Recently, my sister Susan who lives in North Carolina, sent me a photograph of her newly planted Milkweed bed. It boasted six young Milkweed plants lined up in two neat rows. She and her husband Tim had sent away for the plants as part of a grassroots effort to help save the Monarch butterflies.
“I became involved in this dilemma after reading the novel The Butterfly’s Daughter last year,” Susan said.
“Will the Monarchs be able to find your plants?” I asked.
“We’ve been told they will. A sort of ‘plant them and they will come’ kind of thing.”
We grew up in a family of six in Northern Illinois. We lived in a split-level home that sat alongside a small, undeveloped stretch of wild prairie. Wildflowers grew in abundance. Each summer produced Bachelor Buttons, Black-Eyed Susans, Thistles, Goldenrod, Queen Anne’s Lace and Milkweed. Monarchs were commonplace. I remember in the early fall we would look out on our yard and see hundreds of Monarchs clinging to the Forsythia bushes. They might stay for a few hours or a day or two before flying away, followed by a few stragglers that came along every few days after the first sighting. I have always known they migrated but never thought much about them or considered where they were heading.
When we first moved to the lake, thirteen years ago this month, I was out walking with my children and we came across some Queen Anne’s Lace.
“Queen Anne was sewing some lace and she pricked her finger with the needle, causing a single drop of blood to fall onto the lace,” I explained, pointing to the single crimson flower at the center of the white lacy plant.
“How did she bleed on all of them?” my then six-year-old daughter had asked.
“It’s just folklore,” I said as I spied some Milkweed. I hadn’t seen any since I moved from the Midwest.
“Look at this,” I said, breaking open one of the pods and revealing the soft white substance resting inside. “Seeds.”
“It feels like silk,” my son said. He pulled the fine threads apart and we watched them float into the wind.
My book club is currently reading Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. The book is high on scientific information about Monarchs and climate change, which is fed to the reader through human drama. Kingsolver draws heavy parallels between the plight of the Monarch and human choices. It’s unpleasant to read about the world falling apart. Losing the Monarchs is a symptom of those choices.
I actually hadn’t thought about Milkweed since that first time we stumbled upon it, so I set out on my morning walk in search of it. Today, I didn’t find any. I also only found three Queen Anne’s Lace plants. Three? And the three I did find didn’t even hold the red drop of queen’s blood.
I felt so obtuse that I hadn’t noticed less wildflowers growing around the lake until I read Kingsolver. I called my sister back.
“I don’t think we have Monarchs here. I’ve never seen any.”
“If you used to have Milkweed then Monarchs were there,” she said. “Plant some and they’ll come back.” She told me where to order the plants.
When I look out at my lake from the deck, my world seems visually beautiful. It’s hard to believe from my vista that nature is out of balance, but intellectually I know it is.
It reminds me of the words of the baboon Rafiki from The Lion King.
The truth is I want to find the drop of queen’s blood inside the lace in abundance and I want bright orange Monarchs to pass through my yard and light on a Milkweed plant.