It was cold in Maine. Cold. And the snow was heaped in dirty piles on the side of the road. And the sidewalks were icy. And it got dark at 4:30 in the afternoon.
It was the dead of winter, and I wanted out, so I flew to California—to Pacific Grove, aka Butterfly Town, USA, to see the monarchs. It was a journey home, really, though I had never been there.
I grew up in a box-shaped house on a well-manicured lawn in the suburbs of a mid-sized Canadian city in Ontario. Across the road and abutting the river was a patch of city land, untended, wild, a field of tall grasses flecked with milkweed and Queen Anne’s lace. There, I discovered my first monarch caterpillar. I was 9 years old, and I had never seen anything like it. Boldly ringed in concentric stripes—black, yellow and white—it was stretched out on a milkweed leaf, eating. I plucked it off, held it in my hand, touched it with my fingers. Its skin was smooth, leathery. It did not roll up in a ball. It did not seem afraid. Docile. I broke off the milkweed near the top and carried my find home.
I scoured the fields in search of more. I filled jars with milkweed and caterpillars. I pounded nail holes in the lids. I spent hours watching them.
They ate voraciously. I could see their mandibles working. I could see the chunks they took out of the leaves, bite by bite. They grew fast, and before I knew it, they were climbing to the lids of their jars. They spun small mounds of silk and attached themselves to the mounds and hung there in the shapes of J’s for a long, long time. And then, when the moment was right, they split the skins on their backs, wrestled with themselves and turned inside-out, and, suddenly, there they were, something wholly different: an emerald green chrysalis with little golden flecks and a gold crown.
They would hang for days, for what seemed like forever, and nothing changed. And then one day, I could see the darkening. The butterfly was forming. Soon, I could see the outline of a wing. The orange. The black veins. The white polka dots.
The waiting for what would come next. … It seemed interminable.
I didn’t want to miss it.
When a monarch butterfly sets off on its journey to its winter destination, it does not have to pay a $100 fee because its suitcase is 25 pounds over the limit. It does not have to take off its shoes, its watch, its coat and scarf, in case of bombs. It does not have to put its carry-ons in the overhead compartment or under the seat in front of it. It does not have to watch the flight attendant demonstrate how to put on a seatbelt or an oxygen mask. It does not worry about going down. It does not worry.
It’s 11 degrees Fahrenheit and a cold, clear day when my flight departs, and it’s hard to imagine what a monarch does experience on its own winged migration. It experiences, certainly, the view. It experiences a silence I cannot imagine. It experiences, I think, a certain peace, a free tilting. It knows nothing but how to ride the waves of the wind.
It is the opposite of me, crammed here in the stale air of this “Freedom Air” Embraer EMB-45.
I have a carbon filter mask. If I were to give it a name, I think it would have a male name. Tom. Something strong and protective.
My mask is battleship gray. It shields me from perfumes and colognes, air fresheners, cleaning products, pesticides, fumes from fresh paint. I carry it in a baggie in my purse, and I take it out now, on this airplane, and strap it on.
I wear it when I can feel the headache coming on. When it hits, it feels as though my brain has swollen inside the cradle of my scalp. A fog rolls in. My capacity to juggle a number of thoughts at once, an ability most people take for granted, dwindles. It alarms me when this happens, when my brain gives way.
I have it easy compared to some people. I know people who suffer seizures when exposed to chemicals. Closed airways, joint and muscle pain, nausea, insomnia, disabling fatigue. Panic attacks, mood swings. I know people who could never hazard the bad air on planes. Some of them live in ceramic trailers in the deserts of Arizona. Some of them are homeless; they live in their cars or tents. They can’t find anyplace safe to breathe. They can’t find habitat.
We call ourselves “canaries in the coal mine.” We have multiple-chemical sensitivity, and our numbers are growing.
[Butterfly Town, USA]
Everywhere, all over the little town of Pacific Grove, population 15,522, there are butterflies. And not only the real live fluttering kind: There’s a monarch emblem in bas-relief on the Chamber of Commerce plaque hanging at the Butterfly Grove Inn; there are 22 wooden monarchs of various sizes adorning the town’s Shell station; even the bakery’s cookies come in the shape of monarch butterflies. This place, this magical little place, is indeed Butterfly Town, USA.
I did not know, when I was 9 years old, that it would come to this. I didn’t know that the magic would stay with me, all these 30 odd years. That I would fly across the country to see the monarchs. That I would finally—or ever—get to see the overwintering monarchs clinging together in their clusters of thousands.
When the monarchs hang clustered together, paralyzed by the cold, that is called “torpor.” They are clasped to each other, holding the heat between them. They wait for the sun to warm them. You wouldn’t know they are so beautiful, hanging in the trees like dead leaves. Wings closed, their brilliance is disguised. They wait for the mercury to hit 55 degrees, and then they open their orange wings to the sun. Some of them flutter aloft; others stay together, warm and close in their safe clusters. They cleave to each other like family, like best friends, like a community.
The earliest record of the monarchs in Pacific Grove dates back to 1875, the year the town was established as a Methodist resort, when several hundred people first assembled there in worship. But as far as anybody knows, monarchs have been migrating to Pacific Grove for thousands of years. It is their home.
As recently as 1997, there were 65,000 monarchs overwintering in a little 2.7-acre grove of eucalyptus trees behind the Butterfly Grove Inn. When I am there in early January 2008, however, we count only 4,000. It is a bad year for monarchs.
In fact, annual counts show the monarch populations all over California in a rapid downward spiral. What is happening to the monarchs? Why are their numbers plummeting?
[The Butterfly Lady]
In 1987, Ro Vaccaro was a high-powered secretary at a high-powered law firm in Washington, D.C. She could type 130 words a minute. She typed for four lawyers and answered the phone for nine. She made a good living.
But four years earlier, Ro had been diagnosed with lupus, and her symptoms—joint pain, sensitivity to touch and depression, to name a few—were flaring. It had gotten so bad she had to wear braces on one arm and one leg to get around, to keep going. The stress was aggravating her symptoms. She worked in a 12-story building, and she was thinking of jumping off it.
One day, her sister Beverly called. Beverly knew how butterflies buoyed her sister. Twelve years earlier, at an estate auction, Ro had found her first butterfly—in the shape of a beautiful pin. She was in the middle of a divorce at the time, and she told Beverly, “I feel better just holding it.” In that moment, Ro Vaccaro was transformed.
So when Beverly learned of the Pacific Grove monarchs, she called her sister and suggested they make a pilgrimage.
That October, the sisters found themselves celebrating the butterflies’ return with the rest of the town at its annual Butterfly Parade, a Pacific Grove tradition since 1939. There were all the kindergarteners decked out in their bright orange monarch wings. There were all the town’s children dressed in costume, marching down Lighthouse Road. There were the school marching bands, the baton twirlers. Monarch cookies! Monarch cinnamon rolls! There were all the happy people, celebrating the return of the monarchs.
Ro was touched by the magic. She knew she needed to come back to this place.
A year later, she did just that. And when she looked up into the butterfly trees, she told her sister it was like a cathedral. Later, she wrote, “They are nature’s stained-glass windows, flying high between us and the sun.”
She found a job there and took a $10,000 cut in pay. Appointing herself Pacific Grove’s first butterfly docent, she joined a small cluster of monarch aficionados, and, together, they organized Friends of the Monarchs, an education and advocacy group. Many years later, one February, she told a National Public Radio (NPR) reporter her story (which you can hear for yourself at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4498763):
I surprised even myself by sending my letter of resignation by Federal Express. I said, ‘Consider my two-week vacation your two-week notice. I’m moving to live with the butterflies.’ And I did. As you can see, there’s no brace on my leg, there’s no brace on my arm, and I haven’t wiped this silly grin off my face since I got here.
