The Year of the Monarch
In the light of the moon a little egg lay on a leaf.
One Sunday morning the warm sun came up—and pop!—out of the egg came a tiny and very hungry caterpillar.
I was visiting my parents’ home, grateful for a few weeks of support as I cared for my firstborn. The aroma of a meal being cooked by my mother and grandmother wafted in the background, mingling with their warmth and care. My son, barely two months old, was nestled against me on the living room couch as I read aloud from Eric Carle’s classic children’s book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
My father walked by, then stopped in front of me, puzzled. “I don’t think he can understand you, dear.”
I looked down at the baby, his face slackening as he drifted to sleep. Though my father was likely correct, I still felt that it was a worthwhile endeavor, that my little one was somehow absorbing Carle’s gentle words.
Those words certainly became embedded in my own consciousness, as I read the story over and over and over again to my son and then to his brother that followed him. Decades later, I can still recite them by heart—even the caterpillar’s entire delectable Saturday night binge.
Some years ago, I served as a grant director at an education fund for K-12 teachers wishing to add service-learning projects to their curricula. One of the most memorable grant applications came from a high school teacher who wished to create a monarch butterfly waystation in a community park.
With the funding, biology students germinated seeds and planted flowers to attract monarch butterflies and provide them a safe area to feed and breed during their annual migration through Indiana. The students also set up informational signs for the public, boundary posts, and tracking procedures.
What a wonderful and hands-on way to learn about the life cycle of the monarch and to build up its habitat, I thought. To this day, photos of those students’ planting efforts hang on the wall of my study.
I’m sorry to say it was the first time monarch butterflies entered my awareness in more than a passing way. That changed markedly when a friend dropped off a chrysalis to our home and I spent time learning about the multi-generational migratory path of the creature pupating in front of me, as well as the intricate orientation mechanism guiding it (or more specifically, its progeny) 2,500 miles back to the very same tree its ancestors occupied while over-wintering in Mexico.
But my interest remained academic until that little monarch was released back to the world. After it had gone, I imagined it flying into unfriendly territory, struggling through stormy weather and manmade impediments in order to complete the next leg of its journey. I imagined it searching and searching for a safe place to lay its eggs and launch the next generation.
It was during a trip to the Santa Cruz and Pacific Grove migratory grounds in California, however, that I felt a significant shift within me vis-à-vis monarch butterflies and their existential plight. Witnessing swarms of monarchs clumped together on eucalyptus trees, shimmering in the light and wind, took my breath away. (Incidentally, I’ve been delighted to learn that a butterfly swarm is also known as a kaleidoscope.)
It was one thing to read that the monarch butterfly population is at an extinction tipping point, that its numbers have decreased by 90% since the 1980s. It was another thing to stand still and take in the beauty and delicacy and utter fragility of an entire species. Watching them cling together in the trees, I couldn’t help but feel . . . responsible for their survival.
As Eric Carle indicated in his book, a caterpillar is nothing if not rapacious, and its primary job upon emergence from its egg is to eat as much as possible, in as short a time as possible. However, unlike Carle’s fictional caterpillar, who ate through multiple fruits and an impressive array of junk foods, real (monarch) caterpillars have a single food source: milkweed.
Not only do caterpillars rely on that milkweed as their sole source of nourishment, but adult monarchs also lay their eggs on milkweed plants after mating. Due to land development and the use of weed killers, though, milkweed is rapidly disappearing from the United States. As their habitat disappears, so do the monarchs.
I was invited to join a milkweed planting session in the neighboring town of Zionsville, whose mayor Emily Styron has taken the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayors’ Monarch Pledge. This program, launched in 2015, gathered pledges from over 600 mayors and heads of local governments to restore the habitat of the monarch butterfly through a variety of projects and campaigns across the country.
I felt elated to participate in planting, instead of my usual on-the-sidelines donating, researching, writing, photographing. But that morning, the session was canceled due to air quality concerns from Canada’s massive wildfire.
