• One Minnesota Writer

The Joy of Tiny Winged Creatures

Monarch on liatris at MNL production farm, Foley, Minnesota.

One of the gifts of our wild backyard is the enormous amount of winged beings who visit, from birds to bumblebees to butterflies. To sit behind our garage is to place oneself in the midst of buzzing and fluttering, to see plant stalks shudder as their bounty is plucked. I am continually soothed by this garden we have encouraged and managed over the years. This is where Mick and I both go to relax with a glass of wine at the end of the day, to let nature extend its offerings to us, too. I photographed many creatures here over this growing season, and was especially delighted to see butterflies I hadn't noticed in our yard before. We are doing something right with this little bit of land as we try to make it a place for as many diverse plants, insects, and animals as possible, learning more all the time about who passes through at specific times.

Monarch butterflies are one example of who passes through our yard during the growing season. The opportunity to learn more about monarch migration presented itself to us this past August. My friend Susan told me about an event that takes place at the Minnesota Native Landscapes (MNL) production farm in Foley, Minnesota, every year, co-sponsored by The Monarch Joint Venture. We made plans to go with our partners on a Saturday in late August when it was expected that liatris, which monarchs love, would be in full bloom. When we got there, we found a huge field of gorgeous purple flowers and people milling around waiting for the monarchs to come out. The monarchs spent the night in nearby trees and the air was still chilly under cloudy skies.

While we waited, we noticed a bunch of goats eating brush off to one side of the area, so we strolled over to the fenced-off enclosure to check it out. Those goats were very focused on eating everything in site and they were clearing that little area like the efficient brush-clearing machines they are. We were entertained by their antics. Then we realized there was a coffee truck, so Susan's partner Ned bought us all hot coffee to warm our chilly fingers. There were tables set up near the coffee truck with all kinds of educational information on monarchs, bees, native plants, and more. We had plenty to look at until the monarchs decided to move.

Soon, it started warming up and butterflies appeared. And appeared. And appeared. There were thousands of them, flittering over dark purple flowers, landing in stalks, getting their fill of nectar. They brushed by us, as focused on the liatris as the goats were on the brush.

We were in monarch paradise. Susan and Ned walked gingerly into the middle of the liatris field and stood there, butterflies occasionally landing on their heads or shoulders. Mick and I stayed on the edges, enchanted by the whole vision of migrating monarchs. My camera got the workout of the summer.

The whole event was wonderful. We took a ride on a hay wagon through the other fields on the farm, listened to the farm owner talk about native plants and how they grow all kinds there and how people might use them in their own yards for the good of the environment. Mick and I were encouraged that, yes, we have done some things well in our own efforts and, yes, we could do more.

But those butterflies! Those wonderful fragile orange and black wings. What a miracle that those small wings can fly for thousands of miles.

Recently, I found a way to revisit the monarchs when I stumbled across poet Cathryn Essinger's book, Wings or Does the Caterpillar Dream of Flight? (Dos Madres Press, 2020) on Facebook. Essinger made a promise to donate proceeds from the sale of her own copies of the book to help the monarchs, so how could I pass that up? I ordered a copy from her immediately. She kindly signed the book and sent it off to me just as quickly.

The book's introduction tells how the number of monarchs has fallen by 80% over the last 20 years because of pesticides, climate change, and development. I'd heard that before. Those kinds of statistics are one of the reasons Mick and I use our yard the way we do. This introduction also made me know that I'd found a kindred spirit in Ms. Essinger. I gulped down her poems in one sitting, delighted with the way they flutter across the page, monarch wings brushing across every poem. The movement of the poems follows the life cycle of a monarch from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to migration, the poems examining larger questions of change and sustenance. I particularly loved the beginning of the poem titled, Metamorphosis:

The myths are always about resurrection,
or reincarnation, pure and simple,
leaving one life behind and escaping

And right now, in this later part of October, the beginning stanzas of her poem, The Migration, feel just right:

Monarchs left over a week ago.
Still, I see them everywhere--
the way you see loved ones

who are long gone--a leaf that
suddenly comes to life, a flutter
among the marigolds.

How many ways are there to say
"they have flown," before we
admit they are gone?

I admit that I miss them, those monarchs along with the rest of the butterflies who have flown the garden, who have been diminished because of human activities. All the more reason to keep offering this haven behind our garage, to keep working toward restoring some piece of paradise.

all photos except book cover by kcmickelson 2021

book cover image from Dos Madres Press

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