How do they know where to go? How is it that they trace the same route, the great-great-great-grandchildren, year after year, and end up in the selfsame trees? Scientists have found 40 genes that help monarchs use the sun as a compass to guide them to warmer climes. Still, it seems to me there is mystery in it.
It’s possible that some of the monarchs I raised as a girl migrated down the coast and all the way to Mexico. East Coast monarchs flock to Mexico by the millions, as they have for thousands of years. Until recently, only the Mexican locals knew about the magnificent “magic circles” where the butterflies overwinter. There, millions of monarchs hang from the oyamel firs—Latin name: “Abies religiosa.”
They fly about 12 miles per hour, 46 miles a day and as high as 4,000 feet. They migrate as far as 2,200 miles. In early November, millions of monarchs stream into Mexico.
On Nov. 2, my birthday, Mexicans celebrate “Dia de los Muertos,” Day of the Dead, honoring friends and relatives who have passed on. In Michoacán, where the monarchs come to roost, the locals say the spirits of their beloved return in the shape of bright, fluttering butterflies.
The locals call the butterflies “las palomas,” which translates as “the doves” or, according to Robert Pyle in “Chasing Monarchs,” as “the souls of lost children.”
There are approximately 200 roosting sites along the coast of California. None of them attracts the millions of monarchs that the Mexican sites see. One or two may count as many as 100,000 in a good year. Pacific Grove averages 20,000. The monarchs cluster there for five months, arriving in time to be fêted at the annual butterfly parade, then mating and departing around Valentine’s Day. These butterflies live as long as eight months, much longer than the summer generations, which enjoy the bright flowers and summer breezes for a mere four or five weeks. They are in a state of diapause, these migrating monarchs: Their reproductive functions are switched off. They are conserving their energy. They are waiting for the right moment.
Around Valentine’s Day, as milkweed starts poking through the earth north and east of Pacific Grove, something changes in the small enclave where the monarchs have spent the winter. The butterflies come to life. There’s energy in the air.
Here is how Ro Vaccaro, the Butterfly Lady, described it on the Valentine’s Day 2005 NPR broadcast:
They chase in spirals up into the sky, and there are chases going on all over the grove as the male butterflies try to choose their Valentine sweethearts. And when he finds the girl that he thinks would be just perfect, he zooms in front of her, and he sprinkles her with this wonderful perfume, and she is just dazzled. And he grabs her in midair with his feet, and so, like a little maple seed, they come twirling down out of the sky. He strokes her body, and then he puts his head right down next to hers, and it looks just like he’s whispering sweet things in her ear. But he’s going to trick her. He stands on his head and flips her, and if he does it correctly, he’ll have the abdomens aligned, which is the only way he can make the connection. Then she becomes very docile, and she folds her wings together. He runs two or three steps. He lifts her up underneath his body, and he carries her all the way up to the top of the trees where they’ll be the warmest, and they’ll stay together till the sun comes up the next morning.
One day this past summer, at the park where I take my dog, I spotted a monarch fluttering around a milkweed plant. I stopped and watched. The butterfly dropped down to the top leaf, touched the tip of her abdomen to it and then flew off. I bent over the leaf and beheld something I had never seen in all my years of monarchs: an egg, gleaming like a small gem.
The butterflies lay them one at a time—400 in all—on milkweed all along the migration route north. They mate repeatedly. Each egg is sired by the female’s most recent mate. Each is fertilized only when she deposits it on a milkweed leaf. Only milkweed. Nothing else will do.
When the caterpillar hatches, three to seven days later, it is 1/25th of an inch long. Tiny. Its first meal is the egg it comes from. Then, the fine, hairlike filaments of the milkweed. Finally, as soon as it is large enough, it begins its leaf-feast. It eats and eats. It’s as though the monarch caterpillar were born to eat. It grows 2 inches in two weeks, fattens to 2,700 times its birth weight. It outgrows its skin four or five times and molts to accommodate its expanding girth.
