Farewell to Monarchs

[This is a bittersweet time of year. The garden has never been so bountiful, but with a fragility that lets you know that it won’t be long. And you know what lies ahead. So do the hummingbirds and the monarchs. A frenzy of feeding is followed by a silent departure. Suddenly … one day … there they are … gone. Bryan Pfeiffer is a Vermont-based writer/photographer, whose newsletter Chasing Nature is published on Substack. https://chasingnature.substack.com/ SB SM]

by Bryan Pfeiffer

September 8, 2023

Monarchs on Monhegan Island / © Bryan Pfeiffer

ALTHOUGH IT IS ONE of the most intrepid animals on Earth, a Monarch really has no business at sea. The sea is for gulls and gannets, whales and sharks, and by no means a butterfly weighing no more than a few drops of saltwater.

In the event of a water landing, well, actually there is no water landing for a butterfly — only death. Which is why it was odd and yet wonderful to encounter 200 Monarchs in a meadow of purple asters and yellow goldenrods on an island, called Monhegan, 11 miles at sea in the Gulf of Maine here in North America.

Monarchs in September have better things to do than dance among wildflowers on a tiny island, not the least of which is to fly south for winter. A million years of evolution was directing the butterflies to leave their flowers, to launch out to sea southwest on a journey they had never undertaken, a migration guided by the winds and the sun and the Monarchs’ genetic memory and destiny, a journey of 2,400 miles toward wintering grounds in Mexico.

brown and black butterfly perched on yellow and red petaled flower closeup photography
Photo by Leonardo Jarro on Pexels.com

But the Monarchs did not leave Monhegan Island that day. Headwinds from the south bottled them up near the shoreline, where they floated around and sipped nectar from their flower patch, which measured only about 15 meters in diameter. Wayward Monarchs happen all the time on Monhegan, but in a quarter-century of my visiting the island never had I seen them like this. 

So there beside the bonfire of orange, yellow and purple I stopped to consider my options. I had two:

Option One would be to photograph the butterflies for my work as a field biologist (yeah, I actually get paid to take pictures of butterflies). 

Option Two would be to catch as many of the Monarchs as I could in my net and tag them with little stickers so that their journey could be tracked as part of a community science research project. (I’ve had four tagged Monarchs make it to Mexico.)

Each option — employment or science — seemed worthy. So which did I choose?


Instead, slowly, gradually, into the lovely flames I waded. And once inside, one among Monarchs, I dropped to my knees and looked around. Nothing else — just me and the flowers and the fluttering. And only then, when neither my camera nor my net mattered, did intellect give way to the utter joy of these butterflies.

Recalling it now makes me think of something E.B. White said: “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem,” White told The New York Times in 1969: “But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

I had planned my day on the island. I carried a camera and a net. But once I stopped to be with the butterflies, and to be nothing else, there was no plan. The Monarchs went from being data to being an experience. Rather than things to photograph or to catch and tag, the Monarchs reverted to wonder: a congregation of butterflies in a flowery meadow beside the sea. 

In the meadow I became the migration. I found myself immersed in one of the great events in all of nature: the audacious journey toward Mexico of a gossamer insect weighing less than a summer breeze.

To save or to savor. I’m not as conflicted as E.B. White. I’ll opt for both. At one point while sitting in the meadow, I looked up and outward, southwest across the Atlantic. I imagined a lone Monarch at sea cutting a flight path toward Mexico. That’s when the world got a bit smaller, more worthy of saving. It also stopped spinning so fast. And while savoring that moment, I needed absolutely nothing else at all.

Nature essays like this one don’t grow on trees. They come from my decades as a field biologist and writer. Your paid subscription supports my work and keeps Chasing Nature available to everyone. Thanks!

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