Today I released monarch #25 into the back garden. She sat for a few minutes on the purple bloom of a butterfly bush, testing her wings, then fluttered up into the upper branches of the tulip poplar.
Raising the beautiful orange-and-black butterflies has been one of my summer projects. The caterpillars appear in the milkweed patch we planted this spring, hatching from eggs laid there by the adult butterflies. I bring them into the house and put them in an enclosure, where they feast on milkweed until it’s time to turn into a chrysalis and emerge 8-10 days later in their final form.
Monarchs, of course, migrate to Mexico for the winter. In our area, the last two weeks of September are the busiest in butterfly world, as the final members of what is known as the “migration generation” finish their transformations and begin the long trek south. These butterflies live longer than other summer generations, often eight to nine months compared to two to six weeks.
There are currently an additional 15 chrysalides hanging in what we have dubbed Hotel Monarch. If all eclose (that’s the fancy word for “hatch”) successfully, we will have helped add 40 monarchs to the world. Every time one of them emerges from its chrysalis, I am amazed by it. I still don’t even begin to understand the process by which an egg becomes a caterpillar, which then essentially turns itself into a bag of green goo that then transforms into a butterfly. All in the span of about a month. I’ve read about it a little, but honestly, I still think it’s sorcery of some kind.
Somewhat disheartening is the estimate that fewer than five percent of monarch eggs ever become butterflies. Many become food for other creatures, succumb to weather conditions, or simply have a miscoding in their genetics that short-circuits the process. Then there’s the strange phenomenon in which adult butterflies, having miraculously survived all of these challenges, fly straight into the grille of an oncoming Nissan Sentra.
Watching the number of chrysalides in Hotel Monarch dwindle is both rewarding and a little sad. I will be relieved to see #40 off to Mexico, but it also means that summer is winding down. The autumn equinox—the official start of fall—is not far off. The gardens are fading. It’s dark when I take the dogs out in the morning. The bees are filling the hives with honey to get them through the winter. Already, most of the boisterous group of hummingbirds that have been here all summer have departed.
The hummingbirds’ leaving is particularly difficult for me, as they have spent the days buzzing around the feeder I got in memory of my sister Nancy, who passed the first week of July. Their absence reminds me that she has been gone for more than two months already. I don’t understand how this is possible. Then again, I still sometimes can’t believe that there’s a world without her in it. Twice now I have sent her messages on Facebook about something I thought she would love, only to then remember that she wouldn’t be responding.
If asked, I always name autumn as my favorite season. There is so much to love about it: the cool weather, the smell of woodsmoke in the air, the thrill of Halloween, being able to wear flannel shirts and wool socks again, my birthday, even the annual furor over pumpkin spice everything. But fall is also a time of endings, of leavings, of approaching cold and dark. This year I feel that more strongly than ever before. My sister is gone. A good friend and neighbor is soon to move away. And then there are the collective losses we all feel as part of this endless pandemic.
I am an inveterate list maker. Right now, I am looking at one that says, “Fall To-Do.” It includes chores like paint the beehives, dig drainage ditch in back yard, clean gutters, and mulch rose bed. Almost everything on it is about putting our little world to sleep for the winter. I even bought the dogs a stack of new fleece blankets because they’ve begun nesting under them at night. Tomorrow, I will remove the air conditioner from the bedroom window and make an appointment to have the chimney swept so that we can use the wood stove.
I know that the coming season of dark and cold is necessary for life to return in the spring. Plants need to sleep. Animals and birds and insects need to follow the ancient cycles of death and rebirth. It’s all part of the plan. I, too, need a time of quiet. And so I’ll wave goodbye to summer and wish it well until we meet again. Until then, I’ll wait in my cocoon, dreaming of what I might become, ▼
Michael Thomas Ford is a much-published Lambda Literary award-winning author. Visit Michael at michaelthomasford.com.
Photo by Meritt Thomas on unsplash.com