And then, one day, it is time. Who knows how the caterpillar decides? It attaches a little silk fastener to the underside of a leaf. It pierces the silk with its “cremaster”—a small, hooklike appendage at the end of its body—and wriggles hard to make sure the connection will hold. It hangs … still … in the shape of a J, and then, when the moment is right, it splits the skin on its back, miraculously transforming itself into an emerald green chrysalis with a crown of gold.
What happens inside a chrysalis?
One day, I decided to find out. Nine years old and aching with curiosity, I took one of my chrysalides to the side of the house and set it down on a large rock. I held it gently with my thumb and forefinger as I cut into it with my jackknife.
No butterfly, no caterpillar: just black ooze.
I’d made black ooze out of something that could have become a butterfly.
What I didn’t know, what I was trying to find out, was what Kathryn Lasky describes in her lovely little book, “Monarchs”: “The body of the caterpillar melts away into a solution of transforming cells and tissues.”
Something magical happens inside.
It hangs, this gem of nature, for nine to 15 days. When it is almost ready, the “imago,” or butterfly, can be seen in outline. The orange wing, the black veins, the white spots—they darken. The chrysalis is now translucent.
Finally, one day, in one small moment, the butterfly breathes. Its intake of air splits the chrysalis open. This is called “eclosion,” when the butterfly emerges from its chrysalis. It hangs there, stunned, perhaps, by its new form. The world looks different through its new eyes. Its abdomen is fat with hemolymph, which it pumps through the veins into its wings.
A 9-year-old girl is closer to the ground. She sees things up close. She watches. She waits for miracles to happen. And sometimes, when she is really lucky, she witnesses one with her very own eyes. The chrysalis cracks open. The monarch, fat and wet and crumpled, bursts into the world.
A 9-year-old girl takes the time to lie down on the burnt orange rug in her parents’ living room, holding the new monarch on her finger above her. It clings to her. It hangs, drying. Her arm gets tired, but still, she holds the butterfly aloft. She wants to watch its wings unfurl. She wants to see its abdomen slim. She wants to watch it get strong.
When it starts to open and close its wings, it is almost ready for flight. The girl stands up. The butterfly clings to her hand. Carefully, gently, she walks out of the living room, pushes the screen door open, carries her monarch to the middle of her weedless, grassy yard. She holds her hand out to the sky.
She expects the monarch to fly away in an instant, glad to be set free. But it clings to her hand for a long time, opening and closing its wings, waiting. And then, suddenly, it lets go. It lifts itself up into the blue sky and flutters off into the distance and out of sight, leaving the girl down below with her hand over her brow, shielding her eyes from the sun.
Ro Vaccaro decided the butterflies needed an advocate. So, she began showing up at city council meetings, using the three-minute public comment period to talk about the butterflies. Soon, everybody was calling her the “Butterfly Lady.” It was here, at these meetings, that she first laid eyes on Mrs. Edna Dively, the woman who owned the Butterfly Grove Inn and the land beside it—the magical place where the monarchs roosted every year. Mrs. Dively was fighting for permission to develop her property. She wanted to build houses and an apartment building. And one day in 1989, the city granted her wish.
Mrs. Dively swore that she had no intent to take down the butterfly trees, that she would build around them. But Ro Vaccaro was dubious. Any change in the microclimate might make the monarchs decide the grove was no longer fit for their needs.
So Ro Vaccaro set about to stop Mrs. Dively.
I can’t help it. When I see milkweed, I look for monarch caterpillars. And when I find them, my heart leaps with that familiar joy and excitement, and the impulse to take them home is too strong to deny. One year, long before I flew to California to see the monarchs, I found three caterpillars in the park and brought them home. Despite all my best intentions, I killed every one. Each died in a different stage of metamorphosis. The first, a caterpillar, got sluggish and simply stopped eating. The second died with only a little triangle of green on its back where the splitting had begun. I found it, finally, hanging vertically, its J depleted: done. It simply didn’t have the strength to complete the transformation. The last died in chrysalis. It simply turned black. No orange of the wings, just black, and finally, I gave up waiting and took it outside, laid it in a pile of brush.
