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The Journey of a Thousand Wings
As I gently turn over the pungent, sticky milkweed leaf, I scour the green expanse for something that is invisible to the untrained eye. It is something so insignificant to humanity, yet so vitally important for the entire natural world. While to most individuals my hunt would be considered irrational, I am acutely aware of the treasure that lies on the soft bottoms of the milkweed’s foliage. Suddenly, I spot it: my search has come to an end.
The egg is miniscule. Engulfed by the leaf and overlooked by predators, this tiny organism’s entire being is capsulated in an area that is smaller than a grain of rice. It is the egg of the monarch butterfly. I gaze in awe at my find; suddenly, images of what this creature would someday become flash through my head: a squirming, helpless, baby caterpillar, a hopeful, resting, chrysalis…and then a magnificent butterfly. The sweet spring breeze gently ushers my mind back to the present, and I carry my treasure inside.
The true butterfly enthusiast is my sister; I have always shied away from her small, crawling friends. However, the monarch is one creature that has sparked my interest over the years. Its short yet dynamic life is marked with constant change, growth, and struggle. Its appearance does not remain constant for more than a few weeks; the caterpillar, once transformed into a butterfly, is practically unidentifiable from its previous state. Over the past four or five years, my sister Lizzie has raised and released hundreds of monarchs. The eggs, which she searches diligently for in milkweed fields, are nurtured to adulthood in boxes in our house. The lifecycle has occurred countless times in our household, but each time is equally awe inspiring.
The beginning of a monarch’s life is monumental; if the egg even survives to caterpillar-hood it is considered lucky. Monarch females lay numerous eggs in varying locations to ensure that at least a few of her offspring will survive. Hidden underneath the leaves of milkweed plants, the eggs are somewhat protected from the elements. However, the tiny specks are no match for predators and the harsh forces of nature. To some extent, each egg that survives is a miracle. The monarch’s eggs, fetuses without the protection of their mother’s body, are the weakest, most helpless creatures that exist on this earth. Disadvantaged by their size and their immobility, the eggs are at the mercy of the rest of the world. My sister saves these vulnerable babies from the outside earth, placing them in the assured comfort of our warm and element-free sanctuary. The eggs have made it past the storm, for now.
“Katie! Look at my baby caterpillars!”
My bubbling sister is clutching a small container in her outstretched hand. I peer at the contents of it, squinting my eyes in order to view the cause of her excitement. Hidden on the corner of a milkweed leaf, I spot a squirming, wriggling, creature not much larger than its egg. Its black head is the only visible part of its body; the caterpillar itself is an opaque white color. I scan the rest of the container and spot three more tiny miracles; each one struggling in its new body, adapting to existence in the real world. I smile and congratulate Lizzie for another batch of life’s little wonders. The caterpillars will be busy for the next few days eating the plant they were born on, milkweed. Milkweed is the host plant of monarch butterflies, meaning that it is the caterpillar’s only food source (Monarch Butterfly USA). The female Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed in order to ensure that their caterpillars will have food when they are born. While one milkweed leaf may be sufficient for these tiny caterpillars now, in the near future it will be hardly enough for their raging appetites. Over the next few weeks, I occasionally observe the growing caterpillars. Their growth is substantial; each caterpillar had doubled in size in just a few days. Their appearance gradually begins to resemble that of the stereotypical caterpillar and not just a wriggling worm smaller than a grain of rice. Their container is quickly outgrown; it is replaced with a plastic Tupperware box with poked holes at the top for air supply. The milkweed supply also quickly increases as the caterpillars munch their way through more and more leaves. I am amazed at the vitality of these petite creatures. They are fabulous entertainers; (although unknowingly), their attempts to climb the sides of their box never lose their humor, and their atrocious rate of consuming milkweed never ceases to amaze me. However, the caterpillars do not remain that way for long. There is a method to their absurd eating madness, after all. While in a chrysalis, the caterpillar is unable to eat; therefore, it must live on the food storage that it reserved when it was a caterpillar.
As I am walking past the Tupperware containers filled with growing caterpillars one day, my eye is caught by the sight of a caterpillar hanging upside down on the top of the container. I pause to observe his pursuit; the building of the chrysalis is an instinctual act, an occurrence that I am constantly amazed by. Wriggling from his upside down position, the caterpillar is weaving a protective cocoon around himself with strong silk strands that are produced in his body. I am aware that the process is a rather long one, so I leave the laboring caterpillar to work. I know that when I return home from school he will have finished his task, his body no longer struggling but resting contentedly from his perch.
I was correct. I smile to myself as I gaze upon the light green chrysalis that hangs above the rest of the caterpillars, a symbol of regeneration and metamorphosis. My smile fades, however, as my eyes fall upon the shrunken body of a still caterpillar. His body lies quietly in a curled up position; I know immediately that he has died. The sadness that comes with the death of a caterpillar is a bittersweet reality; not every caterpillar will make it to be a beautiful, free, butterfly. No matter how much milkweed is provided, or how comfortable the living conditions are, there will always be the unlucky ones. I solemnly alert my sister to the occurrence, and leave her to bury the poor creature. I restore my hope as I once more glance upon the shimmering chrysalis, its very presence is a sign that something wonderful is yet to come, if I just wait.
