Veronica's Garden

Rachel Creager Ireland on writing, living, the Flint Hills, and the Post Rock Limestone Caryatids

Tag: monarch butterfly

Not Waking But Dying

I came home from taking my daughter to school and barely noticed a black V on the gravel in the parking lot. But I managed to avoid running over it, and on closer look it turned out to be a monarch butterfly, presumably waiting for the sun to warm her/himself enough to fly. I supposed it could as likely have been dying, but I preferred to hold hope that it would soon be joining millions of other monarchs on their long journey to Mexico. Meantime, I took advantage of its torpor to get down on the ground near it, close enough for some photos.

Then I stood up, hesitant to leave a helpless creature where it was liable to be run over by a vehicle. I went over the possibilities in my mind . . . It was Friday, so I wasn’t expecting a garbage truck. Kevin was already gone to work. Caretaker Steve’s vehicles were present, and he doesn’t usually get out in the mornings. The butterfly was probably safe. As I stood there thinking over the possibilities, the sun broke over the roof of my house, and the slanting light was perfect for some more shots.

By the time I was done, the sun was shining fully on my little friend. It still hadn’t moved, other than to open and close its wings a few times, and turn to get the sun at a better angle. I went inside for a while, making a mental note to come back out in an hour or so to make sure it got away.

But the butterfly was still there when I came back late in the morning, its wings open and immobile, legs curled inward. This one didn’t make the journey; it wasn’t waking, but dying.

 

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Costa Rica Diary: Jeep-Boat-Jeep to La Fortuna

Lake Arenal lies between Monteverde and La Fortuna, so the most direct route utilizes what’s called a jeep-boat-jeep network. We actually went in a van, but the road was very rugged, bumpy, and steep. In some places I would have wondered if a vehicle could pass, had it not been for the calm confidence of the driver. I sat in the back with my seat belt on, and watched the scenery.

Not far out of Monteverde, the cloud forest gives way to cleared pastures, though the mountain grasslands feel as remote as the forest. There were long stretches of dirt road where we didn’t see another vehicle or person. Some slopes were so steep I wondered that cattle could graze there.

This is a regular route, not a chartered van, so we picked up some other passengers. There were a couple teenaged girls who embarked in Santa Elena, but in a village along the way, we picked up a little girl standing in front of her house. (She turned out to be with the older girls.)

Eventually we stopped in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, next to the lake. When I saw the narrow dirt footpath down to the water, I was glad I had packed lightly, and had everything in a backpack.

The boat was the kind with a roof and open sides, and benches for passengers. Everyone got at least a little spray on us as we zipped across the lake. We saw several great egrets near the shores.

In La Fortuna, we checked into Cabanas Rusticas, which turned out to be not so rustic at all. Korey and Valeria had a cabana to themselves, while the rest of us shared a 2-story, 3-bedroom cabana with a full kitchen. There was a lovely garden surrounding us, and a tiny pool where the girls splashed. The cabanas were built in a log cabin style, but were very well-equipped. There were lots of windows on every side of the building, and doors too, all with shutters that could be easily opened. Upstairs, there was a porch with rocking chairs and a perfect view of the volcano. (Volcan Arenal wasn’t active when we were there, so it looked like a regular mountain, when we could see it through the mist.)

They don’t use window screens much in La Fortuna, which wasn’t really a problem. We didn’t get bugs in the cabin, though when I wrote in my journal in the evening, I could see geckos converging on the ceiling of the porch, to catch the bugs flying around the porch light. One night there was a monarch butterfly flying around the light, skillfully avoiding death by lizard. I was surprised to learn that there are monarchs in Central America, though they don’t migrate as they do up north.

The lack of window screens was uncomfortable for me, even though, clearly, the people who live there all the time don’t think twice about it. I probably never told you, dear readers, that one of the reasons I began studying entomology, many years ago, was as a constructive way to channel my childhood phobia of insects. It mostly allayed my fears, though there are rare times when the thought of creepy things hiding in the shadows gets me paranoid. I managed myself, though, at our stay in La Fortuna, and nothing got me.

Monarchs On the Move

Driving on KS highway 177 this afternoon, I saw twenty-two monarch butterflies heading south, as well as half a dozen or more little flyers that passed too fast for me to be sure they were monarchs. There’s only one time I see that many flying south: fall migration.

Anecdotally, I’ve seen more monarchs this year than last. While their numbers are plummeting throughout North America, here in Chase County, native milkweeds are still abundant, so we know monarchs who hatch and live here can find plenty of their host flower.

I’ve never gotten a good shot of a monarch, so here’s a cat picture.

Kevin and Wildfire

Waves of Autumn Migrants

Monarch butterflies have come and gone, on their journey through Kansas and on to Mexico. It’s been perhaps two weeks since I’ve seen a live one. The lepidopterists say that any stragglers at this point would be unlikely to make it.

They’ve been replaced by Franklin’s gulls, making their semi-annual flyover. They don’t come down, so I never get a picture. But I love to see them every fall, on their way down from the Canadian plains. I wave to them as they pass, and call out, “Have a good winter in Texas! See you next spring!” I saw hundreds at a time this week, but only a couple dozen today. I think their migration has peaked.

They’ll be followed, maybe next week, by the turkey vultures. Turkey vultures like to warm themselves and stretch their wings in the sun of a morning, but days are getting shorter, and the mornings are getting chillier. One of these sunny days, soon, they will rise up, fly south, and keep going.

Whenever I search for information about vulture migration, I find some sites about the west coast, and some, such as this one, from the east. But if anyone in Kansas is watching turkey vultures, s/he is keeping her observations to herself. I watch for them, take pictures if I can, and will report to you, dear readers, when I see them leaving.

The Autumnal Prairie Dons Her Yellow Dress

It was an exceptionally dry, hot summer. Weeks without rain, coupled with record-breaking heat, dessicated the earth. Gardens failed to produce food. The deer were getting skinny. Everything seemed to be dying.

Finally, late in the summer, we had a couple rains. We’re still well below the “normal” amount of rainfall for the year, but that boost seems to have redeemed the prairie. Somehow, when everything appeared dead, some plants must have been living and growing, preparing to take advantage of whatever water might find its way to their roots. When it came, they burst into flower.

First it was the compass plants, Silphium laciniatum. From the bloom, they could easily be mistaken for a sunflower, but if you look at the foliage, you can see a base of large leaves, while the sunflowers have leaves up the stem. This is one of my favorite native wildflowers, and one day I’ll dedicate a post just to this awesome perennial with a taproot which is often said to reach fifteen feet.

Next come the sunflowers, Helianthus annuus. There is no more cheerful face to be seen on the prairie, and once again this year she has proven herself able to “keep a good face” in spite of the most fearsome drought. The hills burst into brilliant yellow bloom. If you don’t know this flower, she is the same species as the iconic giant greystripe sunflower, but the greystripe was developed in Russia from annuus stock. If you see a greystripe, it is one which has traveled the world and come home. The homebodies exhibit a habit more like a bush, with many blooms reaching out in all directions from the stem.

Annuus has peaked, but her day isn’t done yet. She’s just making room for her sister, the Maximilian sunflower, Helianthus maximiliani. She comes a bit later than annuus, and a little smaller, but just as cheerful.

You’ll notice that all our friends du jour are yellow. Other colors are present, but yellow predominates at this time of the year. Who pollinates yellow flowers? It turns out, according to the Xerces Society, that bees are the primary pollinator. They also tell us that the European honeybee is not the best pollinator of sunflowers. The honeybees tend to specialize in either nectar or pollen gathering, which leads to little crossing from male to female plants. The native leafcutter bees, bumblebees, and sweat bees not only cross from male to female plants, but it appears that they harass the honeybees into doing the same, thereby increasing pollination on both counts.

Let me not neglect the monarch butterflies, Danaus plexippus. They have been scanty in number this year. The lepidopterists’ grapevine has indicated that they were farther north, in places they don’t normally go, even into Canada. I wonder what force told them to go where there might be more hope of finding the nectar which sustains them? Here in Kansas, I’m not sure I saw a single one, until the last week or so. I saw three in one tree one day, and a few singles on other days since, but not enough to establish a pattern of migration. Today a neighbor reported a tree in the area which was filled with them, perhaps a thousand. It is a relief to me, that even after such a dry and desolate season, the migration continues. I wish them godspeed on their long journey to Mexico, and hope that their mountain habitat has not come to a worse fate than their prairie home.

Monarchs and Homesickness

“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.

Marlo on Gratitude and Weather

Note from Veronica: Dear readers, allow me to introduce my friend Marlo, head midwife and leader of the Postrock Limestone Caryatids.

Summer is winding down, and the sweltering days have begun to falter to milder ones, with cool mornings, enough that we can welcome the sun. When I have no patients, I sometimes slip off to the garden, for an excuse to do something useful out in the fresh air.

That’s what I was doing today, picking tomato worms (which Veronica informs me are really hawk moth caterpillars, not worms at all) and feeding them to the chickens, who were also enjoying the lovely weather, clucking and strutting about the vegetables. Turkey vultures were circling lazily overhead, and monarchs were fluttering by. It couldn’t get any better than this, I thought, being among so much life on a beautiful morning, and I felt a deep gratitude emanating from my heart chakra. It occurred to me to give thanks for my blessings.

But I had to pause. The weather doesn’t exist for us, any more than the planet does. It just is, the way it is, with all its variations, the rain and wind and warm air chasing one another around the planet in constant interplay. So where, then, does one put one’s gratitude? Perhaps the gratitude is not so much for what the weather is, as for being a being who can enjoy it, a life form whose needs are perfectly matched to her niche. For being a creature of sensuality and self-awareness, present in the present moment. I am grateful for being simply who and what I am, for the privilege of experiencing joy.

It’s like when a birth goes smoothly and the baby and mother do well, and everyone says, “Our prayers have been answered.” Suppose, instead, there is a problem, the baby is injured or sick, or, worse, the mother or baby or both are lost. Is it right to say that our prayers haven’t been answered? How do we maintain faith in the face of tragedy?

Does religion give us a better way of looking at this question? I haven’t found it in Christianity. Buddhism might be more helpful, since it doesn’t offer us anyone to pray to. We’re not supposed to want any particular weather; we’re supposed to be present and aware, without judgment or attachment, through whatever we get.

Another answer came to me from a Mayan shaman, Martin Prechtel. I paraphrase from a book I read years ago, and the extent of my inaccuracy will be the degree to which I have made this concept my own. What he said was that the difficulties and discomforts of life are not bad things for us to suffer through on the way to the good; rather it is all one package, and it is the greatest privilege to experience it, every bit, all the joy and pain and love and suffering. It is all worthy of our gratitude.

Many people seem to think it their spiritual duty to remember at all times the abundant blessings they are given, in spite of difficulties and trials. I think it a higher calling yet to be joyful and grateful through everything we get, whether we are able to enjoy it or not. The greatest blessing is just to be here.

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