The next year, I found two caterpillars munching away on separate leaves of the same milkweed. My heart leapt. Then I hesitated. What if I had become, somehow, an angel of death for monarchs? I should not take these caterpillars, I thought.
I uprooted the entire milkweed and brought it, and them, home.
What could it be? What was killing my monarchs? Was it my loss of innocence—the simple fact of my adulthood—that left me incapable of supporting the magic to completion? Or was it something more sinister?
I built a screened cage for them. I avoided city milkweed. I doted. A few days later, both caterpillars hung themselves in J’s and turned into green chrysalides. I waited. I waited.
And once again, the chrysalides turned black.
She saved monarch memorabilia the way a mother saves all of her firstborn’s artwork and school assignments. Boxes and boxes of letters, handouts and newspaper clippings. If it had to do with the monarchs of Pacific Grove, Ro Vaccaro put it in a box and kept it.
“I wear a butterfly every day, at least somewhere—but usually multiple butterflies,” she told the NPR reporter. “I have a butterfly watch, butterfly earrings, butterflies on my shoes and socks.”
She had monarchs on her hat, monarch pins and buttons and patches on her coat. She decorated her house with them. The walls, the pillows, the rugs, the shower curtain. And she blazoned her car with bumper stickers about saving them.
Ro Vaccaro, the Butterfly Lady of Pacific Grove, lived and breathed monarch butterflies.
My other mask—my special occasion mask—is a flowery, lacy affair, skin-toned, with a little rose appliqué by its left strap. Feminine. Or as feminine as a fume-deterring mask can be.
It’s not any better, really, this flowery, lacy mask. What I really want is a mask bearing an appliquéd symbol that stands for “your toxic products are making me sick.” It would be nice if the symbol could point out, too, that 62,000 chemicals used in the United States have never been tested for safety. That we are human guinea pigs. That while we think our government would surely protect us from egregious toxins, we are wrong.
But what would that symbol look like?
If I have to wear something that makes me stand out in a crowd, I’d rather it not be something that stands for “crazy” (think Michael Jackson) or “communicable” (think SARS). I want people to know that this mask isn’t about me so much as it is about us.
[The Butterfly Grove Inn]
The Butterfly Grove Inn is a pink motel nestled right next to the stand of eucalyptus trees where the monarchs have been overwintering for generations. In the lobby, someone has cut out a newspaper article about the monarchs and posted it on Bristol board next to the front desk. There are butterfly pins and postcards for sale. I buy an extra-long postcard depicting, in five photographs, the stages of metamorphosis. I have arrived at dusk, too late to find the monarchs.
I have always loved motels. The thrill of opening the door. Fresh space. But my love for an empty motel room comes fraught, now, with doubt and anxiety. Will the room be safe? Or will it be toxic?
I swing the door open and take a whiff. Inside, the walls are painted beige, and framed photo prints of waterfalls hang over the two beds. The room smells fresh at first sniff. But is that chemical fresh or clean-air fresh?
I drag my big suitcase through the door. Inside my head, the alarms begin to sound. Get out! Get out! The air is not good. But I have paid to stay the night at the Butterfly Grove Inn. There’s nothing to do but open the window and let in the cold, clean air. The room is frigid. I put an extra blanket on the bed. The brain fog rolls in; the glands in my throat swell; I’m rubbing my eyes. The headache is on its way. Cleaning products, must be.
[The Butterfly Effect]
In the 1960s, meteorologist Edward Lorenz made a discovery that would change the way we view the world. He found that even minute discrepancies between two starting points could produce vastly disparate outcomes. For instance, if a little boy took two identical balls to the top of a hill and released one just a fraction of an inch away from where he let go of the other, they would probably end up in two very different places. The scientific term for this was “sensitive dependence on initial conditions.” More poetically, it came to be known as “the Butterfly Effect,” and Lorenz suggested the possibility that something so seemingly innocuous as the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil could create changes in the atmosphere leading to something as momentous as a tornado in Texas.
