For a long time I thought of milkweed as a weird plant. I didn’t know what to make of its spongy pod that oozed a white sticky liquid if you squeezed when it was still green. Then, in the fall, the pods burst open, sending thread-fine feather seedlings off to propagate themselves in the fields I’d go walking in near my mom’s home in Ohio. By late November the pods became transformed into dry empty shells, dulled grey by the wind and sun. Milkweed stalks listed into the coming winter winds like drunks weaving this way and that as they stumbled down a city sidewalk.
My good friend Richard Dubé opened my eyes to its rightful place in the world. It was the summer of ’82. I’d just graduated from the University of Southern Maine with a degree in English literature. I fell back to my old ways and became, once again, a day laborer. I’d been pulling weeds in the back nursery at Lucas Tree Experts, where Richard worked as a landscape designer, and he’d come outside to see how I was doing. He pointed to a small cluster of milkweed plants, pods unopened, still green and standing tall.
“Do you know what I think of when I see milkweed?” he asked me.
Here, I should mention that Richard is a trained naturalist. He earned his degree in forestry at Hocking Technical College in southeastern Ohio. That’s where he met Mary, fell in love and got married. I missed their wedding, but they didn’t hold that against me. A few years later they moved to Maine, allowing my friendship with Richard to deepen with weekend hikes in the mountains of New Hampshire and western Maine, beach excursions on Cape Elizabeth, and regular bird-watching and botany walks at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth. Sometimes Mary would join us, but more often it would be just Richard and me ambling along with cameras or binoculars around our necks, ever alert to the possibility of the world revealing itself as wondrous strange. For me, those walks invariably were enriched by Richard’s impromptu lessons in botany.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “The pod looks like an Irish currach, the bunched seedlings like the scales of a fish. What about you?”
“Mexico,” he said.
“Mexico? How so?”
“The monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, is the only butterfly that migrates both north and south. For a long time no one knew where they spent the winter months. Now we know. They winter in the mountains of central Mexico. They fly there by the millions, clustering in colonies on pine and oyamel fir trees. They’re so thick the trees turn orange in color and branches sag from the weight.”
“What’s that got to do with milkweed?” I asked.
“Everything,” he said. “Without milkweed, monarchs wouldn’t exist. Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, is the principal food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars. It’s named after Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine and healing … which is interesting, because the milky latex in the leaves is a toxin. The caterpillars accumulate these toxins and when they turn into butterflies the toxins are concentrated in their wings and exoskeletons. Birds and other predators learn that the monarch butterflies taste bad. Sometimes they even vomit. Long story short: they avoid preying on monarchs.”
“OK, so milkweeds are good for monarchs. What’s the connection to Mexico?”
“That’s where they go for the winter, by the millions …”
That conversation took place almost 30 years ago. Even now, remembering the gist of it, the tingle of the epiphany I felt comes rushing back to me. My friend’s generous lesson might well be the first conscious understanding I had of the powerful reality of coevolution and the multiple networks that connect … well, everything.
“Milkweeds, monarchs and Mexico” became for me a shorthand reminder of how our world is, truly, one vast web of inter-being.
In ancient India, this understanding is conveyed by the beautiful image of “Indra’s net,” which stretches infinitely in all directions, with a single jewel glittering at each vertex, reflecting infinitely all the other jewels that are similarly strung like a galaxy of glittering stars. As above so below: delve into any small patch of earth, pick a plant or an insect or bird, and then follow the jewel-adorned threads of net outward and see where they might take you. Monarch butterflies ride the wind, making their way south to their wintering grounds in a volcanic mountain region of central Mexico; Indra, the god of rain and thunderstorms, is the “one who rides the clouds” or sometimes a white elephant. Which image requires more imagination to believe as true?
A good many years later my simplistic notion of the monarch’s migration from the milkweed fields of Maine to a small mountainside forest in Mexico took an unexpected leap into a deeper realm of mystery.
I’d been reading an article, probably in a National Geographic magazine, reporting that monarchs flying north from Mexico die long before it’s time to head back the next winter.
What that means is that the monarchs’ migration, both north and south, is completed by a different generation than the one beginning the journey -- four generations later, according to researchers.
Four generations, four different butterflies, each going through the four stages of the monarch’s life cycle: Egg, then larvae (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and adult butterfly. Four stages during one life cycle, and that life cycle goes through four generations in one year during the monarchs’ migration from, or to, Mexico. Truly, Indra’s net! Each generation of butterfly enjoys a life of about two to six weeks … except for the fourth generation. These butterflies, born in late summer or early fall, will live for up to eight months, time enough to make the long journey to Mexico, where they will hibernate, mate and die just as a new generation emerges to journey northward and start the cycle all over again.
