botanicalmonarch.jpg (c) val webb 2007

Today I completed this gouache painting of a monarch butterfly. As I worked, I marveled at the beauty of this tenacious little creature. I live in Alabama near the Gulf of Mexico, directly on the monarchs’ migratory path. I have seen clouds of fluttering orange butterflies struggling out across the breakers, directly into the wind, headed for the distant horizon and their overwintering home in the mountains of southern Mexico. It seems miraculous to me that they can skim over the rough water for hundreds and hundreds of miles, often on the final leg of a 2,000-mile journey that began in August up near the Canadian border. Navigating by a mysterious combination of circadian rhythm and celestial reckoning, the monarch traces the route followed by millions of his ancestors before him. 

When I was a child, monarch season meant that our beaches were under an orange-and-black invasion for several weeks each autumn. The butterflies were everywhere. Today, the numbers have diminished to the point that the migration sometimes passes unnoticed… and, if a widely accepted climate model proves to be correct, the monarch may vanish entirely within the next 50 years. If my great-grandchildren never see America’s national insect (and, incidentally, Alabama’s state insect as well) it will be because two things happened:

First, the galloping development of waterfront real estate has eliminated the monarch’s sole food source. Milkweed, deemed a nuisance weed, is systematically eradicated during the landscaping process. The coastal “way stations” where butterflies rested before flying out to sea have become rare. Even worse, development brings indiscriminate spraying of herbicides and insecticides alike, and these poisons take a toll on the monarch population.

The second threat to the monarch’s survival is climate change. The butterflies require cool, dry conditions to survive their winter months in the highlands of Mexico — but scientists predict a climate shift that would dump increasing amounts of rain on the dormant monarchs. Already, changing weather patterns have brought unprecedented freezing winter rains to the monarchs’ Mexican forests. Soaked butterflies die off quickly in the chilly mountain air; two years ago a storm killed 70 percent of overwintering monarchs. Combine the destabilized climate with frequent illegal logging of the fir groves where they winter, and you have a recipe for butterfly disaster. Several respected researchers estimate that the last monarchs could be gone for good by 2050, when precipitation levels in their winter home are predicted to triple.

There’s a great deal to admire in the monarch: beauty, persistence, the ability to transform oneself and emerge to take on the wide world. Here is an ideal symbol of renewal and fresh hope — the hope that we can find equitable ways to save some milkweed,  save some Mexican mountain fir trees, save a remarkable buttefly species for our children’s children to know and to love.