On being led

Sometimes out in nature, I feel as if I am being led to make discoveries. It doesn’t happen on every walk, but when it does you feel privileged and nudged toward discovery. And so it happened yesterday. I was busy about the property, doing things that had taken a back seat during busier times. Then I remembered the Monarch caterpillar I had been watching. The day before, it picked a spot under a Milkweed leaf and was found hanging in a J shape. Today, I hunted among all the green foliage and found the caterpillar hanging straight down with its feelers crinkled and useless. I knew a change was imminent, so went to get my digital camera. In the next few minutes, the caterpillar twisted out of its casing and eventually kicked free of its stripes. Now, green like the leaves that gave it cover, it wiggled and squirmed while holding fast to a thin, black connection. In time, this green chrysalis shortened and showed its decorative jewel-like spots. I feel privileged to have witnessed this change in the great outdoors, by chance.

I am not the most patient person in the world. I have watched a daughter "drop everything" to watch for hours in hopes of witnessing these changes. This time, I didn’t have to wait, because something led me to catch the caterpillar in the act of going into its resting stage. I wonder if I will be led to see its transformation into a butterfly? I shall be counting the days.

All of the above is more amazing because this year has seen precious few of these butterflies here in Maine. There was a flush of arrivals in late July, and I actually witnessed some egg laying out on the leaves in my milkweed patch. The eggs hatched in about a week, but the tiny caterpillars from that hatching succumbed to spiders. At the end of August, I discovered three large caterpillars that may have come from the same laying. One went into its J shape, but collapsed before forming a chrysalis. That caterpillar, and the one that was successful today, both chose a spot to make the change on the same plant that sustained the larvae. Usually, these caterpillars migrate to another obscure site to form their chrysalises. The third caterpillar cannot be found as of this writing.

I wonder how many of you have been looking unsuccessfully for these butterflies that have become a part of the late summer and fall experience? Several reasons have been given. Right up there at the top is report of a winter kill at their Mexican sanctuaries. In late February, an article in the NEW YORK TIMES detailed the extent of the damage with pictures of piles of frozen butterflies that had fallen from their roosts in trees and died. The devastation even spurred Mexican children to have ceremonial burials for the Monarchs. Those butterflies with identification patches were sought and sold to scientists who were recording the die-off. However, the article was not totally pessimistic since tourists and natives were able to see the surviving Monarchs flying and mating giving hope, if not the promise, of our seeing them (or their relatives) here in Maine.

Widespread spraying out of concern for the West Nile Virus has also resulted in the loss of migrating Monarchs. Last fall, dead butterflies were found after such spraying. It gives one pause.

In the world of nature, can we humans pick and choose which animals survive? Perhaps we can, but should we? I read a letter to the editor recently on just this subject with regards to deer. In areas where there is overpopulation, measures are being taken to reduce their numbers. In other words, kill them. A local island resident gave an ardent plea on behalf of letting nature take care of things, instead of humans stepping in to control the habitat. She concluded:

And so it is with the Monarchs. Their winter habitat is threatened by logging, let alone the vagaries of storms. I shall trust the Monarch to survive without interference here in Maine, and hope others will work to preserve the habitat they have chosen in Mexico. As I was led to witness the changes in one of the few butterflies who made it to Maine, let us all be open to the marvels of nature. Such leadings are our tickets to understanding and greater joy in life.

9/6/02 Ronnie