A long time ago, as glaciers retreated from North America, some arctic butterflies stayed behind. The Earth was warming and so they fluttered up mountain slopes, to where it was still cold. As the climate continued to change, the arctic butterflies continued to climb, toward the summits — and then, where?
At the other end of the continent, a tropical butterfly began to pursue milkweed northward, making the journey generation by short-lived generation, branching out toward opportunity, flying and breeding and dying. At the end of summer a “super generation” would make the entire return journey south, to an ancestral home it had never seen before.
Human beings eventually reached this territory and settled into tribes that lived in communion with the Earth. They had no practical use for the butterflies but saw the mysterious insects as symbols. They signaled a warning, or the harvest of corn. They carried dreams, or the souls of the dead.
Later, Europeans arrived by ship and spread across the land, plundering and claiming it as their own, planting industry and drawing boundaries. The tropical butterfly, the one with the orange-and-black wings, was christened “the monarch,” after an English king.
The climate had brought humans and butterflies into coexistence in the Western Hemisphere, but it was not done changing, because neither were humans. They made an economy by exploiting the Earth and one another. They arrived by shipfuls to a new home sight-unseen. They intermingled, tried to live as one new tribe, fought anyway. They built cities, suburbs, highways. They sought knowledge, refined science, supplemented symbolism with data.
Recently, they began to notice something happening with butterflies: They seemed to be disappearing.
And so humans began asking a natural question: What does this mean?
Late last month, there was a meeting in the Putah Creek Lodge on the campus of the University of California at Davis. The topic was the western population of monarch butterflies, the ones that winter on the California coast. Their numbers had dropped 86 percent over the past year, to 0.6 percent of their historical average. This was a problem.
Arthur Shapiro, a professor of evolution and ecology, was at the meeting. His bushy beard was as dramatic as the file name of his digital slide show: “MONARCH JEREMIAD.”
As a solitary child in northwest Philadelphia, Shapiro fled to wooded ravines to escape his parents’ constant combat. Nature became his companion. By fifth grade, he knew that butterflies would be his life. Twenty years later, as a PhD in entomology, Shapiro was hiking through the mountains of northeastern Colombia when the clouds parted and a female reliquia, its white wings shot through with sunlight, passed in front of him. His heart rattled his rib cage. Before he could get his net out, the clouds reconvened and the butterfly was gone. He had never before — not from anything in life — felt such a wallop of adrenaline.
In 2018, as a 72-year-old who’d given his life to butterflies, Shapiro did not see a single monarch caterpillar in the wild.
There’s compelling evidence that pesticides, deforestation and habitat loss are to blame for monarch decline. Climate change sharpens every threat by altering weather patterns, extending droughts, strengthening storms. It’s easy to conclude, then, that we are responsible.
Shapiro says we don’t fully understand what’s happening to butterflies, but he can’t shake a feeling of responsibility.
“I feel like a doctor who has a patient he’s known his entire life, and the patient is obviously dying, and the doctor and his colleagues have been unable to determine why — so they can’t recommend treatments,” he says. “It’s a level of frustration where I’m watching things that I love go away, and there’s nothing I can do about it but just stand there.”
There's mystery in a caterpillar's metamorphosis, and majesty in the winged creature that emerges from a chrysalis, and so humans have used butterflies to make meaning of life, and of change.
The ancient Greeks believed that a butterfly was a human soul, loosed from a deceased body. In China, the butterfly can mean both immortality and marriage. For some Christians and Native Americans, the butterfly is a symbol of rebirth. For addicts, it is a symbol of recovery. Children read “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and learn about the transformation of a small, ungainly creature into something full-grown and unbound. On the other side of adolescence, teenagers get butterflies tattooed on their ankles, or wrists, because it just feels right.
Monarch expert Karen Oberhauser helped make the most iconic butterfly a teaching tool in classrooms. “Monarchs,” she says, “make connections between humans and nature in ways that no other insect does.”
They’re alien, but familiar. They’re delicate, but hardy enough to undertake an epic migration.
“They’re just really impressive,” says Oberhauser, director of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, “and a textbook example of interactions between herbivores and plants, of migration, of interactions between diseases and organisms — all things that increase people’s understanding of the wonders of nature.”
Four years ago, a health-care consultant named Denise Palmer planted milkweed in her small suburban plot in Oklahoma City to attract monarchs. Recently, she looked at her property from the height of Google Earth and saw a shadowy square of nature surrounded by the gray grid of infrastructure, and the red clay of bulldozed land. It made her understand her piece of Earth the way a butterfly might see it: as a way station on a journey. As part of a whole.
“It’s humbling,” Palmer says. “It’s exhilarating. It’s renewing at an emotional level. Actually, it’s deeper than emotion. It’s a feeling of the soul.”
Insects are the linchpin of ecosystems, and 40 percent of insect species are in dramatic decline, according to study publishing next month in the journal Biological Conservation. Butterflies are among the most imperiled, and monarchs are the butterfly that people most recognize. The eastern population of monarchs — the one that winters in Mexico and summers across the United States — rebounded this year, but it is a third the size of the 1996 count. The overall trend is downward.