Over the next few days, more and more caterpillars begin their journey to adulthood by weaving their own chrysalises. Their quiet, peaceful hanging replaces the lively group of young eating machines that were once below. Each chrysalis varies in size; this is an indicator of the size of the butterfly that will eventually emerge. The chrysalis stage is one of waiting. The caterpillars rest in their undisturbed perches until they are ready to become a bigger, better, more beautiful creature. I wonder to myself as I look at the sea of green chrysalises what the caterpillars must be thinking. Are they frightened? Lonely? Content? I then place myself in their position. My paper thin patience would not last long in such a situation; especially hanging upside down.
Over time, the chrysalises begin to change color. Their greenish luster is replaced by a clear, revealing shade of white. The excitement of the near future hits me when I view the curled up orange and black wings of the newly formed butterfly through its opaque chrysalis. Only a little while longer now, I think to myself. However, with time come more losses. The dark, blackened chrysalises that were attacked by disease or pests hang somberly; their life sucked away from them like the night sweeps away the daylight. These caterpillars will never again see the world; their quest for transformation was cut short by unfortunate events. The death of a chrysalis instills the most sadness in me out of all the stages. The sudden sever of such a beautiful, hopeful process is tragic. I like to think that every caterpillar that is lost while in a chrysalis ventures to heaven as a magnificent butterfly, liberated of all worldly plights. For now, the dead chrysalises are removed from their solemn death beds, their souls making their way towards butterfly heaven.
It is happening. The long wait has ended; slowly, surely, the newly transformed butterflies break through their chrysalises like daffodils peeping through spring soil. Lizzie, my mother, and I gather around the Tupperware box; our eyes are glued to the event unfolding before us. In my head, I urge on the fighting creatures to push harder, to keep trying to break through the barriers of their chrysalises. The suspense is broken as one lucky butterfly emerges; his wet wings plastered to his body and his antennae crumpled. I can’t help but compare this butterfly to a newborn baby; pushed out of his protective home and into a strange new world. The butterfly shakes its small and new body, attempting to stretch his fresh wings. They are still useless, so he sits quietly and waits for them to dry. We give the adjusting creature some space, knowing that he would soon stretch his wings and fly.
“Come on guys! I’m letting the butterfly go!”
Lizzie holds the energetic young monarch on her hand, his wings completely dried and ready to fly. We travel outside into the warm spring air and say goodbye to the precious butterfly. Suddenly, without notice, he takes flight. Up, up, and up into the blinding sunlight he flutters until he is out of our sight. It is a joyous occasion when a butterfly stretches his wings for the first time; it somehow instills a sense of contentedness with the world in me. Another butterfly released successfully. We continue to gaze wistfully at the spot where our liberated butterfly exited our realm of sight and entered the expansive sky, straining our eyes in the midday sun. Chances are we will see him again soon, flitting freely about our gardens without a worry in the world. As we turn around to go back inside, I wonder what it is like to fly away.
As the months pass, spring blooms into summer; the air transitions from a warm tickle to a scorching heat and the trees glow vibrantly with green pigment. It is a season of life; it is a season of growth and flourishing; it is a season of change. As the barbecues, the pool parties, the vacations and the laughter thrive, so do the monarch butterflies. The life cycle is at its peak; caterpillars crowd the Tupperware containers creating a sea of green and black creatures fighting for food. The chrysalises watch silently from above; their quiet presence is almost kingly; they rule over the immature peasant caterpillars without even moving. Each day more and more caterpillars transition to their next stage of life, whether it is chrysalis or butterfly, and the amazing cycle of monarch-hood continues. All too quickly the warm summer air becomes brisk; the night begins to steal daylight earlier and earlier; the pools begin to close and anticipation for a new school year begins. With the changing air come even more dynamic changes for the last generation of monarch butterflies, a generation genetically different than their summer ancestors. This generation is shrouded in biological mystery, mystery that scientists still cannot decode.
Each year at the time when summer is ending and fall is beginning, thousands of monarch butterflies migrate south to Mexico for the winter. Their flight ranges anywhere from one to three thousand miles; the journey is long and strenuous. The migration of the monarch butterfly is an extraordinary one; researchers are not certain how the butterflies know to migrate south, but they continue to do so year after year. It is the last generation of the summer that will make the journey; only the butterflies born at the close of summer will migrate. The transitioning weather triggers a biological change in these last generation butterflies; they defy their normally short life spans and live to see the spring. Upon arriving at their destination, these butterflies cluster in extraordinarily large groups. Their presence is as effervescent as a mural; a living, breathing mural that covers acres upon acres of land. An organization called Monarch Watch provides a tracking service for these butterflies. Butterfly raisers such as my family place small stickers printed with an identification number onto the wings of each butterfly released. In Mexico, citizens receive a monetary reward for finding and reporting a butterfly with such a sticker. The butterflies found are then recorded and published on Monarch Watch’s website. Lizzie and my mother have been members of the Monarch Watch organization for a few years now, and have tagged and released numerous butterflies. Each year at around late August, the tagging begins. It is a process of excitement; it is a time filled with hopes that one of our precious butterflies will make it to Mexico and complete their long journey intact.
