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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Regal Wings

(Written in October 2006)

There is a wondrous show taking place all around us on these late fall days, though we humans are often oblivious to being surrounded by such a magnificent stage. I have caught glimpses of the performers in many places. One flits over a stoplight at a busy intersection; another visits the bold yellow sunflowers basking in the afternoon sun of my garden. Still more drift through the busy parking lots of shopping centers, or pause to rest in trees along the sides of the highway. Some have a solo role and some act en masse. Their costumes are spectacular, self-made in an arduous process requiring weeks of preparation and patience. The silky fabric of their gowns glows in rich shades of pumpkin, gold and ebony. The sculpted sleeves are lined with tiny pearl beads that glisten like moonlight on water. These are dangerous parts to play for such fragile beings, but play them they must, for they know no other life but the great earthly stage. They will be assaulted by cold temperatures, predators, cars, and countless unknown perils, yet still they are consummate actors in this cosmic show. They will finish the production or die trying.

The players in this pageant are Monarch butterflies on their fall migration. Monarchs born in the late summer will outlive their spring counterparts by up to eight months, allowing them to make the great trek from North America to a dozen isolated and rare fir forests on the mountaintops just west of Mexico City. In this unique place, they will cluster in groups numbering in the hundreds or even thousands, and they will remain inactive until it is time to gather nectar and reproduce in the spring. These delicate faeries will never again see their birthplace. The adult Monarchs will usher in the children of the next generation only to send them northward on an ancestral road that leads to an endless cycle of death and rebirth.   

Another flash of color appears in the corner of my eye. This gentle little soul seems to float aimlessly past my car window, but I know it has a weighty purpose to its journey. To us, it may look like butterflies flitter and dance on rambling paths that have no direction. But like most arduous, life-changing expeditions, their courses are not straight; there are many twists, turns and stops along the way.  I wish I could know all of these winged thespians by name. I want to know what they see and feel as they take their place in a long line of actors in this natural drama. What is it like to undergo no less than four complete physical metamorphoses in the course of a short life, changing from egg to larva to pupa to full-fledged butterfly? How do I find my way thousands of miles to a place I have never been without a compass? Will I arrive to meet my brethren and continue the circle of life, or will I meet my end in the middle of a night with an unexpected frost, or lie broken-winged on the asphalt? Would I know and understand that I was born only to grow, transform, and die?

We humans, like all other animals and plants, also follow the butterfly way. We transform many times in our lives, both physically and emotionally. We come into this world and become part of a cycle that leads to our demise. It is strange to think that we are growing towards dying; these two processes seem opposed to one another. I wonder if the butterfly thinks about its purpose in life like we do. I wonder if the butterfly knows it is on a one-way course and feels despair. Perhaps the Monarch lives only for the journey, making the most of every stop on the path. She visits every flower to gather all the nectar she can; she flies when the temperature is right because tomorrow may bring a freeze. She accepts the seasons in life which call her to change, knowing that there is no other choice. Her only goal is to live for the purpose of living.

I watch the butterfly by my window fly off above a rooftop and out of sight. Sadness washes over me as I realize I will never see her again. She was like a flash of early morning sunshine through the trees – breathtakingly beautiful and fleeting. I wish I could know if this one would make the trip alone or would find companions on her adventure south. In my imagination, my winged friend safely arrives at her destination amidst a cloud of her relatives and friends. I thank her for visiting me and wish her well. I think she wished me the same.

© 2006 Olivia Herbert. All rights reserved. 

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