Biking with Butterflies

WHAT I DIDN’T KNOW, as I crawled through that ditch alongside a lonely Texas highway, was that a cop was racing to my rescue.

What I did know was that I was alive and well. More than alive, more than well. Among lupines drenching the ground purple, scorpions dancing on sun-shocked pebbles, and scissor-tailed flycatchers writing poems in the air, I was learning to see the world through the eyes of a monarch butterfly. In the ditch, on hands and knees, I was learning to see the array of life crunching, crawling, wiggling, slithering, budding, branching, mating, living, dying, and migrating through a world most of us look at but rarely see.

I had arrived at said ditch by bicycle, pedaling 1,100 miles from where I started high in the mountains of Central Mexico, where Oyamel firs and Mexican pines form temples of trees and where millions of monarchs wait for spring. I waited too, and by February the sun poured steadily through the branches and onto the open wings of warming butterflies. In March, as winter turned to spring, the stirring monarchs shifted from resting to restless. They took to the sky in eruptions of orange and black, and I took to the road. Together we wove our way toward Texas.

Three weeks later, I crossed the Rio Grande, meeting the monarchs just as the females searched for secluded spots on milkweed leaves to lay their eggs. Milkweed is their sole source of food, and each mother’s dying act is to bestow a feast upon the next generation.

Riding among this kaleidoscope of monarchs, I too searched the ditches for milkweed. Each flamboyant flower was a bouquet of shooting stars, an invitation to take a break and roam the monarchs’ world. Each leaf was an opportunity to discover newly hatched caterpillars nibbling their way toward metamorphosis and the next leg of their migration.

I would end up following five generations of monarchs 10,201 miles on my bicycle, from Mexico to Canada and back: trailing the migration and lending my voice to the efforts underway to protect it; visiting schools; presenting at nature centers; and talking with reporters. My trip was a spotlight both on the remarkable lives of our backyard visitors and their precarious future. I didn’t see a monarch every day, but every day, for eight and a half months, I saw the people who could save them.

That day in the ditch, I ambled farther from the road, until a fifth instar caterpillar munching on a leaf corn on the cob–style caught my eye. Two thousand times bigger than when it had emerged from its egg two weeks earlier, it was nearly ready to make its chrysalis, nearly ready to transform from plump grub to winged migrant.

This transformation always left me inspired. The more secrets I uncovered, the more spellbound I became. Though people would gasp each time I told them what I was doing, it was the monarchs who deserved applause. They proved the impossible: that speck-like eggs could metamorphose into migrants, capable of connecting mountaintops to prairies and ancestors to descendants with nothing more than instinct and stained-glass wings; that great-great-grandchildren could return thousands of miles to the exact same trees their great-grandparents had landed on the winter before. I was merely a cyclist, with maps and grocery stores and a staggering amount of hospitality shown to me, giving scale to the magnitude of the monarchs’ greatness.

Anxious to discover more, I ripped a tiny edge of milkweed and watched the milky latex sap uncurl. Testing the sap between my fingers, I understood how it could gum shut the mouths of young caterpillars. I inhaled a deep breath to see if I could smell its bitter, heart-stopping poison. (I couldn’t.) This poisonous glue deters many herbivores, but not monarch caterpillars, who chew horseshoe-shaped trenches in the leaves to drain the glue from each meal and then sequester the plant’s toxins for their own powerful defense.

For now, both the monarchs and milkweed find refuge along roadsides and in gardens, in feral and forgotten lands, but each year their options shrink. Habitat loss and the growing use of pesticides and herbicides are among the biggest causes of the monarchs’ dramatic decline.

The nuanced relationship between humans, butterflies, and our shared home kept testing my wildest imagination, kept leaving me overwhelmed. Dizzy. In love. This was early in my journey, and already I loved the monarchs because I loved the milkweed. Already, I loved the milkweed because I loved the monarchs. Because of this love, I tried to ignore the smell of fresh-cut grass wafting across the road. There, the green stubble of a recent mowing told the story of what might have been—of what was evicted. I didn’t want to think about the monarchs that had survived hundreds of miles of storms, predators, development, pollution, and disease only for their caterpillar progeny to be killed by someone mowing down an unseen world because they looked but didn’t see.

The whine of an idle engine and the clap of a car door pulled me out of my green reverie. I glanced up to see a cop walking toward the pavement’s edge.

“You okay?” he hollered.

“Yeah,” I answered, confused. Standing to demonstrate my wellness.

“Someone called 911. Said a cyclist crashed.”

He’d come to rescue me, but it wasn’t me who needed rescuing.

“I didn’t crash,” I explained. “I stopped to look at a caterpillar.” O

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Sara Dykman divides her time between seasonal amphibian research, outdoor education, and education-linked adventures (www.beyondabook.org). She is currently working on a book about her bicycle trip following the monarchs.

