We have devalued the word “awesome” to mean something between good and great. If a perfect pizza or clever Netflix series is now “awesome,” witnessing tens of thousands of Canadian monarch butterflies fluttering among the pines of the Mexican state of Michoacán is cosmic. Transcendental as if making eye contact with evolution.
I don’t know the sound of one hand clapping, but I do now know the sound of thousands of butterflies flapping. When the sun comes out from behind a cloud and the clusters of monarchs hanging from the trees warm up enough to fly, they take to the air and sound like a light rain in a whispering breeze.
The butterflies we saw in Mexico are the “super generation” that comes all the way down from Canada. It takes four shorter-lived generations to return.
Just imagine that! Witnessing this natural miracle is awesome in the original sense of the word. Awe inspiring.
Speaking of monarchs, our butterfly pilgrimage coincided with the holiday known in Spanish as “Reyes,” or “Epiphany” in English. Reyes celebrates the three kings from the Orient who visited the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. Santa Claus is a relatively minor player in Mexico, where the Reyes are king. The kings deliver the presents and have rock star status.
After visiting the forest to see the butterflies, we visited in the small “pueblo mágico” of Angangueo the evening the kings arrived in the central plaza. When we lived in a rich village near Barcelona , we saw kings arrive by helicopter. Here, in a less prosperous part of the world, a former silver mining village that depends on a few months of butterfly tourism for its livelihood, the kings arrive on the back of a pickup truck to a loudspeaker blaring kiddie Christmas songs by Alvino and the Mexican Chipmunks.
Kids were everywhere as the kings threw footballs and futbols (a.k.a. soccer balls) into the adoring crowd. After the initial excitement, the kings and the older faithful went to mass while the kids turned the plaza into an elaborate kickball pitch.
Angangueo was a silver mining town whose dangerous livelihood gradually was destroying the watershed and forests. While seasonal tourism has not replaced the jobs lost, it now supplements and helps to sustain the region.
Reyes/Epiphany marks the end of Christmas festivities. The butterflies, however, are here until late March. Enlightened decisions and conscious actions are needed or the monarchs’ reign will end.
Illegal deforestation in and around the protected reserves still put the butterfly terminus at risk. Climate change and herbicides that destroy the life-sustaining milkweed endanger the beautiful insects along their northern route. These amazing monarchs are everyone’s responsibility.
Seeing the monarch migration was like touching the beating heart of Mother Nature. I hope we humans are noble enough to protect these delicate and intrepid travelers.
R.S. Gompertz is a native of Southern California who currently lives and writes in Seattle. He recently completed a tour of Mexico and South America during which he spent several weeks in Cuenca, to which he hopes, someday, to return to live. His most recent book, “Life’s Big Zoo,” is available on Amazon. For more information about his life, work and travels, click here.