Originally published in the Cannon Falls Beacon on August 29, 2018.
The thing about writing The Local Wild is that I have to keep my eyes peeled for wilderness at all times in all places. Wilderness doesn’t start at the ambiguous “over there” and end “here” at the border of human civilization, as if the collective Local Wild is conscious of property lines like a good neighbor. Indeed, the wild and our human world overlap in varying shades of density, so it’s worth keeping an eye out in case we humans have an opportunity to be good Samaritans to our local wild cohabitants.
So here we are, nearing the end of another precious summer season and another season of the monarch butterfly. A recent close encounter with one of these royal jewels of the order Lepidoptera (the animal classification of butterflies and moths) has left me bittersweet: sweet because what a rare honor to experience this majestic insect close up, and bitter because these beautiful butterflies are dwindling in number, year by year. Who knows if my 10-month-old son will ever get to touch another one.
In fact, their numbers have dropped near 90% in the last 20 years and, according to Wildlife.org, “In 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) was petitioned to protect the monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act.” A decision about the monarch’s status will be made in June 2019.
(Update, 31May2019: USFWS has extended this deadline to December 15, 2020. More can be read HERE.)
Though overall numbers have been dwindling, I live on property with lots of milkweed growing around so I’ve seen a handful of monarchs flit around my home. (Milkweed is the only plant monarchs lay their eggs on because it’s the only plant their caterpillars eat; the butterflies, however, will drink the nectar of any number of flowers.) According to MinnesotaSeasons.com, Mexico-bound monarchs will have vacated the state by the end of October; the next, north-bound migration won’t happen until May. That said, what we’re seeing now is probably the final generation of monarch butterflies to cross through our local wilderness until next year.
When I was with my son on a trip to Menard’s last week I noticed something orange on the ground in a cart corral, flittering amidst a pile of asphalt dust and pebbles. That thing was an injured monarch butterfly. It had a leg missing, a wing torn, and the right wing set was inverted (the “bottom” wing lay beneath the “top” wing). I surmised the creature had been hit by a car (hey, it happens) and was either blown by the wind or crawled itself into the cart corral for shelter.
I gently scooped up the winged treasure and—after a brief educational moment for my son—put her (Yes, her. I Googled it.) in my passenger front seat with plans to deposit her on our hillside of milkweed and wildflowers, a more appropriate setting than a dusty parking lot. Never did I expect to have royalty riding shotgun with me, but there it was! I couldn’t help but take a picture.
A couple days later, walking down our driveway, I spotted a smaller, rarer treasure inching its way along the broad leaf of a milkweed plant: a monarch caterpillar! To see one in the flesh gave me hope for the species, offered encouragement to keep mowing around the milkweeds as much as a hassle as it was, and to even purchase milkweed seed to plant in groves around our property.
But it doesn’t take living in a rural area to notice nature and reap its benefits. A Canadian study found that just taking a few moments to notice nature—like a tree at the bus stop, dandelion flowers growing in a sidewalk crack, or a butterfly stranded in a cart corral!—can drastically improve your well-being.
So, with only a few weeks left to get a glimpse of these amazing creatures, I say now is the time to really take in this gem of the local wild before they either move on to warmer pastures or dwindle off the wildlife map completely. I encourage everyone to pay attention to their surroundings—even when we’re in the midst of our busiest day in an urban setting—because you never know what local wild is hiding out nearby in need of help or just in need of being noticed, for their and our sake.
*Author’s Final Note: If you’re considering purchasing milkweed seed to help the monarch, be sure to purchase types that will survive Minnesota’s harsh climate. Visit GrowMilkweedPlants.com for information and ordering of a variety of colors, from pink to orange to fuchsia!