Somehow, the map to the wintering grounds gets passed on to the generation that needs to find its way to where it all begins, or ends, take your pick. The monarchs’ migration is guided by an inborn genetic GPS system over thousands of miles, with fields of milkweed plants along the journey ripening just in time to provide essential food and cover for eggs and larvae as well as flowers for the emerging butterflies to pollinate.
Not quite a month ago, on March 14, a headline migrated into my computer courtesy of Common Dreams.org: “Herbicides for GMOs Driving Monarch Butterfly Populations to ‘Ominous’ Brink.” I felt like I’d just been told a dear friend was ailing, in the hospital, prognosis uncertain.
Too quickly I jumped to the conclusion that it had something to do with continued logging of the monarch colonies’ winter grounds in the Monarch Butterfly Special Biosphere Reserve. Created in 1986 to protect the forests they depended up, I knew that logging of the pine and oyamel fir trees has continued.
But the Common Dreams article cites a newer threat: The use of genetically modified crops in the American Midwest, accompanied by the intensive use of the milkweed-killing herbicide glysophate on 120 million acres of crops, according to staff writer Lauren McCauley.
A critical feeding ground — the milkweed plants growing up between millions of acres of soybean and corn — is being killed off because Monsanto has genetically modified the seeds of those crops to enable the mature crops to withstand extremely heavy doses of its glysophate herbicide, called Roundup. The corn and soybean genetically modified seed is called Roundup Ready; milkweed and other wild plants that flower and provide nectar to bees as well as butterflies have no such protection.
“Before Roundup-Ready crops, weed control was accomplished by running a tiller through those fields and chopping up the weeds and turning over the soil, but not affecting the crops,” Chip Taylor, a University of Kansas insect ecologist told Yale Environment 360. “The milkweed survives that sort of tillage to some extent. So there were maybe 20, 30, 40 plants per acre out there, enough so that you could see them … They have effectively eliminated milkweed from almost all of the habitat that monarchs used to use.”
The monarch colonies in Mexico that used to average 22 acres hit a record low of 2.9 acres this winter. Taylor estimates the monarchs’ population declined by 59% from the previous year. Along with bees, monarchs are one of the principal pollinating insects in North America. Bees are dying in record numbers as well.
Monsanto, meanwhile, is the beneficiary of a rider attached to a spending bill aimed at averting a government shutdown. Congress approved HR 933 and President Obama signed it into law on March 26. The rider, which seems fairly described as “The Monsanto Protection Act,” effectively bars federal courts from being able to halt the sale or planting of controversial genetically modified or genetically engineered seeds, no matter what health issues may arise concerning GMOs in the future. Many members of Congress say they were unaware of the rider when they approved the bill. A grassroots campaign is under way to strike down that 11th-hour rider.
Monarch butterflies are heading North in one of the world’s greatest migrations. How many will not find the food they need to complete the journey?
Indra’s net is being torn asunder.
how long … how long!
milkweeds, monarchs, Mexico
On Feb. 18 I saw my first V-shape flock of Canada geese honking overhead. I worried then they were heading north too early, but it now seems they already were in synch with the record-breaking temperatures that soon came our way. The National Weather Service office in Gray reports we had the warmest March on record, with the average temperature of 41.2 degrees being 7.7 degrees above normal. Portland had seven days with record warm temperatures, including six days in a row from the 19th through the 24th; it set a daily high record of 82 degrees on March 22 – the earliest date in the year for Portland to have reached 80 degrees or warmer.
If it’s that hot this soon how hot will it be come summer? And it wasn’t just me thinking those thoughts.
Edwin “Sonny” Colburn, an 80-year-old who’s been keeping track of such matters since 1947, told the Bangor Daily News the ice of Hancock County’s Beech Hill Pond went out on March 21. “It’s the earliest I’ve seen it go,” he told the BDN’s Tom Walsh. “I’ve never seen anything like this before. It used to be that fishing season didn’t start here until May, but you can pretty much fish year-round now.” Foresters worried about the lack of snowmelt and how dry the forests are already; on March 23 much of the state was placed on “red alert.” On the coast, clam diggers worried about an early arrival of “red tide,” the harmful algae bloom that arrives with warm water temperatures and causes clam flats to be closed for as long as it floats in and out with the tides.
