Last week I got a very short email from my friend Marion. It said, “Monarchs on endangered species list … sad day.”
A sad day, yes. To me, that email was a knife in the heart. Actually, I had heard something to that effect on the radio a couple days earlier. But I didn’t want to hear it and immediately tuned it out. I don’t usually have that reaction to unpleasant news. Normally I take it in and add it to all the other bad news I’m digesting. But monarch butterflies had formed the throughline to my childhood. It wasn’t a straight line, of course. It zigged and zagged. Or, wherever the caterpillar drew it, it was jaw-chomped in crescent-moon shapes that the leaf recorded.
My younger brother and I, walking along the railroad tracks, used to stop for milkweed plants. We’d bend them over to see the undersides of leaves, hoping to see a yellow, black and white-striped monarch caterpillar. When we found one, we’d pull up the plant it was on, take it home, and stuff the plant with our prize into a big jar, along with a sturdy twig for its … later activities. Then, through glass, we followed its many stages of life: chomping, affixing, hanging, splitting, gyrating, resting, bursting, blood-pumping, proboscis-furling, and flying away.
This was so much a part of our summers that we even watched a butterfly emerge one Sunday morning in church. Admittedly, it wasn’t a normal church. When my family vacationed up north—my mother’s friend who owned cabins always gave us a deal—we sometimes attended a drive-in church. Cars would park as though to watch a movie, but all you saw in front was a diminished minister preaching from the bottom of the big screen. He was plugged into the movie audio boxes, so everyone could hear the sermon.
One Sunday before leaving, we could see that the chrysalis in our jar, though still gold-flecked, had otherwise turned transparent, showing the monarch’s final colors: orange and black and dots of bright white. We knew this meant that the pupa’s clear skin might soon burst and release the butterfly. So we brought our jar along to the drive-in. As we’d suspected could happen, just as the sermon was beginning to drone flat, the ragged tear at the base of what was now just “plastic wrap” (the chrysalis) gave slow birth to a living lump as wrinkled as a bulldog’s face. There was no hearing the words of the minister after that. We had a more direct connection to the force of Creation.
There was plenty of milkweed back then—plenty of wild, weedy terrain where we knew we might find the monarch or its strikingly striped larva. In fact, in the warm months, its presence was common enough that I was often more interested in looking for other, more elusive creatures—a garter snake, a cecropia moth caterpillar, or a mouse nest. The monarch was more like a family member, usually around here somewhere, and loved, but sometimes taken for granted.
There’s no taking the monarch for granted anymore. Its numbers are dropping. Of its two populations in the United States, the western group has shrunk by a wild 99.9% since the mid-eighties, and the larger, eastern one has declined 26% in just the past year. The International Union for Conservation of Nature — a coalition of more than 1,400 member organizations around the world — has just declared the monarch endangered globally. *
As with so many endangered animals, habitat loss or fragmentation is a major factor in the monarch’s imperiled state. Why the habitat loss? In some places it’s deforestation and other extraction activities—and you’re exactly right, that’s the removal of materials for making new stuff. In other places it’s agricultural expansion and urban development. These latter two aren’t about the kind of new merchandise I’ve been writing about in this blog, but they certainly do involve advancing consumerism: Farmers with depleted or eroded soil can dump it in favor of “brand new” soil—unexploited, still-fertile land. (Perhaps decades of dead milkweed plants created that loamy layer of earth!) The land-grabbers are often shopping malls, manufacturing hubs, fulfillment centers, and other physical enterprises whose profits depend on people buying new stuff.
But the loss of habitat is only one problem for the monarch. It can be decimated by pesticides, by issues with both its feeding and overwintering grounds, by a dearth of nectar-producing flowers on its migration routes, and even by factors yet unknown.
What this means is that there are more direct ways to help besides cutting down on shopping. Stop using all pesticides. Plant butterfly flowers as well as milkweed. Link fragmented habitat if possible. Join a crowd science project. Donate to conservation projects. (There are many groups.) Fight climate change heat—the monarch is in trouble above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. There are even more ways to participate if you live in California, where much of the state is important for breeding and overwintering of the endangered western population. In Tucson or Phoenix, check out the butterfly programs at your Desert Botanical Gardens.
It’s a good thing I couldn’t see this sketchy lepidopterous future when I was a kid. I think I would have cried. And my third-grade report on the monarch would have been quite different, or maybe I would have written about something else. I was in love with my third-grade teacher and always spent a lot of time on my assignments for her. I enjoyed them, too. I titled this one The Magic of the Monarch and included six handwritten pages of text, five color illustrations, and even a three-item bibliography. How do I remember all this? My mother saved a handful of my school projects, and this was one of them. By the time she turned it over to me, it had too much age on it to consider tossing it. My monarch throughline has continued.
Just for fun, I’m linking to the text of that report here—reading as I type; I suppose I’m backing it up as I read. I don’t expect anyone else to read this little girl’s paper, though I did relearn a few interesting, forgotten facts from my 9-year-old self.
My own daughter, born and raised in the desert, did not have a monarch childhood. Some milkweed species can grow here, but we never saw any. Maybe in butterfly form, the monarchs passed high over our heads on the way to their Mexican wintering grounds, but if so, we mostly missed them. Still, my daughter grew up to love monarchs, and without me even knowing, for the past few years she’s been reading the news about them, worrying about them alongside me. Finally, last week when I told her about the subject of this post, we talked about monarchs together for the first time. She said she’d already heard the IUCN news.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “But maybe we can still save them.”
As a child she was crazy about animals. They populated her entire bookshelf: seals, sloths, anteaters, bats, frogs, kangaroos, foxes, and every kind of bird. Her bed was piled high with fuzzy, stuffed versions. And there was no neglecting the classics in 3 or 2D: Lions, and tigers, and bears. Oh my.
Animals so basic they lurked in the forests of Oz—so central to the stories we read to our kids—are dying off. At first I didn’t think people would let this happen. These animals are iconic! I also thought when a large U.S. city like New Orleans got buried by a Category Five Hurricane, all Americans would take climate change seriously so it would never happen again.
We all know what didn’t happen. Do we love our lions and tigers and bears enough to preserve their lineages? Or those other quintessential species that are so important to our kids—and our own childhood memories?
We need to continue to wage these battles. If we fail at this lifesaving thing, well—I can only take the long view. In our planet’s history we have one-celled organisms, vegetation looking straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, fantastic sea creatures, humongous dinosaurs, and—not that long ago—huge wooly mammoths. What evolution did once it can do again, maybe with even more fascinating variations. We humans may or may not be around to see them, but isn’t that all the more reason to spend time and wonder on what’s still here, today?
So yeah: Watch that latest David Attenborough film. Make some popcorn and let yourself cry some tears over the beauty and awe, or jump up afterward and look up that conservation nonprofit you were drawn to the other day.
Either response is appropriate.
* Our country’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recognized the monarch’s jeopardized standing — but the agency has declared it can’t protect the species under the Endangered Species Act because that would take funding it doesn’t have. There are just too many endangered species in line ahead of our famous beauties, says the Service.
New Stuff Sucks is a blog by Kay Sather sharing entertaining stories, helpful ideas, humor, and different ways to enjoy life without buying new stuff. Follow New Stuff Sucks on Instagram.