Today was intended to be a day to finish a homework assignment and a paper, both due tomorrow. But, my husband awoke with other intentions. He was going to pick pears off of our trees that have suffered this season and attempt to dehydrate them. They are delicious, albeit very small. I was frank, bluntly telling him I had no time to help with fruit harvesting today. After that, and after getting a few routine chores done , I set about my assignment tasks. In short order, progress was made that allowed me to go out to the garden, myself.
It’s hot already, and predicted to be 90 today. If I was going to get the eight mums I bought in the ground, I needed to start early in the day. Immediately, I was distracted, however. My bird bath was scum green, the feeders were empty, my chrysanthemum fountain was empty, and the hummingbird feed was dry. As I took care of some of these yard related tasks, I happened to glance out and see a swallowtail visiting one of the many hydrangeas that dot our yard. Taking no time to grab my DSLR Nikon 5200 camera (which has been used recently by my portrait making son to photograph beautiful young ladies in sunflower patches), I instead whisked my iPhone off the counter and headed out the hydrangea beckoning all the butterflies. There, I identified not just one swallow-tail but two, a painted lady, a red admiral, and a monarch. Five types of butterflies feeding all at the same time on one bush! What a sight! I’ll surely be doing some Photo shop work on some of these – so beautiful!
From my pretending to be butterfly paparazzi, I morphed into the gardener once again and proceeded to get some of my new fall mums in the ground. While working I gazed at lovely pink coneflower, striped petunias, and a plethora of zinnia. As these summer, heat lovers fade my new mums will grow, spread, and bloom into colorful masses at the end of my driveway.
Many things went through my mind as I worked in my gardens in the heat this morning. First, and foremost, is that I find joy in taking care of my own gardens. I love the color, the peace, watching things grow and change with the seasons, and knowing I am doing it for no one but just my own enjoyment (unlike school gardening). In my search for sources of joy in my life this summer, I can honestly say gardening in my own yard is a source of joy for me. While I sat on a pink fleece blanket to soften the ground against my aging knees, I thought of my friend Cheryl who was an avid gardener. She moved away some years ago to Florida. I am sure she is still doing some great gardening there! I thought of other friends, and how we really do not have many common connections and what strengthens that friendship or is now making it fragile. I thought of my parents’ yard, and my love of plants and gardening from whom I received some of each from my mom (house plants and indoor gardening) and dad (yard work and outdoor gardening). I grew Portulaca for the first time this year, and will do so again. It reminds me of the garden around our pool when I was a teen. We had portulaca and prickly pear cactus in those beds. I love the connection I now have with butterflies. I realize that attracting them to my yard provides me with great pleasure.
Through gardening, I am reminded of the joy of being alive, being well, being curious, and able to pursue activities I love. Through gardening, I have definitely have a source of joy in my life. How do you receive the gift of joy?
While sitting in the dentist office yesterday I saw a that our local paper featured a man in my town who was raising monarch butterflies. I have to admit that seeing the article stung a little bit. I’ve been doing the same for fourteen years but have never been featured in the paper! I guess it’s all in who you know and where you volunteer. He volunteers for the USFWS, while I volunteered in a school district. Obviously, the value placed on what we were doing and who was paying attention to our individual quests was different. Still, when it comes down to it, we are both trying to help save and educate about an iconic species. Many people need to do what we are doing, so in the end, it’s all good! Therefore, I am working at letting not letting the sting I felt yesterday fester today. I also hope no one has a problem with what I wrote here. I try to be a good person and do see the larger picture but am subject to all the same emotions and feelings every human experiences. The difference is I just shared what I felt. Enough said.
It’s a special time of year if you raise monarchs! The last generation of the breeding season is being born in the North and this is the generation that migrates to Mexico to over winter. Later today I will order my tags from Monarch Watch so that by the time my last group is raised and ready to be released, they can be tagged. It’s been a great season to raise monarch butterflies in our area. I’ve done it long enough to have personally experienced the ups and downs of this population. As of this writing I’ve raised and released 30 monarchs in my own yard this season! There, I offer monarch habitat in the form of three different kinds of milkweed (all native species) and a wide variety of nectar plants for the adults. I am also “caterpillar sitting” for a friend who is on vacation. In the few days I’ve had her four caterpillars, I found a fifth – maybe from an egg or maybe from a new piece of milkweed introduced to the cage for food. Right now, four are chrysalises and one is J-hooked, ready to become a pupa and proceed with metamorphosis. The daughters of my friend were all former garden club students, and thus, I want to be sure to do a good job for them, as I have a reputation to uphold! It would probably make me more unhappy than them to have to return a cage with fewer monarchs than I received.
In my own cages, I currently only have 2 chrysalises right now. However, the other night I found five small caterpillars on my rose milkweed. Prior to that I had found four eggs on my common milkweed, too. The eggs and the caterpillars are separated for they do cannibalize – a fact I just learned by reading the book, Monarchs and Milkweed (2017) by Anurag Agrawal. My milkweed patches, although large, are getting dry and already have formed seed pods, waiting for distribution by mother nature or myself later in the fall. I’ve been picky about which leaves to pick to feed the enclosed caterpillars because I know they prefer a more tender, moist, younger leaf. If you want some really scientific specifics about how monarch caterpillars have evolved special feeding techniques to help them survive on a noxious plant, you must read Agrawal’s book!
