We were lying on a mossy slope under trees covered in dead leaves. As the sun warmed the branches, the leaves quivered open, revealing an iridescent orange underside. Then they took to the air, filling it with flutterings that sounded like running water. I lay on my back to watch these brilliant illuminations circling the cerulean sky. Butterflies landed on me, warming themselves in the folds of my sweatshirt, crawling up to tickle my neck with tiny feelers. My ever-present anxieties evaporated; in their place, an inarticulate wonder at the spectacle that surrounded me.
I’d known absolutely nothing about the monarch migration. The butterflies I saw that late November day had just completed a 3,000-mile long journey from as far away as Canada, gliding in the thermals with hawks before funneling down to a tiny area of Mexico’s transvolcanic range to wait out the winter. In the spring, the same butterfly flies back to Texas, where she lays eggs and expires. Her children only live a month or so, making their way north until they reach Canada and the end of summer. It takes three to four generations to complete this annual cycle. Monarchs have been staging this epic multi-generational journey since the end of the last Ice Age.
But their annual exodus of time immemorial is in danger. The millions of monarchs that I saw that day in 2011 had once been billions; they’ve suffered a 90% population decline over the last 20 years. Monarch butterflies are one of many species struggling with the intertwined threats of climate change, toxic industrial agriculture and deforestation.
Some argue that we need to save monarchs because they’re economically important pollinators. But these wispy creatures are nowhere near as efficient as the chunky-legged bee or stolidly-snouted bat. No, the reasons to fight for the survival of the monarch migration lie in the realm of the spiritual and the aesthetic—to preserve for posterity a world where things of astoundingly awesome beauty can continue to exist.
I fell in love that day with the monarch migration and with the man who took me to see them. Joel was minimally compensated working as a guide for a foreign-owned hotel in a nearby city. Only outside operators were making money on monarch tourism. Meanwhile, many of the monarchs’ neighbors turned to illegal logging to get by. Pecking away at the forest canopy destroys the protective microclimate that draws the monarch migration to Mexico in the first place.
In 2012, we opened JM Butterfly B&B and ecotours in Joel’s hometown, Macheros. Visitors now spend more time in the village, where they hire guides, rent horses, eat meals and buy souvenirs, and Macheros has become visibly more prosperous. But the settlements on the other side of the Cerro Pelón Sanctuary have not. We were continually stepping over debris from fallen trees when we took tourists to see the monarch colony.
In response, Joel and I started a non-profit for forest conservation. Butterflies & Their People employs six full-time forest guardians from three marginalized Cerro Pelón communities. Clandestine logging of the sanctuary dropped by 81% during their first full year on the job.
In my former life, I was a cultural anthropologist dedicated to the study of inequality and exclusion. In my new life as a monarch conservation activist, I’m working to create projects that address the inequality and exclusion that puts the monarch migration at risk. In both of these chapters, writing has been a constant. Writing has helped me understand the challenges of cross-cultural love, the lingering effects of colonialism and how when you name a problem, you become a problem.
How I decided to dedicate my life to saving the monarch migration by improving the lives of the monarchs’ Mexican neighbors is the subject of my forthcoming memoir, “Fragile Messengers of God.” I’ve created this website to share news about and excerpts from that work in progress. It’s also where you can find my latest articles, videos and blogs.
This battle is bigger than one beloved butterfly species. Preservation efforts on their behalf stand to save the ecosystems that all life depends upon. I hope that you’ll join me in this conservation adventure.
Saludos desde Macheros,