It took me some time to regain my bearings after that cancellation. Is there a clearer example of the inherent connection between all living beings than the air we breathe? After all, a fire thousands of miles away was now preventing the citizenry of a small Indiana town from simply stepping outside. The lesson felt visceral to me: we must act with our connectedness in mind, and quickly.
A few days later, I learned that Tweetspeak’s powers-that-be have declared this to be the Year of the Monarch. And as Poet Laura, I wanted to do my part.
As I made plans to plant milkweed in my own yard, though, a grander picture formed in my mind—of monarchs traveling from one Tweetspeak reader’s home to the next, all along their migratory path.
The mathematician and meteorologist Edward Norton Lorenz first coined the chaos theory term, “butterfly effect,” referring to the way a minute incident can disrupt a major weather system. The example he used was that of a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil, leading to a chain of events that eventually produces a tornado in Texas.
Many have extrapolated from this scientific concept to general culture, proposing that minor occurrences can dramatically affect the big picture, and perhaps more meaningfully, that our small actions can have significant positive outcomes.
I propose we create our own (literal and figurative) butterfly effect!
Won’t you join me? (And my project partner Laura Boggess 🙂 )
If you’d like to participate in Tweetspeak’s “Year of the Monarch” project:
1. Share your Tweetspeak Pollinator Pledge by typing into the comment box below.
I, ____________ [name], of ____________ [location], pledge to add milkweed to my yard to help rebuild the habitat of the magnificent monarch.
2. Plant milkweed that is best-suited for your geographic region.
For most of the U.S., the fall season is considered an ideal time to plant milkweed. See the resources after this post to identify the type of milkweed ideal for your geographic area, and to find seed sources and planting instructions. You can also plant some types of milkweed as full-sized perennials in the summer!
If you are interested in a larger school or a community project in conjunction with a local park, SaveOurMonarchs.org/schools provides guidance.
3. Share your words for a crowd-sourced poem!
This is Tweetspeak Poetry, so we simply love to fuse our work with poetry! Before or after you plant your milkweed, please send us either a sentence or a line of poetry to follow the words, “Dear Seed.”
Dear Seed, let your boundaries dissolve, and welcome soil, water, light—welcome Earth, welcome life.
Using the responses, a Tweetspeak poet will craft a crowd-sourced poem about our planting efforts and our hopes for the monarch butterfly. (This idea comes from Kwame Alexander, NPR’s Poet-in-Residence, who created a poem called Love, Me from hundreds of letters written by NPR listeners.)
4. Consider Getting Some Conversation Starters
We asked artist Sara Barkat to create some conversation starters for you and your community—in the form of T-shirts, totes, mugs, postcards, and more. Enjoy the beauty, and get the conversation going.
Eric Carle passed away in 2021, at the age of 91. I recently learned that his family had returned to Germany from the U.S. shortly before World War II, and he endured beatings, shootings, and abject hunger during those years.
After art school, in his 20s, Carle moved back to the U.S. to work as a graphic designer and then as an illustrator and writer. He became well-known for his brightly-colored books on nature and animals, the most famous of which became a part of my own family’s history and memories.
Did my two-month-old grasp anything I read to him from The Very Hungry Caterpillar on that summer day long ago, as we sat cradled in that four-generation household? Perhaps not. But I like to think that over time, he internalized Carle’s message—that one day, he, too, would emerge from the safety of home and soar with beauty and grace through the world.
I think Carle had a larger message embedded in his cheerful manuscript: though our actions may be small and slight as butterfly eggs, we must take them. We must do what’s needed for the wellbeing of the world and then trust the next generation to do the same. As Carle stated, “I think it is a book of hope.”
With that in mind, let’s ring in the Year of the Monarch!
Poetry Prompt: Dear Seed or Poem of Waiting
Share your line for “Dear Seed,” once you pledge to plant milkweed. And/or, while you wait, write a “poem of waiting,” from the point of view of either a monarch or a flower. We sometimes feature your poems if they’re a fit!
Year of the Monarch Resources
- Poet Laura: For the Birds—A Poetry Reading … for Chickens - September 7, 2023
- Poet Laura: The Butterfly Effect—Year of the Monarch - August 4, 2023
- Poet Laura: I Surrender - July 6, 2023