It may be that I've become engrossed by the insects because no matter how devastating human actions prove to be, finally, insects will be around, and in greater numbers and variety than--oh, the invertebrates. Which is not to say that there aren't endangered insects and arachnids, but that their class abounds. Like many another Life-Buff and agnostic, I love to quote the famous J.B.S. Haldane exchange. When asked what he could tell about god from his studies of nature, Haldane replied that God evidenced "an inordinate for beetles". Embarking on yet another century, I'm playing it safe by paying attention to creatures less imminently doomed, whose natural history won't end in extinction soon enough to break my personal heart.
On an extraordinary journey to one of the Monarch reserves in the Sierra Madre of central Mexico, I wondered whether either of those Monarchs I'd observed being and becoming behind my house was among the tens of millions of butterflies I beheld.
It was my great fortune to visit the Monarch reserve in the company of Lincoln Brower and Robert Michael Pyle. Also in this party were Homero and Betty Aridjis, husband and wife, who together constitute a driving moral force in Mexican conservation. Homero's work as a poet and novelist has made him one of Latin America's--and the world's--great men of letters. And the two endeavors--literature and conservation--originate in the same pagan bosom of a Mexican genius to whom life, beauty, and integrity are equally elemental.
The circumstance that brought me into such illustrious company, and into the living presence of unimaginably great numbers of butterflies, was the Orion Society's annual John Hay Award Colloquium. The award honors writers who have contributed notably to the nature writing, conservation, and education, and was being bestowed on Sr. Aridjis. The Orion Society customarily gathers its advisory board (of which I am a member) and some particular friends of the recipient in a place near to the heart of the winner's concern for a weekend of discussion, field trips, and celebration.
Sr. Aridjis now lives in Mexico City, but was born and raised in Contepec, on the other side of the mountain range from Sierra Chincua, where we were. The butterflies flowing upstream on rivers of air; vermilion butterflies drifting up the village streets in gathering numbers, finding their way, by means still mysterious to the oyamel shelter of the mountain fastness, were the beings that first taught his passion for nature.
Every autumn the entire population of Monarch butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains makes its way to an area of a hundred square miles in Mexico's Transverse Neovolcanic Belt where the oyamel fir forests grow thick on the slopes. There in the tree-cathedrals the Monarchs spend the winter: quiescent, staying alive, protected from freezing temperatures and harsh weather by the forest canopy and the climate of the Michoacan highlands where it's not too cold and not too hot, but just right. These rapidly vanishing montane forests are the Achilles heel of the eastern Monarch's existence.
The butterflies leave North America around the autumn equinox and arrive in Michoacan around All Souls Day--Mexico's day of the dead. They are thought to represent the souls of the departed, these palomas.
Our visit to the Monarch reserve was taking place in late February, in Mexico's dry season. We set out from our inn in the City of Zitacauro in a couple of vans, some twenty of us, writers, Orion staff, the Aridjises and their friends, passing numerous sawmills en route. As we jolted through the village of Anquangueo towards the Sierra Chincua reserve, we traveled past simple houses ornamented with bold colors and balustrades of potted geraniums, following a trail of drifting, lilting butterflies. We passed tailings piles blocks long, orderly Aztec-style pyramids of silver-mining waste deposited long ago by peasants laboring to prosper the Guggenheims, whose lucre would someday lead to fellowships for Aridjis. Ruins of the smelter and an aqueduct, mine entrances were visible as we rode along the increasingly steep and curvy, decreasingly paved, road.
On arrival at the trail head, we encountered an extremely rough version of ecotourism. The reserve is part of an ejido, a communal landholding conveyed to the campesinos after Mexico's 1910 revolution. The ejidatarios have for almost a century been deriving their subsistence from these steepening lands, using and selling the timber, pasturing animals in the forests, and clearing the way for cornfields further and further up the slopes. Now the ejidatarios, nominally banned from logging by a 1986 presidential decree establishing some five such sites as butterfly reserves, are hoping to profit instead from visitation to their land.
We had been warned that the journey to the Monarchs was strenuous, with lots of climbing and descent, and all of this at about 10,000 feet of altitude, which alone can challenge the ol' cardiovascular system. However, we'd also been advised that horses could be hired. I was ready to scorn the cayuses, and made it perhaps a hundred yards on foot, and on the strength of my conviction. Five minutes into the initial climb, I felt as though my heart was bursting--indeed, that it would erupt from my bosom and land fibrillating by the side of the trail--and this not from nature epiphany, but exertion, so got a horse. For some part of one hundred fifty pesos--about ten bucks.
Afterwards, many of us would liken our trek to the butterflies to making a pilgrimage. The steady stream of people on the trail consisted by and large of Mexicans, mostly residents of Mexico City, supposed Bob Pyle. There were folks of all ages, grandmothers trudging stately and determined, numerous among them. When we reached the meadow where we had to dismount and proceed by foot, the query "How much further to the butterflies?" began, and would be uttered with increasing frequency as we walked for the next 45 minutes. We descended to the forest cove where the Monarchs had roosted the year before. As we walked, saw more and more butterflies, more than I had ever seen in my whole life, but not the solid aggregations of the colonies that had been discovered here 25 years ago by the Canadian lepidopterist Fred Urguhart.
On we trudged, a few of us contemplating wimping out. Biologist David Campbell advised, with moral certainly that if we failed to achieve our destination we would regret it for the rest of our lives. Thus admonished, we walked on. The Monarchs had set up camp further downslope this year than last. Later the lepidopterists explained that the butterflies don't normally venture far from their colon unless they are under some stress.
David Campbell was more than right: the sight of tens of millions of Monarchs, weighing down the fir branches, blanketing the tree trunks, glittering in the sunlit openings, floating like flakes of gold and amber upon the lapis sky was an experience of the absolute. There was awe and delight written on every uplifted human face in that place.
The butterflies there were so numerous that they painted the grove orange, so numerous that their millions of wings, stirring in the warmth, together made a sound, the sound of breezes blowing. It was, to be sure, the experience of a lifetime. And brought to mind Oscar Wilde's knowledge, from bitter experience, that "each man kills the thing he loves."
he destruction wrought on the mountainsides by the helter-skelter trail-blazing of adoring hikers, ponies carrying non-hikers, and trucks carrying still other non-hikers, was so severe that the following day, trying to talk about the changes that had befallen the reserve in only two years in a colloquium, Bob Pyle wept.
We visited in late February, and winter is Mexico's dry season. Every last visitor, pony, pony-wrangler, plant and butterfly within the vicinity of the continually growing braid of trails was coated with, and often choking on a fine coat of volcanic soil pulverized to dust by the passage of zapatos, vibram soles, hooves and tires. The thought of the erosion that would carve and further scalp those steep slopes when the rains came brought immense anguish to Brower, Pyle, and many others of our party. Brower estimated that if the habitat destruction continued like that, the butterflies had perhaps five years.
Brower, the Aridjises, Pyle, the World Wildlife Fund, and countless other conservationists and biologists in Mexico and around the world are hard at work to find a way to preserve the butterflies' refuges and the campesinos' livelihood. To say that greed--of outlaw lumbermen--and a Byzantine corruption complicate the process and qualify this hope as they do in every such threatened extinction, is paltry understatement.
Everywhere on earth it is our species that needs to transform itself, to become as different from what we are now as the butterfly is different from the leaf-chewing caterpillar; as different as the milkweed fluff is from the starry flowers whose nectar feasts the Monarchs.