Each day there are fewer butterflies in the United States than the day before, says the molecular biologist Jeffrey Glassberg, founder of the North American Butterfly Association. That’s hyperbole, some say, but Glassberg is trying to make a point. He’s a man who speaks with stern confidence about what butterflies mean to the environment, about how their health relates to the overall health of the planet. But when asked what butterflies mean to him, he struggles to find the words. He thinks about his wife, who died a year and a half ago.
“I loved her very, very much,” Glassberg says. “But I didn’t love her because of anything. I have no idea why I loved her. And it’s like that with butterflies.”
For thousands of years, humans have looked to butterflies as a reassuring symbol in times of change. The Earth now is changing, and butterflies have become a symbol of something else: loss.
This month, the eastern monarchs will begin migrating through the Rio Grande Valley, one of the country's most biologically diverse regions, whose native habitat is already 95 percent diminished by human interference. Many will take shelter at the National Butterfly Center, a 100-acre sanctuary that sits at the southern tip of Texas, across the Rio Grande from Mexico.
That is where President Trump wants to build a new stretch of border wall.
The wall was supposed to slice through the butterfly center, scouring habitats and cutting off 70 of its 100 acres. Supporters rallied around the center, but the staff also got harassing messages from Americans who wanted the wall to preserve something else. They were mad that the center wasn’t yielding to the heavy machinery that had already plowed neighboring land.
“You are insane if you think a wall will stop butterflies,” a man named Allan wrote to the center’s executive director on Facebook. “The wall is stop illegals from coming into the United States and wrecking our economy, raping our women, bringing in drugs, etc.”
The North American Butterfly Association, which owns and operates the center, sued the U.S. government in 2017 for violating environmental laws and taking its property without compensation, and on Feb. 14 a judge finally tossed the suit. (The association has appealed.) That same day, Congress passed a budget deal whose fine print prohibited the funding of barrier construction on butterfly center property. To Marianna T. Wright, the executive director, this was only a temporary fix.
“In six months, when the government starts working on their money for 2020, we’ll be right back on the chopping block,” she told her small staff during a meeting. “We’re all living in a state of emergency now.”
Nearby, the Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe has built an encampment named after the butterfly to resist the wall and to bear witness to the desecration of its ancestral lands. The ruin of the environment, the slandering of a group of people, a wall that renders both in concrete and steel — it’s all part of the colonization of life, says Christopher Basaldú, an anthropologist and member of the tribe. The monarch represents the natural movement of life in a world made unnatural by humans.
“Our country is teaching us to treat other human beings inhumanely around these imaginary lines and boundaries,” Basaldú says. Butterflies are “not being migratory in the sense that they’re crossing borders or boundaries. They are perceiving this entire continent as their home.”
On Sunday, Basaldú and about 100 protesters marched through the grounds of the butterfly center. There were two causes. One was the climate. The other was the wall. A 77-year-old activist named Zulema Hernandez, who moved from Mexico to the United States 49 years ago to pursue a better life for herself and her family, marched with her daughter, who wore a shirt patterned with monarchs. When one of Hernandez’s sons grew up to become U.S. Border Patrol agent, she felt like the sky was falling. When another son became a civil engineer and worked on border-wall construction, she said to him: You’re going to build it, and I’m going to have to tear it down.
At the end of every migration season, the monarch always returns to its ancestral setting. Humans don’t, of course. We move. We build. We protect what we love for as long as we can, even as we inflict change on the world. We resist. We adapt.
Hernandez is happy that her children have a life in this country, but she is worried by its course. If you surround yourself in an “artificial” world — with walls, with ignorance of nature — the real world might start disappearing around you.
“We don’t want this to happen to the butterfly,” she says. “Then it would be just something we’d hear about, or read about.”
Hernandez marched from the butterfly center to the Rio Grande and back, a three-mile round trip, using a walker.
Rachel Williams and her boyfriend, Dean, first bonded over monarchs. She taught him to catch and tag them. They road-tripped and backpacked to see them. And two weeks ago , they made the ultimate pilgrimage together, to the mountainous habitat in Mexico where eastern monarchs converge for the winter.
The fir trees sagged with butterflies. The sky was crossed with airborne rivers of orange. Some people weep when they see this spectacle. Some begin to pray. Williams, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, had never been more awestruck by nature. She made a vow right there to redouble her commitment to preserving the species, and what they meant to her.
The monarchs above them would soon travel up through Mexico, over the Rio Grande, generation by generation, visiting the backyards of America. In June, after a four-year deliberation, Williams’s agency will announce whether it will list the monarch as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Some scientists think this is meaningless politics; others think it’s a way to focus the public’s attention on a problem.
Regardless, Williams will return to California’s remote Saline Valley around Thanksgiving to look for western monarchs at dawn, keeping an official tally with other counters across the continent. In the ’70s, monarchs in the Saline Valley numbered in the hundreds, and once topped 1,000. In 2017 Williams and other volunteers counted a maximum of 145. Last year they counted 27. There is a boomlet of monarchs in Mexico this year, but what happens if logging there continues? If the Earth keeps warming? Do the monarchs seek higher elevation, beyond the firs, up the mountain — and then, where?
For now, on her trip, Williams was surrounded by abundance, by the connection to nature, to something old and enduring. At one point she stopped to photograph a cluster of monarchs along the trail. Dean rummaged through his camera bag, behind her. That morning he had put on a dress shirt, and tucked it in, so she knew something was up.
She turned around and saw the ring.
Her answer was already in the air, fluttering all around them.