I could do a Google search and find comparable statements about our warm spring from virtually any region of the United States. And what would I know? Facts, opinion, anecdotes … most of it limited to the human perspective.
Or I could go for a walk at the nearby Cathance River Nature Preserve in Topsham in search of other perspectives ... which is what I did on March 24, the first Saturday of spring.
It was a day in which the high temperature eventually hit 71 degrees. I knew even before I stepped foot inside the 235-acre preserve this would be an unscientific foray. Sadly, I don’t have a deep, grounded knowledge of nature in even my own backyard to be able to make scientific judgments of what’s going on. Unlike Henry David Thoreau — who precisely recorded in his Journals more than 150 years ago when the first buds appeared on dozens of trees, when the first flowers bloomed, when he heard the first calls of birds returning to his beloved Concord fields and forests — I can’t even name common plants, let alone know if they’re poking through the soil sooner or later than they normally would.
I walk the trails, then, aware of how much I don’t know. The only blessing of my ignorance is that it leaves me open to questions or insights I might learn from whatever catches my eye and speaks to my heart. In doing so, walk by walk, my understanding of a small corner of the world slowly grows.
Walking the Barnes’ Leap Trail, I come to a pond with silvery dead trees within its center and along its shore. It makes me think that beavers might have played a role in creating it. The ground I walk upon to get to the pond’s edge is spongy. I hear a call, not quite a frog’s “tronk, tronk” but also not a bird song I can easily identify. I stand still, hoping to hear it again: No sound other than the wind rustling through the pine boughs. If it is a frog I wonder if it has emerged from its frozen state too early ... whether the end of winter hibernation will coincide with the arrival of its food sources, whatever they might be. I do not know. I only have the question and the question underscores how little I know about the lives of my wild brothers and sisters.
ice out at the pond
a frog heard
but not seen
I come to the river; just a few weeks ago its banks had been lined with ice. Now it’s free-flowing, with green buds appearing on the trees lining its banks. Three mallards — two males and a female — paddle along the opposite shore. There doesn’t seem to be any competition going on between the males for the female mallard’s attention. I wonder “why not?” — spring, after all, being the time for procreation and perpetuating the species. There’s no fighting between the drakes, they escort the female without evident favoring by her of either one’s attentions. Could one of the males be of last-year’s offspring? Or, a lower-ranking drake waiting for his chance to mount the other drake’s mate? If that were so, wouldn’t the dominant drake be more aggressive? More questions without an answer. I follow the threesome upriver to see what might be revealed, but they apparently tire of me chasing after them and rise in flight, quacking, to a more private spot farther upstream.
three mallards paddling
— two with deep-blue wing bars —
tight buds tinge the trees
I proceed down the trail and hear the cheerful voice of an old friend, Maine’s state bird, the chickadee. Unlike the occasional “tsits” I’d hear during the winter, this bird’s song is cheery, a full-fledged “chicka-dee-dee-dee” sung repeatedly from a perch somewhere in the stand of trees to the right of the trail. I scan the bare branches and find my little chickadee at the peak of one of the tallest trees. Raising my camera to my eye and extending the telephoto lens to its full length, I discover it’s looking directly back at me, as curious, it seems, about me as I am about it. Chickadees, I know, survive the long cold winter by creating food cachés throughout their territory. Through a miracle of evolution, their brains actually expand in the fall, adding memory cells to help them recall the locations of all those cachés during the long cold winter months when a reliable food supply is critical to survival. Then, when warm weather returns and with it a plentiful mix of food sources, their brains shrink. Scientists speculate that this wipes the memory clean, which serves the adaptive purpose come fall of not confusing the chickadees about whether a caché is of this year or last year.
I wonder if that process of wiping the memory clean has already begun for chickadees in our Maine woods, triggered by the early arrival of summer weather. What if it’s too early, what then? My worries return, now in relation to my small blackcapped friend singing his heart out atop the budding tree. He does not appear burdened by any forethought of his own doom — which might be just as well.
“Here and now” is his motto. I struggle to make it my own, knowing full well that it does not absolve me from the responsibility of living in harmony with all my relations — and not just in the present but, as Native Americans so wisely understood, for the seven generations to come.
In other words: Do no harm.
But given how little I truly know about the world I live in, the way forward, it seems to me, will require humility, caution and compassion. Walking these woods along the Cathance River — as I've done frequently since last fall — I engage in a conversation with blackberry brambles and ferns, birches and beech trees, hemlocks and pines, chickadees and crows and all the other wild brothers and sisters who share this place with me with such dignity and grace.
ah, there! high in the tree!
staring back at me