Like these monarchs, I wasn’t hatched in Mexico, but in the Great Lakes region, where there is such abundance of milkweed lining roadsides and reclaiming fallows. As a child I scattered seeds from dried pods and smeared my hands with the sticky white sap that bubbled up like blood when I ripped a leaf or snapped a stem; the glands in my throat recall the bitter milk, my fingers the tack. I remember the monarchs also. I captured their fleshy pale green-and-black striped larvae, let them march up my ticklish arms on their stub legs. When I got older, I ran through weedy hayfields to net the winged adults. I practiced holding my captives just-so so the scales would not wipe off as I fed them sugar water, unfurling their proboscises with a sewing needle.
While in English butterfly has etymologists stumped, the ancient Greek word is psyche, the same as soul and breath. In Spanish, the word is mariposa, which is theoretically derived from the phrase “Maria, posa,” or “Mary, alight.” But in the days of my butterfly safaris through timothy and alfalfa it did not occur to me to reflect upon the “thread of vital light,” upon mortality, even as I imposed it with my sticky fingers and forced feeding.
Now that I’ve reached my adult life stage (however delayed it was coming), and am vaguely more aware of the damage I do to the world with my insatiable curiosity, more aware of the work of survival, it smarts to know how far those monarchs that I befell had traveled before they suffered at my hand. They were then just butterflies, mere ephemera bobbing from one bloom to the next, but they had, I realize now, a purpose beyond those flowers, a direction, a destination, even a grand design.
Successive generations of monarchs migrate northward in the spring and summer, following the ripening of the milkweed required by the caterpillar. Monarchs born in Florida or Georgia will lay eggs in Carolina that hatch stub-legged larvae whose grand-offspring will be born a month or so later in New York or Ontario. Then, when the weather cools, the rising generation will cease to begin their adult phase with mature reproductive systems. These late-summer butterflies will live eight times longer than their fertile ancestors from earlier in the year, and when the equinox arrives—or, rather, when the sun peaks at 57˚ from the southern horizon at their given location, these monarchs will embark on a journey worthy of all fathomable superlatives. Those who survive the two-thousand mile trip to Michoacán—one I barely endured for half a day on Continental Airlines—will live in semi-dormancy, in quiescence.
During this time, the monarchs cluster to a variety of fir trees called Oyamels, but while on their Mexican respite they consume no pollen, no nectar, none of the bitter milk they enjoyed in their immaturity. There are varieties of milkweed in Mexico, but monarchs do not eat it. Rather they subsist on air and water and their own miniscule fat reserves until the weather warms and they begin to breed, coupling in the air—I’d been told—as if dancing. Then, while the depleted males give up the ghost and become part of the ground litter like day-after party confetti or autumn leaves, the females make the return flight to lay the first eggs of the new year’s butterflies on the milkweed just sprouting in the Texan spring.
When I began to see monarchs fluttering by my rooftop in Morelia, capital of the state of Michoacán, I felt as if I were greeting old friends from home in this most improbable place. Like me, these monarchs were foreigners. None of them had ever been to Mexico, where their great-to-the-nth grandmothers had abandoned their forefathers the previous spring. So far as these butterflies could possibly know, they were simply obeying an itch to fly a few thousand miles, as if by some collective whimsy.
Now, like the monarchs, I am spending a phase of a wandering life in Michoacán. It is unknown habitat, but surely I am not lost. They say some people stay home, and some go. I am one who hears some distant call, who notes the slant of light and gust of wind coming over the water and feels a stirring, an urge, to quote Elizabeth Bishop, to “rush / to see the sun the other way around.”
Adulthood had come slowly to me. The quiescence of a childhood chasing butterflies and picking roadside weeds stretched on and on, and then I metamorphosed from a creature cocooned in the mind to one unfurling to the world, my inward eye suddenly turned outward. Dazzled by all there was to see, I flitted here and there, across continents, tasting the earth with my feet then taking off again, with no trajectory or destination discernible to me other than the next shining spectacle, the next wondrous or strange encounter. Sure, I tried to be useful wherever I was—teaching or reporting while I was on the clock, building houses and playgrounds whenever I was off—but I was never wherever I was for very long.
Perhaps my navigational equipment is damaged. Perhaps I lack a homing device. But my lifecycle has remained on track: at the tock of thirty, as if by happenchance, I metamorphosed again, and this time my heart, once caged in my ribs, left my body, squalled at me from across the room, pulled up on the furniture, then toddled off in its own direction.
I watched him as I sunned myself on the roof of my home in Michoacán, my mind as blank with pregnancy as the sweep of November sky was blue. And I felt the flutters, the quickening, of my generational replacement.
Mira, I said to my firstborn, pointing skyward. Mariposas.
Toca, I said, guiding his small hand across the moonrise of my belly. Tu hermanito.
Scientists have concluded that monarchs navigate with the twin divining rods of their antennae. They sense skylight and wind and tabulate these through an innate circadian clock. By some alchemy of this light- and time-sensing mechanism, they determine location, both latitude and longitude, and direction with a precision surpassing that of a magnetic compass. The degree of refinement to the monarch’s navigational mechanisms is matched only by the degree of fragility. If a butterfly should lose an antenna—or if a curious scientist should paint it black to blot out light—the insect will become lost.
But even the complexity of such a device seems insufficient to explain the phenomenon of this migration. To make it to their overwintering grounds, the monarchs that live east of the Rockies in the U.S. and Canada must somehow funnel through a fifty-mile channel across Texas moist enough to sustain fauna sufficient to feed them for the final leg of the journey. Then, once the monarchs reach the mountains of Mexico, the migration route takes a few sharp turns. At least one lepidopterist has theorized that the butterflies may also navigate by the scent of last year’s corpses, a cold notion in a country where some migrant routes, sprung from the Central American isthmus and flowing north across the turbulent terrain that is Mexico, are known as “death trains.”
Butterflies drown for so little a cause as a sip from a puddle. They collide with windshields and raindrops. When their wing temperature drops below 55˚ they cannot raise their bodies. They meet their doom at the hands of any child. And yet they can flap across a continent or over an ocean following a pattern as consistently wrought as their very wing design; they are equipped with the physiology and the innate drive to do it; and yet they persist: they exist.
This I had to see for myself, but I had another phenomenon to attend to first.
In Spanish, to give birth is dar luz, to give light. My second son, like his brother, came with the light of a full December moon.
While I watched it rise over the bullring, a nurse fed me sugar water with a needle in my arm because I had not eaten in the two days since I’d set out upon this journey that my mother and all my grandmothers beyond memory had made before me, that my body can navigate even if my mind does not know the way.
A few hours later, when the moon crossed into the earth’s shadow, I was rapt with my new son and no other gravity, astral or otherwise, could pull me from my orbit.
I have read that in New Zealand and Australia, where monarch butterflies have been found since the late nineteenth century, the common name for the species isn’t ‘monarch’ but ‘wanderer.’ How the wanderer came to live down under is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps they emigrated on ships, or were brought intentionally by some lepidopterist to brighten up the penal colonies, or perhaps—I find this remote possibility staggering even to consider—some flock was led astray by a solar event or an El Niño weather pattern and they just kept flapping those translucent orange wings until they chanced upon Australia.
Of course, the notion of butterflies flying eight thousand miles is amazing to the point of being unfathomable. And amazement, for its own sake, is really the whole point: amazement at mechanism and design, at chance and randomness, at the scope and lunacy of certain endeavors. After all, humans happened upon Australia too—and we haven’t any wings at all, just two feet and eyes on the front our faces to see ahead to the far horizon.
Humans are wanderers too, after all. In fact, human history can be read as one big travelogue: voyages, crusades, pilgrimages, conquests, flights of refugees, land and gold rushes, trails of tears, marches of war and marches for peace, underground railroads, deportations, diasporas, rockets to the very moon—humans may not fly the nest each equinox, but not because we aren’t a migratory species. Like butterflies, our migration cycles do not occur every generation. Certain among us live full, complete lives, as if upon one patch of milkweed, only to have our children flee for (or from) Mexico.
Migration is as central to our species as the use of tools. As soon as modern humans evolved those upright legs with which to cover distances, they set out from Africa, fanned out across Eurasia, and, during a period of low sea levels, some crossed to the Pacific Islands, and Australia. Then, during a period of glaciation, some others walked across the Bering Strait to the Americas.
By foot and by paddle, our species wandered, settled in colonies around reliable food and water sources, mated, and then, with babies swaddled to our bodies, wandered again. Over the millennia, humans have learned to swim like fish, to travel underground like burrowing creatures, to race like horses, and to fly like birds, and then improved upon each method. To navigate we’ve piled rock cairns, mapped rivers, charted the very stars. Our bodies are moved by light and time, and cycle by the moon. But the real mechanism that drives us forward is imagination. Over that next hill, over that far horizon, we each pray or hope or choose to take on faith, awaits us paradise, or victory, or truth, or home. And that thought, like magnetic pull, impels us over uncharted seas, across the globe, and into wide-open space.
When I went to Sierra Chincua to see the butterflies with my own eyes, I expected to be awed, but for most of that long day’s walk I focused instead on my own two feet carrying my baby and me up and down that mountainside. I was happy to be outside, happy to breathe forest air and watch my older son pick up trailside sticks and hit them together as he walked seemingly in every direction other than the one in which we were traveling.
After hours of this slow progress and yet more suddenly than I could have anticipated, we entered into a glen sliced with shafts of midday sunlight and aflame with orange butterflies in swirling flight. The Oyamel firs were indeed dense with resting monarchs, and did actually move under the weight of them, most impressively when a gust of warm wind roused a cluster and the butterflies rushed upward in a rising plume like forest fire and then scattered like sparks into the blue above.
Individual monarchs landed in my hair, on my children, on the purple flowers that grew where sunlight reached the forest floor. Hordes of them sipped water from the muddy stream bank. But the spectacle was not the whole of it: the quiet of the forest was filled with a steady papery whisper, the sound of millions of butterfly wings beating.
I reveled then in a practiced euphoria of arrival and discovery. I sighed, listened, inhaled. I shot pictures in which I hoped to capture the butterflies in motion and magnitude, but failed. Frozen on the little screen of my camera, they were disappointing orange smudges in a forest.
Gradually I realized that, like so many life processes-in-progress however miraculous they may be, millions of bugs in one place are actually a little gross. Lone butterflies don’t bring to mind their insect-ness, their fly-ness, but swarms of them most certainly do. My two-year-old hadn’t taken so long to discover this obvious fact, and offended by their numbers and hungry for his lunch, he set out to do what men do when they feel they are under attack: he jabbed at them with sticks, he stomped on them on the ground. My husband offered him food for peace, and I settled down on a fallen tree in the midst of all those monarchs to nurse the baby. And as I did, my short attention span flitted from the bugs in the trees to my very own small thing, miraculous for his one-ness.
He was one month old already, a new creature almost daily, and yet still so impossibly small. To me that unformed face was more beautiful than any butterfly, those chirps and gurgles more miraculous to my ear, to my very biology, than the whisper of some many million wings.
Soon his eyes would reflect the blue of my own. His mouth would mirror his father’s, his hair would grow out the exact white-blonde as his brother’s baby hair had recently been. The hypnotic beauty of one’s own child is itself a biological phenomenon, but it is only one of the forces that pull a mother into orbit. His breath, my soul.
Since I have gotten older, people have begun to suggest with more and more force that my lifestyle is random, undirected, ill-suited for adult life. I am “unstable,” “ungrounded”; I am a “lightweight,” my “head in the clouds.” I should “settle down.” I should “put down roots” and “grow up.” Or perhaps no one said a thing, and I just heard echoed in what others say my own self-disapprobation, a growing need to substantiate who I am, a need to matter. But surely this is part of the cycle, the growing awareness that I will soon be like the drifting wing litter on the ground at Sierra Chincua: out of the loop, as it were.
I wanted the butterflies to prove that there was an underlying logic or organizing principle to what I worry is randomness. I want the monarchs’ journey to stand in as a reason for my own, to function in more ways than metaphor. Because really, I thought they were a mistake on the part of nature: beautiful but doomed. Two thousand miles? Just for a few fir trees? A butterfly weighs on average half a gram—half the weight of a paperclip—and, without wind or thermal currents, it flies at the speed of a brisk walk. I thought of Frost and his dead white moth, “if design govern in a thing so small,” and intended to arrive at my own answer: then surely it must govern in me as well. But in that forest glen in Mexico, I just wasn’t convinced. I had come into the church, I had sat down in the pew, but I hadn’t heard angels; water was water, stone was stone.
All around me, pressed into the mud, or just drifted up against a fallen log, were the monarchs’ dead, and my little boy was adding more to their numbers by the minute. I couldn’t see anything but aberration, a glitch in the species’ system, like a genetic mutation. I could see the design, trace it on a map, but I couldn’t see its purpose. And this meant I couldn’t extrapolate my own, not from butterflies, anyway.
So we walked out of the woods again, the children rocked into sleep upon adult bodies covering ground.
The trail came out at the top of a pasture. The sun was slanting into evening. The baby woke up and mewed to be fed so I sat down on a log and offered him the milk that bubbled from my body like sap. As I sat there, an old woman came out of the woods with a large piece of firewood slung on her back with a turquoise shawl. She saw me sitting there in that field, realized what I might be doing, and her curiosity spurred her to set down her log and investigate.
She gestured that she wanted to see the baby nurse. I lifted my own shawl and showed her.
I told her how old the baby was, that he’d been born during the lunar eclipse.
She grinned and nodded and now that she knew I spoke Spanish began to tell her own story.
“I have fifteen children,” she told me. “Ocho hombres, siete mujeres.”
Her youngest was twelve. She had given birth to all fifteen at home, with only her husband present, not even a partera.
“We just cut the cord and that was that,” she told me.
She had never in her life left that butterfly mountain, but she knew the human lifecycle well, wherever on earth it takes place, and she recognized herself in me, a mother with her child, as I, so determined to find my metaphor, had not done in her.
A few weeks later, in mid-February, we went again to see the monarchs, this time at Cerro Pelón. This time my older son and I rode a mule together, and my husband carried the baby on foot. The weather was warmer than it had been for our first expedition, and now the monarchs were more active, and had begun to court and couple.
I walked carefully down the trail into the colony, shuffling my feet to rouse whichever butterflies weren’t dead but sleeping in the dust. Wooden signs urging silence or forbidding the throwing of trash were all but illegible for butterflies covering them. Farther down the path was a muddy streambed as dense with wings. There was so much drama writ small it seemed meaningless: the struggle for a sip of water, desire and satisfaction, possession of a place in the sun, the remains of those dead before their time.
Then, over the barbed wire fence that kept us tourists from disturbing the heart of the colony, I saw a monarch flapping and falling, unable to separate him- or herself from the fate of the deceased mate.
I pointed it out to my husband, and we watch their slow joined fall in silence.
Roused by the warming weather, the impregnated female monarchs left Mexico in early March, but our schedule runs on semesters, not seasons. So it was June before we flew to Texas and from there began our own gradual move northeastwards, catching up with the monarchs in upstate New York in August. On the 27th, when the noon sun peaked at 57º, I maybe missed Mexico, but I felt no call: my own two navigational beacons were sprawled in a pasture frothing with Queen Anne’s lace, looking at bugs that had nowhere particular to fly that day.
I can’t guess at what design will shape my children’s lives, and I can only hope no damage to them might one day make them lose their way. But I am beginning to see in my sons the shape and symmetry of my own wandering.
For now, I felt gravity, a tremulous magnetic pull. I raised my head to the breeze and I smelled milkweed silk and chicory, but no faraway beckoned. It’s because I’m tired, I thought; It has been a long journey, atop so many years of wandering, to get from those Oyamel firs to this field of Queen Anne’s lace. But in the stillness I realized, the way one senses the coming end of summer, that my long flight may well be ending, that the next inaudible call will stir not me, but my sons, one just crawling in the tall grass, the other on his feet, a dazzle to me in the sunlight, arms outstretched in simulated flight.
Reprinted with permission from The Pinch. Copyright 2014 by Molly Beer.