When I was a kid my mom tended a small thatch of milkweed plants behind our garden. I remember playing with the plants, letting the sticky, white sap ooze over my hands like glue only vaguely aware that these plants were here for a purpose much bigger than my entertainment.
They were for the monarchs.
Oklahoma lies in the direct path of the monarch migration from their winter home in the states of Michoacan and Mexico in south central Mexico. They migrate each spring along specific corridors north through the United States to lay their eggs. While the adult monarch eats nectar from a variety of flowering plants the eggs can only be laid on milkweed and the larvae feed only on this plant until they emerge from their chrysalis as a full fledged orange beauty. Startlingly, up to four generations will live and die during the yearly migration.
I remember seeing the occasional orange flutter behind the garden during Oklahoma springs but it wasn’t until much later that I learned much more about the monarchs, their behavior, and the possibility that they’ll die off due to pesticide use and habitat loss.
“Flight Behavior” by Barbara Kingsolver tells the tale of a woman living in rural Tennessee who discovers a colony of monarchs in the high forest of her property. It’s winter and they shouldn’t be there; they should be in Mexico. Barbara Kingsolver weaves together the science of the butterfly migration with the angst of the main character who desperately wants to take action but feels as if she can’t, which reflects almost every aspect of her own life.
I loved the book for the book itself but it also piqued my interest about the monarchs. How do they know where to go? How do they find this certain high section of forest in rural Mexico? What would it look like to see an entire tree covered in clumps of butterflies thousands deep?
I decided to find out.
Our route through Mexico started out as a ragged, back and forth meandering but then we kind of got our groove and decided what we wanted to see and how to manage the drive to accommodate those things. One of my choices was the butterflies.
So as we headed deep into the state of Michoacan and pine forests of the Mexican Volcanic Belt I had no idea what to expect. But as I watched the altimeter on my phone climb higher and higher until we hit 9,400 feet at the visitor’s center I knew one thing for certain; we were in for a cold night.
Early the next morning we were first in line at the hitching post where the horses were waiting, wooly winter coats already in place, vapor coming out of their nostrils. Hiking to the top is also an option but when given the chance to ride, I ride. The scenery was exquisite.
So as we set out up the steep trail it only took the horses about 15 minutes to get to the place where we had to finish on foot. That hike topped us off at 11,000 feet.
It’s hard to describe what it looks like. The sun was just starting to hit the tops of the trees which were covered in brown clumps that could have been leaves. Then as the sun moved higher the clumps began to move, shiver, flashes of orange appeared and then once they were warm enough they flew. The sky filled with monarchs as the heat from the sun continued to increase.
This is literally one of those experiences you have to see to believe. No camera can do this phenomenon justice. And the sound? You simply can’t believe the sound. We were the only ones up there for about 20 minutes and as the butterflies warm up and begin to move their wings you can hear it. It sounds like the delicate rustle of a skirt made from fine fabric whose wearer is trying to move quietly. It’s all around you; you can’t not hear it.
So I just sat there on a cold rock, moving every so often to take a photo. Will and I were quiet, exchanging glances every so often that said, “Can you believe this?”
When the next groups of tourists began to arrive we decided to go, making the hike back to our horses and then rode the rest of the way down the mountain. And just like that it was over. We broke camp and hit the road.
My favorite part of this is the fact that we didn’t plan it. The butterflies are only in this part of Mexico from November until March. Had we been further south on our journey we would have missed it.
Some scientists think that the butterflies navigate by a chemical GPS system based on the position of the sun. Migration is embedded in their DNA.
I think I have some of that DNA too.