Please don’t kill the Monarch Butterflies
When I looked at my newspaper this morning, square in the middle on the front page was a picture of a Monarch butterfly, nested on some milkweed. The characteristic splotches of white circles nested in webs of dark pigment, between panes of orange with black and white checkered bodies. His antennae are curiously tilted towards the tips of the green on the blossoms grasped precariously by his little feet, and his bug eyes are hugely big between a carefully unfurling tongue that searches for any spare trace of nectar.
That is not a scientific description, and I can’t guarantee it is accurate. However, I can’t guarantee that the Monarch Butterflies I love won’t die out either.
Since over a full year before me and my twin sister were conceived, my mother has worked for the University of Kansas. She takes care of the greenhouses in the Evolutionary Ecology Department, and that was my favorite thing growing up, to see all those plants like a maze of verdant glory. Tables of strange research projects, orchids, plants that spring out of rocks, the stuff of your wildest dreams. She let us walk through the big windowed green houses on West Campus, between large piles of dirt that were our sandcastles. The cherry blossom and crab apple trees that surround this extremely old, weathered building are the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen in the spring, white petals and red stems. Inside, my mother helps care for the facilities that house the milkweed plants of Dr. Chip Taylor, “an insect ecologist at Kansas University and founder of Monarch Watch”, according to the Saturday January 3rd edition of the Lawrence Journal World newspaper I’m staring at.
I like Chip. I met him when I was a kid and was wandering through the greenhouses. I never knew he had any hand in helping us get the little caterpillars on milkweed my mom helped guard during second grade until I was older. Memories flood back of these tiny little pale green chrysalises that are shaped somewhat like an REI sleeping bag, the brim like little flecks of gold and black in a circle around the top, you could zip it up if it wasn’t nature.
The butterflies nest on native plants here in Kansas, like the ones we have in my backyard. Any kind of milkweed you can think of, eaten as squishy banded caterpillars who replace the dark holes that they chew into dark residue on the ground. As a second grader, that was amazing! You had this entire circle of life sitting on the windowsill in my classroom, and you watched this tiny creature grow from a dot the size of your pencil tip underneath a leaf of milkweed into a tiny blurry banded caterpillar as small as one of the green inch worms we found under the circle bars, near the slides. They grey into little caterpillars, eventually reaching the size of a slightly small eyebrow, and this time, you could see the white and black bands meld into bits of distinct yellow and with the face like a sock puppet with feelers. They have two little black horns on their butt, and their feet always come up stuck as they creep their way up a stalk of yellow milkweed, nibbling and slowly gathering enough energy before they can become even more cyclically beautiful.
They knit their sleeping bags hanging down. They use a mechanism of little caterpillar fibers to hang upside down and weave their butt to the bottom of a plant stalk. They wither out of their skin and grow a little cap that looks like a zombie takeover or a green lobotomy, I can’t decide. It’s like watching a tube of toothpaste spontaneously crumple into a great, translucent green sleeping bag, and as their strange former life molts off, the sleeping bag grows even more and more like the clarity of reality that eventually, that too breaks open, revealing wet curled wings and vulnerable creatures with feelers.
They make their way out. The sleeping bag is drying, dying brittle around them and you can see their oranged bits and pieces sliding out like some weird, virgin birth. They probably mate in some way, I don’t know, I think it has something to do with the eggs they start as, underneath the leaves. But when they come out and sun themselves, drying on the remains of past lives and brittle beginnings, they are the most gorgeous thing you can’t understand unless you knew them as a second grader.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced that “it would take steps to protect the monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act”, according to today’s paper. The sight of thousands of frail bodies, expired from summer heat under calcified benches, among pebbles flashes before my eyes as I read that sentence. The butterfly tent at West Campus was a paradise of forgetting to be real; all of the little fragile metamorphosis creatures gathering here and there, all of it could be lost forever. Chip Taylor may have one or two photos of him with butterflies in his beard swirling around the internet, but if I remember properly, he looks best with little brown grey butterflies nesting on upon it’s white. Yet, just like clockwork, they die scattered here and there, far from greenhouses. I simply don’t understand.
Even if you don’t still see like a second grader, it could all be gone. I don’t know much about biology, hell, I suck pretty bad when it comes to STEM nonsense I take for granted. But the delicate wings of the butterflies I love, that I helped tag as a child, that I saw strewn among the pebbles like a death’s carpet and the end of idealism, that is the future that people will inherit if we don’t take the proper steps to care for what was always ours. My classroom was made real by these butterflies, I even interviewed one of Chip’s assistants for a paper I had to write in 10th grade for one of my cooler teachers about the importance of work ethic. I helped clean up caterpillar poop and learned about the caterpillar diseases that only some caterpillars even survive to transform.
Chip Taylor is quoted in this article, warning my community against politics on this issue. Lately in Kansas ecology, Representatives from Kansas legislature have bickered long enough about a real life issue called the Lesser Prairie Chicken to not only to further gum up politics in a somewhat already contentious time, but to decrease that poor bird’s natural habitat by 50%, according to my paper, due to a “loss of natural prairie grass habitat”. How could they?
The prairie of Kansas is a rare thing; I learned that in my Biology class this past semester. The insects and caterpillars and rollie pollies and whatnot I took for granted as I dug in the dirt and under rocks as a screaming toddler (my twin sister in tow) can’t even compare to how collectively precious each and all of the species we see every day are to our tiny, prairie ecosystem. It matters, especially as we grow and alter it. It matters in a way that you can’t replicate, that will simply be gone so much of the time. The field trip my Biology 101 class took to the Natural History Museum on campus, with all those dead things, the frogs and snakes and anything in jars? Gone. Those are the traces of what we have left; a lot of it has fallen extinct. Please don’t kill these butterflies.
In Kansas, we care a lot about nature, but we also care a lot about our individual rights as human beings. I don’t know if I can generalize that, but there are so many farmers clustered within the Lawrence, Kansas surrounding radius that lead beautiful lives just as far away as they want, and they make our lives fabulous by letting us see things like Schaakes Pumpkin Patch (whose motto should be “go for the pumpkins, stay for the cherry cider slushes”). The pick-your-own farms, like Berry Good Farm (best strawberries) and Pendletons’ Farm (if you can find better asparagus, I will arm wrestle you for bragging rights) do not include every farm, but they certainly make my life better. This is home to all of us, and even if most liberal ecology stuff gets painted as liberal before it’s even gotten out of the gate, it isn’t political to many of us. It’s just home. We live in a beautiful place, and we are blessed to know it. The kindness of individual people, from the Teacher’s at Hillcrest Elementary school that let us foster these alien butterflies, to people like Chip Taylor and my mom who help them survive means the world. If we make this political, we’ve already lost. Please, just think of the butterflies. I would like my children to see them.