Missing monarchs: love and loss

      My heart stopped when I heard this on the radio recently: “We've been looking for monarchs since the middle of July, but so far, we have yet to see one.” These were the words of a volunteer for the Maine Butterfly Survey.
     In disbelief I listened on: the voice-over said, “Thanks to the work of other citizen scientists across the monarch's range - from Minnesota and Michigan east to New York and northern New England - it's clear that the monarchs are missing."

     The monarchs are missing.

     There is a despair in me that I keep shut behind a door, a despair about the loss of life and beauty and the harmony of balanced ecosystems that results from civilization's narcissism. This news about the monarchs opens that door. Instinctively I look away from the despair, but like seeing in the dark, it becomes even more visible in my peripheral vision. The pain follows me around, and I can't seem to embrace the buddhist teaching that suffering is part of the path. You see, I have been intimate with the monarchs, and I don't want to face their disappearance.
      For years in September I would take Anna and Andrew and Meg out to find a monarch caterpillar, the beautiful green-and-black-and-yellow-striped guys hiding under a milkweed leaf. We would bring one in, set it up in a terrarium complete with its own milkweed in a vase of water, a netting cover for air, and a frisbee or something solid suspended at the top so that, when it was time, the well-fed caterpillar could climb up and begin its transformation. We watched the “J” stage; the completely miraculous creation of its chrysalis; and then we waited and waited as the color of the chrysalis changed from a honeydew green to a black mottled with orange and even gold dots. 
Yes, it was great for the kids – but really I was the one that thrilled to every change. When it was ready, we released the new butterfly into the same milkweed patch it came from, and watched wistfully as it flexed its wings and left us.
      It's September now, and I had to go look for myself. I needed to see if we had any caterpillars (though if I found one, I would not bring it in, not this year). I went to the patch of milkweed below the barn, left untouched on purpose when the fields were mown. I peered under dozens of leaves, looked for little nuggets of dark frass, checked for munched leaves. There were no caterpillars. I shut that widening door of despair as fast as I could, telling myself I would look in other patches I knew about... but I never did.
      Hope is a mysterious thing. It drifts through my psyche like a tenacious butterfly, surprising me like the single monarch I saw a few days later when I was walking our dog through the far end of the same field. There it was. One.

     Two nights ago, I had a dream. I was in a field, and all around me monarch butterflies were taking to the air. I was laughing with delight in my dream, and felt infused with joy. The amazing thing is that I still feel that joy in the cells of my body. It's real.
     I love the monarchs. And my pain comes from loving them and the fear of losing them. But my dream keeps hope alive. My question is the age-old one: is it better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all? Maybe the answer is that it is good to love and then let go when it is time. I don't know. I do know that because of my despair, the joy I still hold from the dream is more luminous; and because of that joy in my cells, the darkness of the despair is lessened. I think for now I just have to hold them both.

To follow the migration of monarch butterflies, look at this Journey North citizen-science website: http://www.learner.org/jnorth/monarch/News.html.
For ways to help, visit: http://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/monarch/conservation_action.html
To hear the radio story on Maine Public Broadcasting: http://www.mpbn.net/Home/tabid/36/ctl/ViewItem/mid/5347/ItemId/29765/Default.aspx

Photo credits:
Monarch on aster: By Thompson Greg, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
Monarch caterpillar: By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Monarch chrysalis: By aussiegall from sydney, Australia (Its Nearly Ready Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Monarchs flying: By Sonia Carolina Madrigal Loyola from Nezahualcoyotl, Estado de México [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons