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.”

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 😁😍😁

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