What happens, then, when there are no butterflies left?
Almost 50 percent of this country’s landmass is cultivated for agricultural purposes. Not so long ago, Midwestern corn and soybean fields furnished about half of the breeding grounds for the Eastern monarchs. No longer. Now, thanks to crops made “Roundup Ready” by genetic-engineering monolith Monsanto, 100 million acres of monarch habitat have been annihilated; milkweed has been virtually extirpated from American farmland.
Roundup, advertised on TV in mock-Old-West-style, with suburban “cowboys” wielding Roundup “guns” while a little boy rides past them on a bicycle, is the herbicide of choice not only for homeowners and public works departments, but also for farmers. “Roundup Ready” crops can withstand heavy doses of the herbicide, which kills most every plant it touches, including milkweed.
Over 18 million pounds of glyphosate—Roundup’s active ingredient—are sprayed annually on U.S. crops, sidewalks and yards. The “clean field” ideal of industrial monoculture farming—no weeds, no insects and no diseases, thanks to insecticides, herbicides and genetically engineered crops—is wiping out the monarch caterpillar’s only food source.
California is heating up. Most areas in the country, in fact, are getting hotter. Insect ecologist Dr. Orley R. “Chip” Taylor, director of Monarch Watch—an educational outreach program whose mission is to create, conserve and protect monarch habitats—has demonstrated a correlation between rising temperatures in California and lower West Coast monarch populations.
Taylor reports that monarch numbers crash every time temperatures above 90 degrees combine with low water availability for a week or more. The hotter it gets, the shorter the lifespan of flowers, so nectar is less available. And while the need for water increases in hot weather, availability decreases. So monarch butterflies don’t live as long in the heat, and they lay fewer eggs. This is called “decreased realized fecundity,” and what it means is that populations take a nosedive.
Temperatures have increased 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1990 in the West and have been higher than normal for eight years in a row. Precipitation has declined 0.25 inches per decade.
I feel a weight in the pit of my stomach when I read these numbers.
In 1976, a National Geographic article revealed, for the first time, the location of the East Coast monarchs’ Mexican hideaway. All of the East Coast monarchs, millions and millions of them, flock to the oyamel firs and other trees in seven to 12 sites (depending on the year), spread across the state of Michoacán’s Transvolcanic Mountains. But there is a problem: logging. Although 217 square miles of these mountains are now a designated Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR) and protected by government decree, still, at a rate of 2 percent to 5 percent a year, the trees keep coming down.
Illegal logging strips away the butterflies’ particular roost trees; it also puts gashes in the forest canopy. As Chip Taylor describes it, “These gaps are like holes in your winter coat, as far as the monarchs are concerned. They let in snow and rain, and the roosting monarchs are more vulnerable to freezing.” In 2002, millions of monarchs froze and dropped to the ground. Witnesses described wading through dead monarchs, knee deep.
Shortly after he took office in December 2006, Mexico’s new president, Felipe Calderon, promised to protect the MBBR, and in December 2007, the government conducted what amounted to the largest illegal-logging sweep ever seen in the vicinity of the Reserve. Nineteen sawmills and lumberyards were raided, and at least 45 people were arrested and charged. Logs and lumber from as many as 1,750 trees were confiscated.
Of course, those trees could not be taken back to the forest. And although the World Wildlife Fund in Mexico and the Michoacán Reforestation Fund have planted a combined total of more than 4.8 million trees over the past 10 years, even these aren’t enough to keep up with the rate of deforestation.
Every day in the United States, new subdivisions, malls, condominiums and parking lots consume 6,000 acres of natural habitat. This adds up to 2.2 million acres per year. At this rate, an area of habitat the size of Illinois is razed, then paved, every 16 years.
