Happy Accidents of Nature

Scouting Monarchs in Pacific Grove, California

To sit in a room filled with monarch experts and enthusiasts while Dr. Robert Pyle reads a passage from Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday was something I won’t forget for a long while. We were in Carmel-By-The-Sea for the Western Monarch Summit hosted by the Western Monarch Advocates. There were 165 attendees, mostly from west of the Rockies, but a handful of us migrated from Indiana, Ohio, New England, Virginia and Hawaii.

Bob stood at the podium and read from Chapter 38 entitled Hooptedoodle (2) The Pacific Grove Butterfly Festival. I don’t know how anyone else feels about being read to, but I instantly revert to my kid-size self. I adore hearing people read aloud and wished he’d just keep going. As some of us had just visited the Pacific Grove Monarch Habitat earlier in the day I was particularly delighted to imagine more clearly the scene he read. But for Bob, it was this line that gave him such joy that he read it twice:

Pacific Grove benefits by one of those happy accidents of nature
that gladden the heart, excite the imagination, and instruct the young.

In one simple and sparkling sentence Steinbeck captured the feelings all of us in the room shared, sixty-nine years later.

Two silverbacks and me

Bob is a force in the monarch world, as is Dr. Chip Taylor, also in attendance. Bob referred to himself and Chip as the old silverbacks, and they indeed commanded a following of acolytes and mentees every moment of the conference. And rightly so: Bob founded the Xerces Society and has an impressive list of books and other works to his name. 

Chip Taylor founded Monarch Watch and its offshoots the Monarch Waystation project and the Bring Back the Monarchs campaign. The two of them together rep the monarchs on both sides of the Rockies, Bob being in the Pacific Northwest and Chip at the University of Kansas, smack in the heart of the Midwest.

They along with nearly two dozen other speakers spent the weekend informing and updating all of us on such things as conservation plans, genetic relationships between the eastern and western monarch populations, and major threats to monarchs.

We were specifically discussing the western monarchs, and their plunging numbers at roosting sites in California, but in his keynote address Chip emphasized that our eastern and western monarchs are the same species facing the same perils. He was, ostensibly, referring only to the species level, but now as I reflect on the complex discussions that ensued over that weekend I think there’s an allegorical meaning behind his words.

The butterflies and humans are part of the same animalia family, and maybe on some level Dr. Taylor hoped we might come together, if not in agreement of solutions, but perhaps in agreement that whatever our theories of causation or best practices are, we are all working to protect the natural world. The values we each place on it come from our various beliefs and experiences, but the real value of the natural world requires a collective energy to protect it.

Protecting the flora and fauna of this planet doesn’t have to be—in fact, cannot be—accomplished at a macro level. Macro level thinking makes people feel overwhelmed, disconnected, and sometimes disinterested. Loads of research and big numbers and doomsday prophecies aren’t causing change. We’re all getting more and more immune to the shock value of screaming headlines.

If some of us aren’t too zoned out to ignore bellwether updates on butterflies and bees and ash borers, we all have our own little obstacles. For example, I live in a neighborhood that celebrates chemicals and pavement. The golf course is essentially green dye and Round Up, every summer we are treated to at least two unannounced mosquito spraying events, and my neighbors are in committed relationships with lawn care companies.

But here’s a little secret about protecting this planet: You cannot give two thoughts about anyone else’s efforts. Not their efforts to create giant swaths of turf between themselves and others, not their efforts to convince you they know what’s what, and not their efforts to eradicate your dandelions and violets. Bees and butterflies and flowers and trees don’t care about our infighting; they’re just trying to keep on creating oxygen and food.

At one point during the conference I decided to take a break from the windowless room and walk in the sand at Carmel River State Beach. Which I enjoyed all the more because I’m not a local who hears about erosion and polluted waters, or whatever Carmel is experiencing. I simply gave myself over to nature and let my soul rebound rejoice.

That experience wouldn’t have been better, more powerful, or purposeful if I’d been armed with fact sheets and impact statements. Sometimes we just have to get out in nature and let it do its thing for us. To us. Because appreciating nature gives us perspective. And perspective is what drives us to act.

My perspective is that in my little patch of dirt there are worms that weren’t here when we bought this house. There were monarch caterpillars that magicked into butterflies last year. Hummingbirds, hawks, bats, moths, rabbits— they all showed up. So I planted more native thingies, like buttonbush and asters and joe pye and vervain. And this year, they’ll come again.

So back to that collective energy all us humans have. You are significant and connected with every living thing. You choose every single day the thoughts you want to have, so why not make just one thought about a butterfly?

You could think about planting something for them or painting one on a rock to give to someone who needs a boost. You could think a grand thought or a tiny thought. Who knows what might manifest from your one thought on butterflies? Maybe you’ll discover that violets are the host plant for some fritillary butterflies, and convince your partner to stop trying to rid the yard of them.

Whatever comes of your one tiny thought about butterflies is one thought more than yesterday. You never know what could happen.

You may find your heart gladdened, your imagination excited, and if you’re like me and do a lot of your thinking out loud, you may even instruct the young.

California Eucalyptus Trees are Roosts for Monarchs

Learn more about monarchs :

Western Monarch Advocates

Xerces Society

Monarch Watch

Journey North

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