Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Butterfly Effect

Where are all the monarch butterflies this year?

Last summer, my daughter Sophie pretty much ran a butterfly nursery in our house. She filled a big jar in our kitchen with dozens of monarch eggs she found clinging to milkweed plants in our neighborhood. Soon the jar was crawling with striped caterpillars. After a month of munching on milkweed, and growing like crazy, one after another would attach to the inside of the jar and stiffen into a chrysalis.

I’ll never forget the sight, two weeks later, of a new butterfly breaking free from its papery prison, uncrumpling its orange-and-black wings. After an hour or so, we’d stare awestruck as the butterfly pushed off from our backyard deck, fluttering into the air for the first time. It was as if we ourselves were borne on that breeze, soaring into the unknown.

But the nursery is closed this summer. Sophie can’t find any eggs clinging to milkweed in our neighborhood or, for that matter, any monarchs fluttering around. The air feels strangely empty. So where are all the butterflies? What does their lack mean for us, and the world?

We googled for answers. Turns out there’s a paucity not just in upstate New York, where we live, but across North America. Various factors are blamed, including extreme weather resulting from climate change, milkweed plants lost to farm herbicides, and the loss of winter habitat in Mexico. Researchers noticed last December that the monarch population wintering in Mexico covered less than three acres – the smallest area ever recorded. In 1996, the number of butterflies in the area was eighteen times greater, disturbing evidence the decline is a long-term trend and not just the result of seasonal events.

What does it mean when a symbol of freedom diminishes? Scouting for clues to this deeper question, I reread a Ray Bradbury story, “Sound of Thunder.” In it, a hunter travels back in time on a guided safari to kill a T-Rex – and mistakenly strays off the path and squashes a butterfly. Upon returning to the present the safari group finds the world drastically altered by the seemingly innocuous death of a single butterfly. Words are spelled strangely, people behave differently – and a fascist dictator has been elected ruler.

Last I checked Obama is still president, but the lack of butterflies this year affects us in large and small ways. In our kitchen, there’s one less jar fil
led with interesting stuff. Discouraged, Sophie takes fewer bike trips scouring milkweeds in our neighborhood. We miss the awesome sight of a majestic butterfly flapping away for the first time.

My memories of last summer remain vivid, but one day they’ll recede. I think of my flying dreams. We all have them. Last one I enjoyed was about a year ago, after an empowering real-life event – a literary journal published a short story of mine. But when I was young the dreams felt more real. I’d awake from such dreams, nearly convinced they’d taught me how to fly. It had something to do with jumping sideways in the air, like a pole vaulter without a pole, then latching onto a breeze.

“In my class everyone used to have flying dreams, but they barely do anymore. But I had one a month ago,” Sophie tells me. She had more when she was younger. At the age of six, half a lifetime ago, she dreamed fairies gave her wings and painted them, but she woke up before she could fly.

At what point does a memory recede into dream? We await the monarch’s return for an answer.

No comments: