Monarchs and Homesickness

by Rachel Creager Ireland

“We have to stumble though so much dirt and humbug before we reach home. And we have no one to guide us. Our only guide is homesickness.”-Hermann Hesse

Rob Breszny, my favorite astrologer, used that quote once in a horoscope for my sign (Capricorn). I knew immediately exactly what it meant, though I’m not sure what it feels like to be at home, to know where home is. I’ve been in the current home for seven years now, and it’s been nearly two since I committed to stop thinking “I hate this house,” every time I have to mop the kitchen because I forgot to prop open the sink drain with a kebab skewer before I put in a load of laundry; or a hanging lamp unexpectedly explodes into flames, falling dramatically to the floor; or we discover another hole left in the drywall in the laundry room, right next to a newly cracked pipe on a frigid January day. That’s not even accounting for the complications of having one’s livelihood tied up with one’s home; when there are potholes in the parking lot, the hotel inspector makes a surprise visit, when I’m struck by fear every time a customer comes to the door. What’s wrong with the room now?

That choice not to harbor bitterness and dissatisfaction has changed my life. I don’t want to be here forever, but I can still enjoy the time I’m here. It’s up to me, and maybe this place is gradually becoming my home, for now. Maybe my desire to be somewhere else is fading. Come to think of it, it’s been a while since I’ve had that dream of wanting to go home, but not knowing where I lived.

One thing that ties me like a string to this place is learning about the other inhabitants here, that is, in the the backyard, this town, the prairie. Many of the weeds in the backyard are familiar to my eye, but over the years I’ve begun to learn their names. Some are natives, some are aliens who’ve managed to make a life for themselves here. Shepherd’s purse, prostrate verbena, malva, hedge mustard. Lambsquarters is exceptionally nutritious, Queen Anne’s lace is also called wild carrot, because it is of the same species (Daucus carota) as cultivated carrot. Here is where I met the Woodhouse’s toad, the wheelbug, and the American lady butterfly (for whom I always sing a chorus of “American Woman.”) I’m no longer certain that I would leave, if offered the chance.

Here is where I’ve taken notice of the monarch butterfly migration. You have to be paying attention to catch it. It’s been going on this past week, but it’s not like a bird migration, where you could watch large numbers of birds flying together in a flock. The monarchs appear to be behaving quite usually, fluttering about, sometimes higher, sometimes lower, but if you watch one as long as you can see it, you will always notice that the first place you spot it is north of the last. It could just happen to be going south, but if you keep watching, you might spot another in five or ten minutes, also going south. Keep your eye open, there’s probably another, maybe high in the sky. You’ll think it’s a bird at first, until you notice the fluttering flight, and it will be going from north to south. They don’t fly together, they don’t appear to communicate at all. Do they plan their move? I think not. Something pulls them, and they ride it like the wind.

The longest distance covered by a tagged monarch in a day was 175 miles. From the US, they fly 2,500 miles or more to Mexico. It is not believed that any individual makes the migration more than once; they overwinter, find a mate, fly north, lay eggs, and die. The next generation might not live through the summer; it could be two or three generations before fall triggers the southerly flight again. Monarchs raised in captivity migrate if released in the fall, at least as many as nine generations after the last free butterfly in their lineage.

What makes a monarch migrate? I think of it as homesickness, like something telling you there is a place where you belong, and it isn’t here. It pulls you by the chest, like a string pulls a kite. You may never have seen your home, but you’ll know when you get there, and you won’t be alone. Are you there right now? If not, let homesickness be your guide.