Soon, the butterflies will have nowhere to land.
Chip Taylor had an idea. It was a simple idea, really: If enough people would create way stations in their backyards or on their rooftops, then perhaps, despite the clear-cutting and the Roundup and the development, the monarch migration—one of the great natural phenomena of the world—might be saved.
The Monarch Waystation Program encourages people all over the country to create garden sanctuaries to sustain breeding and migrating monarchs. Monarch Watch sends starter kits that include seeds for six kinds of milkweed and six nectar plants favored by the butterflies. The nonprofit’s Web site, http://www.monarchwatch.org, also lists noninvasive milkweed-host varieties, as well as monarch nectar plants, including tithonia, cosmos and echinacea. Butterfly gardeners can register their way stations online and even order a weatherproof sign identifying their habitats as official Monarch Waystations.
Since the program was introduced in 2005, more than 4,000 Monarch Waystations have been registered.
“Loss of habitat is pinching all species,” says Taylor. “It’s hard to figure out how to help the larger species, but for the butterflies, there is something we can do. The individual citizen can do a lot.”
She rallied the schoolchildren—that’s what Ro Vacarro did. She went into the schools and told the children about Mrs. Dively and the houses she wanted to build on the monarchs’ land. She handed out petitions and urged the children to take them door to door and get signatures. The Friends of the Monarchs also canvassed the town. They needed 6,000 signatures to get it—a resolution to stop the development, buy the land and grant permanent sanctuary to the monarchs—on the ballot.
And sure enough, one day, Ro Vaccaro strode into the town hall, bearing her pages of signatures. Next, she had to write a ballot bond and convince Pacific Grove’s voters to pass it.
So the Friends of the Monarchs marched in that year’s annual Butterfly Parade, handing out “Vote Yes” flyers. Scholastic Review got wind of the butterflies’ plight and published a cover story about it, and students from all over the country sent letters in support of the monarchs. The story ran on the “CBS Evening News” and in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
In the end, the citizens of Pacific Grove voted to raise their own taxes. For what amounted to about $30 per person, per year, they purchased the $1.2 million plot of land.
Years later, Ro’s sister said, “The monarchs saved her. She was just returning the favor.”
Her last two years as a docent at the sanctuary, the Butterfly Lady used a walker.
Finally, her body could no longer hold her. On top of lupus, diabetes, fibromyalgia and emphysema, Ro had contracted lymphoma. She had no choice but to move into a convalescent home.
That is where she was living when I first made contact with her friend Sharon Blaziek, head docent at the monarch sanctuary. Sharon told me Ro was in good spirits and would probably be delighted to do an interview once I got to Pacific Grove. I wrote Ro a letter, sent it by U.S. mail, told her I was on my way.
The first part of the name, “lupus,” derives from the Latin for “wolf”; the second part, “erythematosus,” refers to the red rash that is a frequent symptom of the illness. This is also known as the “butterfly rash,” so called because it spreads across the bridge of the nose and over the cheeks in the shape of a butterfly’s open wings. For obvious reasons, Ro Vaccaro preferred the latter designation.
One day, at the convalescent home, she rolled up her sleeve and showed her sister a bruise. It was 2 inches wide and in the shape of a butterfly. “I’m so gung ho,” she said, “even my bruises come out like butterflies.”
Nothing could stop Ro from joining the festivities at the annual “Monarch Madness” family fun day. That November, she secured an all-day pass from the nursing home. She refused to miss a moment of the fun—the butterfly storyteller, the 5 M’s band (“Mostly Mediocre Musical Monarch Mariposas”) singing butterfly lyrics to the songs of the ’60s and ’70s, the craft table and face painting, the monarch caterpillars and chrysalides on display, the milkweed seeds for sale.
She refused a chair. She stood all day—happy, talking butterflies.
Four days before I was to meet Ro Vaccaro, I got an e-mail from her friend Sharon Blaziek. Ro had died.