Comments

  1. Wonderfully written article, Sara! Your love and appreciation of milkweed shines through every sentence. Here in Vermont I’m watching the milkweed flower enlarge every day and I should be able to enjoy their sweeet fragrance in about a week. Keep up the great work 😁😍😁

  2. I see you have been refining your descriptive writing skills Sara. Good job! Our Ozark Plateau common milkweed has bloomed and spread this Spring/Summer. Can’t wait to see The Monarchs return in September. Thank you for opening our eyes to the need for more wild spaces.

  3. Your article has managed to include a load of information in an engaging fashion with an economy of words. We have managed to keep the ball rolling here in Joplin, and are planning to turn about 50 acres of park fescue lawn into native prairie planting in the next year. Keep working on that book!

  4. Good friend Sara! So nice to see your article in our longtime favorite Orion magazine. Brings back great memories when you stayed with us on Native American Seed Farm along your travels and shared your experience with our kids here at our local school. Can’t wait for your book to come out. Hello from all of us in Junction, Texas.

  5. Here in New Zealand we have our Monarch story. In Winter here they wait out the cold hanging in small clusters in sites which they return to each year. I was lucky to witness one of these sites and watched them start to animate in the sun and launch into short flights.

  6. I just found this article in my email feed today. I live I Cambridge MA and someone in my neighborhood put me onto Monarch butterflies by observing that in early spring several years ago that I had a plant called black swallow wort popping up as a weed in my garden and told me that it threatened monarch butterflies.
    Black swallow wort is an invasive plant from Europe rumored to have been introduced by the Harvard Botanical Garden in the 19th century. Whatever the case, it is certainly rampant in my neighborhood of Cambridge, and indeed is widespread in the Northeast and Midwest.. (Anyone can google it and get more information.)
    So I have spent countless hours in my own neighborhood in Cambridge pulling up blackswallow wort, and by this time of year- early August, focusing on pulling off the seed pods, which look like short fat beans, putting them into 13 gallon garbage bags, tying them up and putting them into the TRASH! and NOT in yard waste, which the city of Cambridge collects separately to make compost that is available to residents.
    A couple of years ago, in early fall, I saw a Monarch feeding on milkweed, in a garden that also had a lot of blackswallow wort. That was reassuring.
    In my own small garden I had 3 milkweed plants growing up on their own in my front garden. This year there are nearly 20! I have already seen a few monarchs, one by one, in my yard.
    A few years ago , in the fall, I was walking from the subway down the street to my house, 4 blocks away, with a neighborhood friend who is both a gardener and very knowledgeable about insects. Suddenly he looked up and saw a lot of
    monarchs flying south! It’s incredible that something as small and light as a butterfly can fly from Massachusetts to Mexico and the next generation flies back.

  7. The Peterborough Pollinators are organizing a Monarch Ultra Run following the migratory route of monarchs from Peterborough, Ontario to the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico. What a thrilling adventure this already is! Departure date from Peterborough is September 19, 2019. Follow us on facebook.

  8. Colleen Clark: I live in Ontario, Canada and we call that “dog strangling vine”–it is rampant here too. I have been pulling it up, and mowing it, for four years around the edges of my yard, yet the clumps of it get bigger. All I can do is prevent it from going to seed. I’d be interested to know if any readers have found a way to deal with it that does not involve herbicides which I have never, and will never, use on anything.

  9. As a forever bicyclist and monarch raiser I find this article fascinating. Thank you so much for what you are doing for these amazing creatures and the humans who love them.

  10. How conservation starts and ends with love. Thank you, Sara.

  11. Thank you for inspiring all of us to become wise stewards of the earth. I am the author an eco mystery series for middle grades. The one on Monarch Butterflies highlights the monarchs, and hopefully will inspire the next generation to protect and plant milkweed habitats.

  12. Thank you for inspiring all of us to become wise stewards of the earth. I am the author of an eco mystery series for middle grades. The one on Monarch Butterflies highlights the monarchs, and hopefully will inspire the next generation to protect and plant milkweed habitats.

  13. I recently spent a weekend in Leo Carillo State Park, on the LA coast above Malibu. The campground had been protected from the Fall 2018 fires, and had just reopened for reservations in June when I jumped on it. The hillsides that had burned 8 months ago were awash in mustard, but some natives were gaining ground. Just outside my camping trailer door I noticed a couple of milkweed, just getting ready to flower. As we packed up to go at the end of our stay, I brought water (from the campground spigot via the trailer plumbing maze; better to water the vegetation with the leftover water than let it run down the pavement)) to those plants. The hard, dry surface allowed most of the water to rush away, but second and third dousings penetrated the soil to the roots. As I watered I found more, smaller, less conspicuous plants, everywhere I looked, littler and littler as I surveyed the 100 square feet or so. over 20 trips with the water basin later, they all had had a big drink and plenty of wishes for prosperity, being good hosts and safety from future fires. The pleasure was all mine.

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