butterfly burial ground
at first, it was one. one lone wing rising up from the sands, fluttering in that way that a butterfly flutters. only this was only a wing. no sign of the rest. a sojourner dashed. stricken of flight.
i stooped to touch. i walked on. there, not far away, was another. only this one was faded, not brilliant and full of the sun. it was losing its light there in the sand, along the edge of the water, where the waves kept rolling in.
and on and on, it unfolded. i walked and i walked past the wings. i connected the dots. the whole beach was a fading mosaic. if you were looking.
this was a subtle pastiche, each wing being drained of its sunset. a watercolor washed out by the hour.
it whispered, the beach of the butterfly wings. and the song that it whispered was sad. the last flutter of so many monarchs buried there in the sand.
i imagined them falling. one by one from the sky, from the wave of the wind that they follow. the long journey, perhaps, was too much. three thousand miles for a flying machine with a wing span of only four inches is rather a distance. to say the least.
and there in the midst of the carnage was a live one, a fluttering one. my heart leapt. right along with the monarch that darted and landed, then soared. out over the water.
had it come to whisper goodbye? was it left all alone? was it lost? was it aching?
perhaps it was waiting for night. that’s when the clouds come, clouds of monarchs. that’s a sight i’d pay to watch. under the moon, a cumulus cloud of orange with black and white spots. or maybe a cirrus.
the monarch, known in latin as Danaus plexippus, “sleepy transformation,” is named for the daughters of danaus, the libyan king, whose daughters, according to legend, fled to greece to avoid marrying their cousins.
the monarch flees too.
the monarch, of all the 24,000 species of butterflies, is the one who migrates the longest. and the migration is a story that leaves me in goosebumps. maybe you, too.
for most of the year, the monarch, like every other butterfly, lives an ephemeral life. it’s born, and within weeks, it dies.
not so the monarchs of autumn. they are the methuselah generation.
and i am not making that up. that’s what lepidopterists–or butterfly know-it-alls–call it. named it, of course, for the oldest old man of the bible, methuselah, the one who, according to genesis 5:27, lived “nine hundred sixty and nine years.”
the monarchs born in late august, way way up in canada, where they summer, are born into a non-reproductive state.
they have no interest in mating. no interest in flapping their wings for romantic purpose–not yet, anyway; that will wait until the spring after the winter, when their days are more numbered.
for now, they are hellbent on making it south. the ones born in august live as long as eight months. sometimes only seven. except for the ones that fall to the beach, and die way too soon.
die before they get to the mountains of mexico. central mexico. up high, 10,000 feet above sea level, on slopes that face the southwest. where it’s cool and it’s safe from the winds. where their motors can hum without burning much fuel.
not until 1975 did the scientists know where they landed, the clouds of the monarchs that fly in the night.
it was a secret known only to those in the villages nearby. can you imagine harboring such a secret? knowing that yours were the trees where the monarchs returned, where they hovered in masses, a thick coating of orange with black stripes and white spots, making your fir trees look like fluttering fire?
here’s something else that might make you need to sit down, to take a deep breath. and if you’re already sitting, you may need to recline. and bring on the salts.
the monarchs come back, each year, to the very same tree. talk about a family tree.
as you will soon learn, though, the very same monarch doesn’t make the entire round trip. but, heck, two-thirds of the way isn’t so wimpy. when the road home criss-crosses the whole of a continent. when you live in two trees, one with canadian roots, the other sunk deep in mexican soils.
the methuselahs, the ones that cling to the trees through the winter, mate and die somewhere in texas, on the return trip, back up to the north.
but then, the relay begins. their children and grandchildren take it the rest of the way. one generation giving way to another, who make it, finally, up to the canadian forests. their great-grandchildren, the next methuselahs, come back to the ol’ family fir, down mexico way, come the next fall.
now, i have no clue how they find out these things. do they put post-its under their wings, mark them with paint? do they fly in a plane right beside, track every move of their wings? i’m telling you, these are the kinds of the things that fill up my brain. that keep me awake in the night. wondering how in the world do they know it’s the very same tree.
oh, well. at some point, in the study of monarchs and the study of life, you throw up your hands. you simply accept. you believe what you read in a book, what you see with your eyes, what your heart tells you is true.
but back to the monarchs.
you might see them these days, darting about in your garden. they are sucking up nectar for the very long flight. they store it as fat in their bellies. they conserve it. they actually gain weight on their autumn migration. they glide on the wind, those very smart monarchs. they desperately need all the fat to get through the winter. up high in the trees.
here’s another fine thing: they drink from the mist, and the fog. they drink while they’re flying, and when they land in the fall–in the trees down in mexico if they’re monarchs from east of the rockies, or in coves along the california pacific if they’re from west of the rockies–they quench their thirst, a considerable thirst, i’d imagine, from the ocean mist that rolls into the coves, and the fog clouds that settle high in the mexican mountains.
for a tissue-thin thing that weighs less than a stamp, it’s utterly barely conceivable. no one yet knows how it makes such a trip. or how, without a map, it finds its way home to the exact same address, year after year.
but the people who follow the butterflies do know that if you looked up in the night now, you would see a most marvelous thing.
and maybe you’d hear it. if you grew very still. the sound of thousands of thousands of wings flapping toward home.
and every once in a while, a sad one, a lost one, would fall from the sky and land on the beach where i found all the wings. piled quite thickly in places.
it is a sacred thing, the sands now are holy, to go out for a walk and stumble upon wing after wing. to know that the monarchs were high overhead. and the ones who were lost found a place in the sand. where they’re fading and falling apart. back to the earth. to flutter no more. except for there in the wind.
i keep going back. i am drawn to the burial ground of the monarchs. i’m keeping watch, keeping vigil. i am the caretaker of a wonder that’s fading. reminding me how fragile is life, and the small things that follow the wind. i am strengthened, i am humbled, by the power of a flight filled with mystery. and a beauty that cannot be caught in a net.
a beauty that year after year turns the sky to a cloud of fluttering flame. and makes a tree, faraway, look as if it’s on fire.
are you a butterfly watcher? what parts of the story amaze you? leave you jaw-dropped? what a most blessed thing to know a place where the trace of the butterfly flight is buried, and the wings flap at half-mast, where if you were walking and not paying attention, you might think the beach was on fire, with all of these faded orange bits, licking the wind, the last flames of a storybook life. have you seen such a thing? is it not sacred, defined? i walk lightly in these, the butterfly days…
of course, it is 9-11. it was eery to write of winged things falling from the sky. we all have our stories. we all have our prayers. to those lost on september 11, we have not forgotten. may your children, especially, be touched with the grace of a God who brings butterflies home, year after year.