I slumped in my chair. The Butterfly Lady was gone.
To tag a butterfly, you must first grasp it between your fingers, making sure you have a snug hold of the closed forewings as well as the hindwings. You hold the butterfly in your left hand, with the abdomen toward you. Your partner hands you a tiny, round sticker preprinted with a phone number and an ID. You place the tag on the underside of the right hindwing. You look for the small black dot of the scent gland that is in the vein of only the male’s hindwing, and you report the sex to your partner, who writes it down on the log. You note any damage to the wing, and she jots that down, too. Then you put the tagged butterfly in a paper bag and wait for the sun to rise above the trees.
I have arranged with Jessica Griffiths, wildlife biologist for California’s Ventana Wildlife Society—a nonprofit whose mission is to conserve native wildlife and their habitats—to spend the morning after my arrival with a handful of other volunteers who will count and tag monarchs in the Pacific Grove Monarch Sanctuary. As a kid, I had dreamed of tagging my monarchs and releasing them so that when they fluttered around the house, I would know they were mine, and when they flew away for good, I would maybe someday know where they had gone.
At 8:00 a.m., I open the door to my room and step out into the cold, damp air. It is 48 degrees. It feels colder. I walk around the corner to the sanctuary walkway and hang a right. Most of the trees in the grove are eucalyptus trees, and their scent hangs heavy and rich in the air. I look up into the trees, searching for clusters. I have been told it is a bad year for monarchs. I see one cluster, two. There they are, way up in the highest branches, hanging quietly, waiting for the warmth to come.
A small knot of people stands watching as Jessica and an intern reach high up into the trees, using an unwieldy 10-meter telescoping pole with an attached net, collecting the torpid butterflies. Jessica is bundled up in a knit hat, a scarf and black mittens with pink butterflies on them. I introduce myself, and she pairs me up with Irene—a sanctuary docent for the past 11 years—and puts me to work. Irene and I are sitting on lawn chairs, and there is a paper bag between us. Inside are the sleepy butterflies.
When the thermometer hits the magical 55 degrees, some of the monarchs high up in the trees liberate themselves from their clusters and flutter around against the blue palette of the sky. Jessica gathers the bags of tagged butterflies and steps off the walkway. One by one, she picks the monarchs up by the wings and tosses them into the sky.
On Feb. 10, 2008, in a private nook of the monarch sanctuary, in the place that Ro Vaccaro had always described as a cathedral, a small cluster of people, about 30 in all, gathered to pay their last respects to the Butterfly Lady. It was a warm, sunny day, and the monarchs, just heading into their breeding season, were preparing to take off and head north to Canada and east to Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona.
As Sharon Blaziek read the memorial tribute to her friend, orange and black monarchs lit from the surrounding trees and fluttered and soared behind her for everyone to see.
Ro Vaccaro was a good Christian woman, but she had confided to her sister that she hoped to be reincarnated as a monarch.
“I told her to make sure it’s in September,” said Beverly, “so she can come here and tell these monarchs about the people.”
My bags are checked, and I’m waiting for my flight home when a sharp taint suddenly permeates my consciousness. I turn around. Forty feet away, the maintenance man is painting, in vivid royal blue, the doorway to the jet-bridge. The headache starts behind my eyes. My brain fogs in.
I pick up my bags and lug them as far from the paint as I can get. But the fumes are everywhere. I stand up, look for somewhere to go. A little Japanese girl toddles up to me and grabs my legs in a bear hug. I can’t get away. There is nowhere to go.
It is magic, this orange fluttering, this quiet fluttering. It is peaceful. Free. Surely, even the most cynical can’t help but feel it, watching. One finds oneself breathing deeply, from the belly, in the presence of it.
“A soft whispering or rustling sound: a murmur or whisper”—that is the dictionary definition of “susurrus.” It is the word used by entomologists to describe the sound of hundreds, thousands, millions of butterfly wings, suddenly bursting into flight.