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Air whooshed in and out of my lungs as we picked our way up the side of an old volcano on a narrow, rocky trail at 10,000 feet above sea level.
This was the third day of the “Mexico: Mystical Migration of Monarchs” trip with 12 travelers from the Cable Natural History Museum, and the altitude was still a challenge.
Our butterfly reserve guide, Diego, identified Salvia flowers in a rainbow of scarlet, pink and purple, dahlias in sunny yellow. They livened up the forest green – a novelty in December.
Hummingbirds zipped from flower to flower, making the woods sound like summer, too. These flowers slowed our pace just enough to get my heart rate under control.
When a craggy outcrop afforded us a view, the expanse of valley below stole my breath again. The furry green lap of our mountain spilled into the arid brown plain, and there rose a herd of more hazy little volcanoes, flat-topped or dimpled at their summits, erupting only with thick green forests and the possibility of butterflies.
From somewhere in the valley, fireworks boomed (there’s always something to celebrate, our guide shrugged), dogs barked, cows bellowed, roosters crowed and engines growled uphill.
While these sounds intruded on our nature buzz, they were important reminders that many people live among these mountains and rely on them for income, resources, and more. Our tourism dollars are part of that equation.
The trail leveled out, and we stepped into a sunny opening spiked with jagged, decorticated boles of wind-thrown trees.
When an orange blur tracked across my vision I followed its path upward, and suddenly there was a dizzying frenzy of movement against the blue. Dozens of monarchs, their wings luminous filters of sun, traced wild paths across the sky while their shadows traced matching paths along the ground.
Then I remembered: monarchs are supposed to cluster on the trees. Looking past the swirling streaks of orange, I peered into the dark forest. Suddenly, I saw.
The oyamel fir branches didn’t droop low of their own accord. Instead, hundreds of butterflies – featherlight and delicate as individuals – became a weighty whole. Human hearts and fir trees both bowed in reverence to the mass of monarchs.
Every pair of gravity-defying wings, each metamorphosed body and magnetic navigational system is worthy of awe. But it is the collective action of an entire population that brought us here.
Butterflies, and mariposas monarca specifically, live all over the globe. But no pollinator garden, no butterfly conservatory even comes close to hosting this many winged wonders. Somewhere in these clusters is every single surviving monarch born on our backyard milkweed. These volcanic mountains hold the most spectacular example of an insect migration we’ve ever encountered.
Snowflakes, I thought, incongruously. They are like the uncountable, unrepeatable snowflakes that alone are paragons of natural beauty and collectively make a blizzard that reshapes the forest.
And just like a heavy snowfall, if you can steady your breathing and get your heart to come down out of your ears, a phenomenon that at first seems silent becomes a rush of sound. Shhhhhhhhh…said hundreds of thousands of wings as they brushed against each other, the tree, and the sky.
Shhhhh…said our trip leader Daniel, and we fell into silent meditations. Each of us warmed in the sunlight until we, too, could float above it all, the air that cradled their wings also entering our lungs, a little of their magic dust coming with it.
The scratching of pencils and the rustle of paper added to the quiet din as we listened, looked, smelled, and felt, recording words, impressions and magic.
Daniel gathered those thoughts and wove them into a poem, his accent tilting the words like butterfly wings as he read it to us later:
soft light and soft whispers
shade shifting, sunlight through tides and flows
of orange wings
Pendulous branches - fluttering everywhere
amongst the lush green and piercing blue
Soft rustle, flying shadows
Sweetness of expanding valleys and soaring firs
smiles, awe, joy, gracious and loving
quiet still and spiritual awakening
tear drops of gratitude
Fireworks, rooster and motors, and yet...
caught in timelessness
A gateway to feeling
to this home inside and out
Emily Stone is Naturalist/Education Director at the Cable Natural History Museum. Her award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at cablemuseum.org/books and at your local independent bookstore, too. For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and cablemuseum.org to see what we are up to.