I’m not a morning person, but I get up early and go outside to my Florida back yard where the air is humid and heavy even before the sun comes up. I’m eager to see what magic has happened during the night, what new mystery reveals itself.
I’m raising monarch butterflies. I didn’t start on purpose. I’m not a butterfly fanatic and I never have been. No orange and black ink will be needled into my skin. But I am taken with these mysterious creatures and the science at work in every one of their incarnations.
Each time they change, they leave something behind.
The caterpillar crawls out of its egg. Then the caterpillar sheds its cuticle and leaves it behind four times more, the last time pupating into a smooth green chrysalis suspended in the air. The butterfly emerges from its chrysalis, leaving the veneer behind. When I release butterflies into the warm air and they fly high up into the magnolia tree or bamboo to stop and get their bearings, do they leave all memory of me behind? I expect they do. I like the symmetry.
A monarch is with me, from egg to butterfly, for only a month or less. It seems like a long time. It seems like it all goes by so fast.
I started a cutting garden, inspired by the vases of garden-fresh cut flowers that kept popping up in homes all over Ireland when I visited in May. When I got back and intentionally started a garden that would include flowers whose nectar would attract butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds, I unintentionally started something else. Only a couple of weeks in to tending my new back yard garden, where I’d never seen a monarch butterfly, a dozen or more brightly-colored caterpillars shocked me with their presence. I learned they were monarchs, which pleased me. A few days later, I learned the gravity of what I’d done, because by then nearly all the caterpillars were gone.
Milkweed is not just the only plant monarch caterpillars eat, it’s the only plant monarch butterflies lay their eggs on.
I didn’t know that when I planted it.
I’d planted milkweed next to a sizable bed of African irises, rife with lizards. Lizards eat monarchs, I found out. The world monarch population, I also learned, decreased by ninety percent in the past two decades. Monarchs may officially be named an endangered species next year. Not knowing any of this when I planted my flowers, I’d placed the plant that is the source of life for monarchs in the middle of a caterpillar danger zone. If I hadn’t planted milkweed in my back yard, those butterflies would be laying their eggs in a place where they’d be more likely to survive.
I decided to help the caterpillars that I put in harm’s way, embarking on a learning journey that is still not over. I came up with “Mother G’s Milkweed B and B” as a hashtag for Instagram. I’ve taken thousands of photos. I can look back and see the progress I’ve made in learning to care for them. I’ve come a long way.
People ask why I started raising butterflies. I tell them what I’ve already told you: I’m doing it because I accidentally started a monarch population in my back yard, and I feel a responsibility to mitigate the damage to them; precious few eggs make it to the butterfly stage anyway.
That’s true, without question. But is that the only reason I’m doing this?
The monarchs are on a list that includes my two adopted rescue kitties, four palm trees I grew from seeds that I snuck out of a special palm forest in Hawaii, and, of course, the flowers I cultivated. If the list has a title, what is it? “Things I Do to Fill the Hole?” No, that’s too dramatic. “I’m Lonely?” No, that’s not true. “I Can’t Stick with a Hobby?” Nope, even though I have ADD, so it could be true (but definitely isn’t– my kitties and palms and flowers all thrive in my care).
I’m a nurturer. I need to have someone or something to care for. I have four children because I wanted four children. Being their mother is the thing I am most proud of about myself, and it means more to me than everything else I have ever done.
By my clock, I should have grandchildren. My children are 31, 30, 29, and 26. Two of them are married and another will be soon, but I don’t have grandchildren yet. I love children, and I certainly want grandchildren, but I don’t want them before my children are ready to have children. There’s a balance here that I understand. My needs don’t come first. People say things like that without meaning them, I know. But I was tested.
A few years ago, a doctor incorrectly diagnosed me with cancer before the biopsy results were back. In the days that I believed I had either breast cancer or lymphoma, I told my son and daughter-in-law not to dare think of having a baby just because I had cancer. “I’m going to beat cancer,” I told them, “so you have plenty of time to have kids.” I thought a second and smiled. “But if I die, I’ll be gone, and I won’t miss you or your child. I’ll be dead!” My children laughed before I continued, “You’d have to live with having a child before you were ready.” My son and daughter-in-law looked at each other nervously, and she said “We did talk about it.” I meant it when I let them off the hook, and I’m glad they welcomed it because they’d already had the wisdom to know that difference.
For the foreseeable future, my kitties and palms and flowers and these remarkable, magically-metamorphosing creatures are enough. The monarchs give me bona fide reasons for saying “awesome” every day. I can prove it to you. I have thousands of photos.
Releasing the butterflies doesn’t cause me the selfish pain I felt when my children first started moving away. My children were adults going after their dreams. I raised them hopefully, with the wish that they would be happy adults, and that’s what they were being. Maybe they were each leaving something behind that they must in order to survive. I came to realize that they deserved their happiness and my encouragement; I held back my tears and gave them two thumbs up when they drove away, one by one, in moving trucks.
With the monarchs, it’s not like that.
As I walk with an arm out, one of these beautiful creatures tickling my hand, I know the butterfly has never been mine, and I will never see it again– and I’m okay with that. They were never meant to be with me, and I never expected them in the first place. I know, from the beginning, that I may never see them to this point. I certainly know I will never see them again. It’s a lot of work to get to the time to release, but there are no tears or pain. It’s a huge bonus in my life, purely uplifting.
I clap and giggle and get goosebumps when a butterfly flits from my hand into the blue sky of my Florida back yard. Go, little monarch, I think. Go all the way to Mexico.
Update: All four of my children are married. My first grandson was born in May 2020, and my second grandson was born in October 2020 I’m one happy Nana! I’m still raising monarchs. I looked forward to teaching my grandchildren about them and releasing butterflies together, but my eldest grandson at a year and a half old cringed and leaned away when I showed him a caterpillar. He did the same when I had a monarch butterfly on my hand. But when it flew off, his big blue eyes got even bigger, so there may be hope.
If you enjoyed reading this, you might also enjoy Arin Greenwood’s “My Time with Mona: Three Days Caring for a Dying Butterfly.”