. Last year’s low of 60 million now seems great compared with the fewer than three million that have shown up so far this year.”
Why are the butterflies disappearing? It’s not just the Monarchs, although these large, showy insects are among the most beloved. I saw very few butterflies of any stripe in my garden last summer.
As with the precipitous decline in the wild bee population, the culprit is industrial agriculture.
Butterflies rely on wildflowers for their bread and butter during the summer breeding months. For Monarchs, milkweed is especially crucial.
The long route from the Mexican forest where they winter to their North American breeding grounds used to be lushly planted with native wildflowers like milkweed. No single butterfly makes the round-trip from Mexico up to my garden in New England. Rather, each generation lives long enough to lay its eggs on a convenient stand of milkweed, and those caterpillars hatch, eat their milkweed, cocoon and turn into butterflies to carry the migration on.
It’s a mysterious, miraculous process, the knowledge of the route handed down across scores, perhaps hundreds of generations each season, year after year for untold millennia.
And then human beings invented Round-up.
The tragic decline, not just in the Monarch population but in all our native insects, can be traced directly to the use of chemicals in agriculture. The herbicide Round-up, sprayed indiscriminately on the ever-spreading farmlands of the American Midwest, kills everything except those seeds genetically engineered to withstand it.
That is, it kills everything a butterfly would need to survive.
Thanks to Round-up and all the other pesticides, herbicides and fungicides used in American agriculture—combined with suburban sprawl, golf courses, lawns, malls and parking lots—much of the U.S. has become an ecological desert, from a butterfly’s point of view.
And without the butterflies and other insects, the bird populations crash too.
The bats die off. The run-off from these poisoned fields kills the frogs and toads. And before we know it, that one small hole left by the disappearance of the Monarchs has turned into a gaping, hemorrhaging wound from which there is no recovery.
What can we do?
One thing we can do as consumers is to support organic agriculture as much as we possibly can. Yes, it’s more expensive, but think of those extra pennies as a donation to the Save the Bees, Birds and Butterflies effort.
You can also think of buying organic as an investment in your own health. Pesticides and herbicides build up in our bodies too—we’re at the top of the food chain after all, just like the eagles and hawks who were dying from DDT back when that poison was still being sprayed on the fields.
It’s no accident that we have a cancer epidemic in America today. What goes around comes around.
We can also be more thoughtful in how we compose our landscapes. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have green space around our homes can get rid of grass lawns, which are green deserts to butterflies, and plant vegetable and flower beds instead.
Even the big tomato hornworm, which can chomp through a whole tomato branch in a single day, is cause for celebration in my backyard, especially now that I know they turn into the spectacular sphinx moth, a daytime moth so big and fast I’ve sometimes mistaken it for a hummingbird.
Imagine a Milkweed Railroad for the Monarchs, running from their winter home in Mexico all the way up to the far reaches of their breeding grounds in Canada.
Stands of milkweed would be planted in every park in every town along the way, so that wherever the butterflies spiraled down from the high updrafts that carry them along the ancient migratory route, there would be milkweed waiting to host their eggs, feed their caterpillars and provide sturdy stalks for their cocoons.
This is not a dream. This is how it used to be, until the last few decades when human sprawl and wanton chemical use got out of hand.
What humans broke, we can fix. We just need to set our hearts and minds to the task of repairing the holes in the fabric of our beautiful planet. And in tending to the planet, we’ll be tending to ourselves.