The Dangerous World of Butterflies By Peter Laufer Hardcover, 288 pages The Lyons Press List price: $24.95
The Flight and Plight of the Monarch
(From Chapter 5)
INDEPENDENCE DAY IN MEXICO, SEPTEMBER, 2008:
Grenades were lobbed into the celebrating crowd in Morelia's downtown, capital of Michoacan, hometown of Mexican president Felipe Calderon. "On this national holiday, there are cowards hidden in the crowds of patriotic people that have converted joy into sadness and the happiness of Mexican families into sorrow," Calderon said after the attack, explosions that killed, maimed, and emptied Morelia of its tourists. It was a shattering blow to Morelia, a city that celebrates the Monarch because it is a staging ground for butterfly tours into the mountains a few hours distance.
The next month, I'm in Morelia, en route to the nearby Monarch overwintering grounds high in the Michoacan mountains. Taxi drivers and restaurant waiters, hotel desk clerks and passersby I encounter in the streets all express despair about the attacks. The shock to the city's economy is secondary; the targeting of innocents in their usually peaceful city has them dumbfounded. Across the street from my hotel in the charming Spanish Colonial downtown is the eighteenth-century cathedral with its wedding cake steeples and the park where two of the grenades exploded. It's a perfect autumn day, the sky clear and blue, accented with puffy white clouds kissing the nearby mountains. Bloody tragedy seems far distant.
An ad hoc memorial and scars on the sidewalks are the only physical reminders of the blasts, otherwise life goes on: families stroll, lovers embrace, the shoeshine men wait for customers. The memorial is a circle of dried stalks, along with flowers, arranged on the paving stones, along with two wreaths of flowers on easels. Candles and a card showing an image of Jesus with Mary are set amid the flowers. A handwritten note is amongst the offerings. It is weathered and torn, covered with candle wax, but a few words are still legible. "Viviremos siempre en los corazones de la gente que nos amo en vida." We will live forever in the hearts of the people who loved us when they were alive.
Passersby slow as they walk past the memorial, and say a few hushed words to each other before continuing on. Periodic army patrols pass the square: an armored personnel carrier equipped with a machine gun, and a pickup truck — the bed of the truck filled with heavily armed soldiers and a machine gun mounted on the roof of the cab, manned by a gunner.
There is a war going on in Mexico under the still placid facade of Morelia's sidewalk cafes and their guacamole and huchepos, hot chocolate and cerveza. The attack on the zocalo, the massacres in border cities of police, prosecutors, and soldiers — along with alleged drug traffickers — are manifestations of the illegal drug business. But the same type of terror plagues the Monarch grounds, where the currency is valuable trees illegally logged instead of marijuana and cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin.
Before heading into the mountains, I stop at the Palacio del Gobierno for a meeting at which the Michoacan governor, Leonel Godoy, gives the introductory remarks. There is a cup of coffee on the dais in front of him; it's traditional local pottery adorned with a delicate, painted butterfly. It's official state tableware. After the meeting I walk out of the building and think for a moment I see an early Monarch, only it's late October and their scheduled arrival date is El Dia de los Muertes, November 1. It is lively, fluttering around the governor's grounds, but it is yellow, not Monarch orange, and the only Monarchs I see in Morelia are pictures: decorating the state's license plates, and illustrating the sign in my hotel that suggests I save water by sleeping in yesterday's sheets and drying myself with this morning's wet towel.
The strange-but-true story of the Monarch lures and mystifies butterfly aficionados from grammar school children to wizened entomological specialists. The North American Monarch living east of the Continental Divide doesn't only magically change from a clown-colored caterpillar to a majestic butterfly, it defies logic with a multigenerational, ultra-long-distance commute that transits Canada, the United States, and Mexico. The navigational details remain a mystery — no one knows for sure how they plan their route from the northeast of North America to the few specific mountaintops where they winter in one central Mexico neighborhood. Tropical Monarchs live their summers as far north as Canada. As winter approaches they migrate south to Mexico where they hibernate en masse — millions jammed per acre — in Michoacan and the state of Mexico in an isolated range of the Sierra Madre, the mountains made famous in the 1948 film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre starring Humphrey Bogart.
It was Bogart who asked a Mexican bandit posing as a Federale for his badge, eliciting the classic line, "Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinkin' badges." That lawlessness is a reality that unfortunately plagues the Monarch overwintering grounds to this day.
In spring the warming weather rouses the Monarchs. They mate as they head back north, an activity that quickly kills off the male. But unlike the direct trip south, the journey north takes a few generations. The Monarchs that made the long trip south and spent the winter in Mexico only make it as far as Texas and Louisiana. The gravid (egg-bearing) females stay alive long enough to find a suitable locale for their eggs, whatever milkweed they can find — this being the plant food that both nourishes their larvae, and fills the caterpillars and the butterflies they eventually become with the poison that makes them unpalatable for most potential predators. This next generation ecloses in short order and continues the trek north toward the Great Lakes where they lay their eggs. Soon their offspring head toward the East Coast, and it is their progeny who make the long haul — as far as three thousand miles — back to Mexico. This is an annual event: it takes four or five short-lived generations for the broods to make it north, and then, before winter sets in, the Mexico-bound generation — which lives several months — makes the epic journey south.
How do these butterflies — great-grandchildren of the Monarchs who flew to Mexico the year before — know where to go and how to get there? That is still a fascinating and delightful mystery; theories include a role played by the position of the sun and another by the Earth's magnetic force. The excellent eyesight of the Monarch is a navigation factor, the visual cues interpreted by the butterfly's pinhead-sized brain. Favorable winds and air currents help make for a successful trip, along with plenty of luck. Those are theories of how they fix their route. How they know — generations separated from the ancestors who last were in Mexico — where their destinations are located remains a phenomenal mystery.
There are Monarchs elsewhere making similar but not quite so epic journeys. Those west of the North American Continental Divide, for example, head down the California coast, and find a comfortable staging place for the winter. Some of them cluster near my home in Sonoma County, hanging together on imported Australian eucalyptus and local Monterey cypress trees in the Bodega Dunes park. Others go farther south. Pacific Grove calls itself Butterfly Town, U.S.A., and threatens fines of up to $1,000 for harassing any of the thousands of Monarchs that overwinter in the Monterey Bay city.
Reprinted with permission of The Lyons Press/GPP, Guilford, Conn.