Three Things the Monarch Butterfly Migration Taught Me

Meadow atop Cerro Pelon, State of Mexico. Photo by D. Hutchison.
Mexico’s butterfly sanctuaries attract millions of monarchs every winter, along with thousands of tourists. Five years ago, I was one of them, a grad student on a break from my dissertation research. I fell madly in love that day, both with the monarchs, and with the man who took me to see them. Three years ago, I moved to his village and we opened a B&B and butterfly tour service. Here’s what I’ve learned from the experience.

1. Accept and appreciate what is.

Every fall millions of monarch butterflies migrate from as far away as Canada to congregate on a few acres of boreal forest in Mexico’s Sierra Madres. They cluster on fir trees, resting until they mate and fly north again in the spring. Every time I visit their winter colonies, it’s a different experience. Monarch behavior is like the weather. Actually, it’s not just like the weather, it is the weather. Monarchs are supremely sensitive barometers of minute fluctuations in sunlight and temperature. Their alternations of clinging, quivering, and fluttering embody these changes. If it’s warm, they fly. If it’s cold, they don’t. When the sun hits them, they stream out of their trees in search of water and nectar. If a shadow slides across the sun, they return to their roosts. Late in the season the sun warms their clusters and they take to the air all at once in fantastic explosions. You never know what you’re going to see up at 10,000 feet where weather blows in and out quickly. But no matter what, you will see millions of butterflies.

Monarchs clustering on tree trunks for warmth, Cerro Pelon Sanctuary, Mexico.

My partner Joel has worked as a butterfly guide for many seasons. He likes to tell a story about the organized tour group leader who tried to make him give a disposition on the monarchs to the gathered tourists. He refused. Listening to a spiel, even if he had one, is not the point. The point is being there. “Look,” he says. Sometimes it takes people a moment to realize that the clumps dangling on the trees in front of them are masses of living creatures. “Listen,” he says, cupping his hands behind his ears. The sound you mistook for the wind is actually the flapping of thousands of butterfly wings. “Wait,” he says. If you wait long enough, you can catch the monarchs’ performance of another aspect of the ever-changing weather. The joy Joel experiences in their presence is contagious.

2. People’s reactions to seeing the butterflies tells you a lot about them.

Three years ago when I had just moved to Mexico an old friend came to visit. It was December, and it was cold. The monarchs were immobile, clinging to dozens of trees. Their mountain glade was as quiet as a cathedral. But for my friend, the whole experience was a letdown. “Maybe we should come back tomorrow,” she said. “Do you think they’ll be flying then?” Later she remarked, “I guess some experiences are good and some experiences are not so good.” And I replied, “No, all experiences just are.” After she left I didn’t hear from her for a long time.

Her palpable disappointment made me concerned when our next guests arrived. As they set off for the mountain I said, “I hope it’s a good day.” And they smiled and said, “It’s going to be a great day no matter what.” And indeed it was, they came back beaming.

Now I don’t mean to judge. My friend is unhappy, and I understand this. I used to be unhappy too. But at a certain point you realize that happiness is a choice, a choice based on appreciating and accepting whatever happens to be happening at any given moment. And monarchs give us an exemplary opportunity to enter that moment.

Fortunately, almost all of the people who come stay at our B&B share this world view. But when they don’t, man, it’s rough. These guests find fault with everything. It’s too cold. You’re too remote. The trail is too difficult. You charge too much money. There’s no pleasing them, because they will find a focus for their unhappiness no matter what. I actually fired a guest this season before she got here, because the whole reservation process was already so complaint-laden. She left a diatribe on our TripAdvisor page, even though she never stayed with us. Thing is, she probably would have left one if even if she had stayed with us, and then we would have had to put up with her. As it was, a happy person who happened to have the same given name rented the room and enjoyed her stay.

Joel sees everything in terms of energy. Some people have bad energy and are best avoided. Other people are like little suns, and we bask in their light. Monarchs are little suns multiplied by a million. No matter what they’re doing, when you see them, they make you feel good. Joel says he never gets tired of seeing them, even though during the season he sees them almost every day. He claims that being in their presence recharges his batteries.

