Monarch butterflies land on branches at Monarch Grove Sanctuary in Pacific Grove, Calif., Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. On Thursday, July 21, 2022, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature said migrating monarch butterflies have moved closer to extinction in the past decade – prompting scientists to officially designate them as “endangered.” (AP Photo/Nic Coury, File)
In the fall of 1972 or 1973, when I was 9 or 10, the monarch butterflies were making their way to Mexico. I was fortunate enough to see the daytime sky as densely dotted with them, it seems, as with the stars at night out at our beach house on Fire Island, New York.
I remember it was cold. Cold and rainy. This made each monarch’s air travel much like flying a 3-inch wet Kleenex. For, you see, the monarch butterfly itself is the small creature carried along on those wings, not the wings themselves. We see the latter, but it is the former that must make the long journey.
One morning I awoke and went to the beach. Wearing corduroy pants and a cable knit sweater Mom had made, with a matching one for my younger brother, Jim. I probably wore a white turtleneck. The shirt was probably clean, since Mom kept it that way despite young boys’ proclivities to soil them making forts or fighting off enemies with imaginary guns or tree branches for broad swords. Jim might have even been with me.
As the previous day’s sky had been speckled with these marvelous creatures, so now the beach on this drizzly morning was littered with those orange and brown wings. Some still attached, some detached or tattered.
I walked along and grew sad. I picked up four butterflies that were intact and seemed like maybe they were just knocked unconscious. I carefully transported them — I don’t recall how — and then placed them on the ledge of our second-floor balcony, facing the sun in the south and shielded from the stiff north wind. I monitored them. Waiting for their wings to dry so they could journey on.
The next day, I checked the ledge and three of the four were missing. “They must have dried and flown away,” I told myself.
Mom helped me identify and then write to the Fire Island National Seashore office and report to whichever man was in charge that I had successfully rescued three monarch butterflies from the recent storm, even though I’d lost one. I don’t recall if he wrote back. I do recall that I was still sad about that one.
I wrote up that story as an article for the first edition of a newsletter I’d launch the next spring. The publication had articles (news and also features), poetry and cartoons I had lifted from Highlights Magazine. I offered it to subscribers, and my grandmother became its sole patron. Not enough, I’m sorry to report, to keep it in the black, so I had to shutter it a month later.
The homeowners’ association where we live here in the Texas Hill Country has created a small monarch butterfly “layover station,” for lack of a better phrase. It’s a split-rail enclosed area of probably 75 feet by 35 feet not far from the main road leading into the development. Karen and I often remark that we wished it was a dog run.
Perhaps what little allure it holds for me is about potential, not actual.