Finally, I am bolstered by how many people I know support my monarch conservation activities. Truly, I am involved in so much more than just raising them. I love sharing what I know and I am proud to say I am sought out for this task more and more often. In late July while at a local art show, we ran into a friend who was with a friend of hers. After some pleasantries were exchanged, we parted ways. A few minutes later, they were approaching me again. Our friend asked me to share what I know about monarchs with her friend. So, there in the middle of the art show, I did just that! She asked questions and I answered! A few minutes later, after parting ways again, a young father approached me (calling me “Miss” which was really rather nice) and asked if he had over heard me talking about milkweed. Yes, I replied; I raise monarchs and was sharing some information about milkweed. I asked if he had a question. He did. I answered. Wow! I came away from those encounters feeling great. Apparently, I’ve gained a reputation as a monarch conservationist and I cannot tell you how much that means to me!
I’m looking forward to finishing a piece of curriculum on monarch tagging for an assignment this week. It will give me yet another way to share my passion with more school aged children, as it is never to early to plant the seed of environmental stewardship.
Last night I learned that someone who has been an inspiration to me for the last 15 years has died. He died yesterday. The odd thing about this is that it is someone I do not know personally, but know of his work. He was the Biologist and Monarch Conservationist Lincoln Brower. He was 86.
Just yesterday morning, while waiting for my son’s soccer game to start, I was reading a text book that I selected to read for a graduate seminar I am taking for my degree in Environmental Education. It is called Monarchs and Milkweed. And while you might think this is a lightweight text, it is definitely not and has far out reached any expectations I had of it. I feel this way even though I am not yet even to page 50! The passage I read described the earliest contributions Lincoln Brower made to the field of monarch conservation. These included facts that I had been unaware of until I read them yesterday morning, which unfortunately, as I found out last evening, was the very day he died.
I know of Brower from his decades of his work dedicated to the Monarch Butterfly. It is virtually impossible to read anything about this butterfly without reading his name. I know I first read of him on the website Journey North when I started raising monarch butterflies back in 2002. I felt a comfortable familiarity when I read his pieces on conservation of the monarch. I felt awe and inspiration when I saw him describe through videotape his trips to the pine forests of the mountains in Central Mexico where they overwinter. I now feel sadness that this scientist who dedicated his life of study to a butterfly species we both loved, has died.
Just yesterday morning I was entranced as I read about how a young Lincoln Brower studied the evolution of Swallowtail butterflies but became “obsessed” with mimicry and chemical storage of butterflies from toxic plants. This obsession very obviously moved him into his work with studying the monarch and its solely sustaining plant, milkweed. He, along with other scientists, worked on the chemistry and biology of how these two species co-evolved. These ventures all took place in the early 1960’s. This field is now called chemical ecology and was solidified in a collaborative, excited, and pioneering fashion. All of it led to what we know about monarchs and milkweed today.
Thank you Dr. Lincoln Brower.
Early yesterday morning, I was captivated by Lincoln Brower’s early work that was unknown to me before those moments.
Then, late yesterday evening, I was crushed.
I am still processing the news of his death, probably like many others in the fields of biology, conservation, and lepidopterology. He was 86; I get it. As humans, we don’t live forever. Over six decades, Lincoln Brower contributed so much to the study of monarchs and their conservation. Now, I just hope we can complete his legacy by helping the species he loved so much to survive.
You know you have a lot of life experience when your worlds start to collide. This morning while scrolling through my social media feed, my eyes were drawn to an article on butterflies and how they survive rainstorms. Actually, it was the title and the graphic of the article that attracted me. It was on the New York Times webpages and titled: Butterflies: Riders on the Storm.
Being a monarch conservationist of almost two decades, flush with knowledge that both illuminates and disappoints, the article was soon read. However, the title of the article itself, took me down a different path. “Riders on the Storm” – wasn’t that the title of a song by the iconic rock band, The Doors in the early 70’s? Immediately, a verse was sung. My husband shot me one of those, where did that come from looks! An explanation followed.
As a lover of all kinds of music, this was an easy connection for me to make. Butterflies, and Rock Bands, in my world – it all fits. And, it fits together! But, some explaining of the song led to looking it up on YouTube, a listening session, and brief rock music history lesson of the legendary Door’s lead singer, Jim Morrison, too. Soon enough, both my husband and I had Riders on the Storm stuck in our heads and were contemplating the meaning of Morrison’s undoubtably drug infused, yet inspired lyrics. We are old enough, but a little too young to have been listening to this song as it hit the airwaves in the early 70’s. Soon after which time, Morrison died.
The article on butterflies proved to tell me little more than what I already knew, but then again, my intense interest in the subject could not let me skip over it and just be satisfied with the creative title. Monarchs use adaptive mechanisms and behaviors to cope with the storms they encounter whether in transit or at the over wintering grounds. Many times, those coping strategies are enough to enable their survival. They are truly Riders on the Storm, not unlike any of us who need to adapt to the storms, literally or figuratively, that we encounter in our daily lives. Oft times the adaptations we employ are enough to ensure survival, occasionally they are not.
But, it amazed me that before 8 a.m. this morning, we explored the challenges of a beloved insect, revisited some famous rock music, and had a history lesson life science, music, and sociology all rolled into one. It occurred to me that this was only possible because of my age – not old – but old enough to have my spheres of knowledge collide and connect over a very unlikely titled article in a popular online newspaper about butterflies.
Butterfly or Human, We are all Riders on the Storm!