I picture this monarch energy as an invisible vibration that fills the air and enters the heart. I suspect that’s why so many people are moved to tears when they first see the colonies. Including my mother, a committed atheist. When we entered their sanctuary, she fell to her knees in a clearing covered with them and exclaimed “They’re little miracles!”

3. Follow your heart and be open to the unexpected.

My pre-butterfly self would have scorned this first part of this advice. Underneath the scorn lay panic. What do you mean my heart? How can I follow something I don’t know? Which is all a way of saying that coming around to this insight was a long process, one that started on the day that I went to see butterflies and met Joel, a man very much in touch with his heart.

On that fateful day, I was nearing the last lap of a PhD program and I was planning on becoming an academic anthropologist. While I was finishing my dissertation (on violence, speaking of heart-disconnect), I took frequent breaks to visit Joel in Mexico. A big part of me resisted the romance that I was eagerly pursuing. This is a fling, I told myself. We’re too different from each other for anything long-term.

While I was a middle-class, only child who’d spent at least 25 years of my life enrolled in school, Joel had less than ten years of formal education before he’d dropped out and walked across a desert so he could send money home to support his six younger siblings. I was in the midst of creating a book-length manuscript, and he’d never read a book. Then there’s the fact, of which he likes to remind me, that I’m “white” and he’s “Mexican.” To him, “Mexican” seems to mean poor, dark-skinned and proud. (In fact, when we meet privileged, light-skinned Mexicans, Joel questions their mexicanidad, with comments like, “That guy must be Spanish.”)

On top of these intertwined differences of class, race, and culture, there was also a decade and change difference in our ages. Fears about the impossibility of our future pushed me to break up with him. To which he replied, “Why do you want to do that when I can see I make you happy?” I couldn’t argue with that. My heart swelled with happiness every time I was near him. My break-up attempt utterly failed. In fact, I ended up marrying him.

Shortly after we met I’d made a website for a B&B and butterfly tour business, and people started coming. And they liked being here, and then more people started coming. I continued to think of living in the country and running a B&B as a break from my real life. But every time I sat down to do the work that would have made an academic career possible (like, say, applying for academic jobs), my heart sank. Here I was surrounded by incredible beauty, looking out my window at layer after layer of mountain ridges stretching as far as the eye could see, and I felt miserable. I found myself physically incapable of doing what I was supposed to do. And so I really had to ask myself what it was I was “supposed” to be doing anyway.

View from the yellow room, JM Butterfly B&B.

One day during this struggle I found myself explaining to a guest that this job was much easier than teaching college kids had been. “Wait a minute,” she interjected, “this work isn’t easy.” She herself ran a B&B/spiritual retreat center in Canada, so she knew of which she spoke. “Maybe what you mean,” she suggested, “is that it’s easier energetically.” I took to this idea. When I taught at UCLA, I never felt like I brought my students joy. They were too weighed down by worries about the future: the job market, their student loan debt, what would be on the final exam… Anxiety was the underlying feeling tone, and not just in the classroom, but throughout the whole academy in the midst of radical restructuring.

When I made the business website, I thought I was doing it because I wanted to give Joel, a working class man who didn’t want to work for other people, a dignified form of employment. But slowly I realized that despite my relative privilege, I needed work that gave me self-respect and autonomy too. Not to mention joy.

I never aspired to owning a small business, but it’s been immensely fun, and allowed us to meet interesting, open-hearted people from all over the world. Most visitors are charmed by our scenic vistas, by the murmuring of farm animals, by the flittering of myriad migratory birds, and by the dazzling brightness of the night sky. And then, of course, there’s the trek through the mossy forest to the sacred grove of butterflies tucked away in the mountains above us. Almost everyone leaves here happy. And as I polish off this piece and glance out the window at the infinite green slopes laid out before me, I can say that my heart feels happy too.

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