Lizzie and my mother are hunched over the kitchen table, focusing intently on a small struggling butterfly. Upon closer inspection, I realize they have begun the annual monarch tagging process. Each sticker must be placed carefully on the inside of the butterfly’s wing so as not to harm them. The task is tedious; the butterfly wings are extremely delicate and therefore must be handled with utmost care. As the stickers are placed, the identification code is recorded on an official log sheet which will eventually be mailed to Monarch Watch. I did not always understand the significance of the tracking project, or the monarch migration. However, I am now aware of how important these tiny creatures really are, and how their lives can reveal so much about biology that will never be discovered elsewhere. I lean over my sister’s shoulder at the small butterfly, flapping its wings in resistance. I wonder if this creature realizes how important his life is, how unique his purpose is. I wish him the best of luck as Lizzie gently opens the door and he flutters away with the wind.
In my sixteen years of life, I have grown from a crying, seven pound, baby to a quiet, five foot seven inches young woman. While my growth has been spread out over many years, I have changed nonetheless. I have experienced life as a newborn, as a toddler, as a child, and now as a teenager. Naturally, with life come emotions that frustrate and sometimes overwhelm me; it is not uncommon for me to experience happiness, sadness, anger and excitement all in one day. Now that the rollercoaster of puberty has basically come to a stop, I am ashamed to admit that out of pure ignorance, I have in the past teased my sister for her odd obsession with monarch butterflies. However, as my encounters with monarchs increase, my simple acceptance of their existence has blossomed into an awe inspired understanding of why my sister finds these wriggling creatures so worthwhile. Monarchs are not merely insects, but a remarkable mirror image of humanity. Their lives, while short, are marked by change, growth, struggles, and loss. Each butterfly is extraordinary and unique, whether it is small or large, strong or feeble. The egg is almost identical to the unborn baby; it is helpless, dependent, and minute. However, under the surface of the egg is a swiftly developing caterpillar ready to hold its own in the real world, just like a human baby. The caterpillar stage and the young child are also similar; they grow quickly, and their bodies are hardly recognizable from their baby state. Little do they know that they are preparing their minds and bodies for life as a grown up. And then there is the teenager phase of human life, a stage stuffed to the brim with change. This long period of life can be compared to the chrysalis of the monarch butterfly, and is perhaps the most remarkable phase of them all. Inside the chrysalis the caterpillar is transforming drastically into what he was destined to become, a butterfly. Inside the less protective shell of my body, I am a sixteen year old girl transforming into what I was destined to become, a woman. The stage of the chrysalis has always been a symbol of hope and regeneration for me. As I muddle my way through these confusing years of young adulthood and approach the finish line of childhood, I am confronted daily with new successes and failures. As a teenager, I often forget to take pleasure in the little things in life: the smell of spring air, the taste of chocolate ice cream, the feel of sand underneath my toes. I empathize with the developing chrysalis-bound caterpillar; we are both in a stage of uncontrollable transition. Although I do not know what it is like to be an adult yet, I have an idea of the numerous responsibilities, struggles, and joys that accompany age. The last and final stage of the life cycle, the butterfly stage, is most similar to human adulthood. Free to wander where they choose, both monarchs and human adults possess a sense of liberation. The monarch’s life is spent finding a mate, and then laying eggs if she is a female. This simple goal is also seen in human life; while much more complicated, this same direction is taken by many people. While the monarch and the human share much of the same biological functions and transformations, they are also similar in that not every one of them will make it to that final stage; not every human finds success and not every monarch emerges from their chrysalis. There will always be sadness that accompanies raising monarchs, simply because of this fact. I imagine that many doctors feel similarly; not every patient will recover from their illness. The frailty of human life is mimicked in the monarch’s delicacy; neither is invincible. Some are born deformed, with disease, or other health problems; however, the true beauty of life can only be witnessed when sorrow is present. Each curled up caterpillar that lies still in a corner of a Tupperware box was a miracle to begin with, so why not rejoice that it made it this far? It is the same with human beings, no matter how difficult it is to let go of a loved one. The monarch butterfly is the ultimate symbol of hope.
Unlike the many monarch butterflies that journey to Mexico each year, I am not traveling a physical distance. I am, however, on a journey of my own. It is a journey of uncertainties, setbacks, and losses. But it is also a journey of incredible hope and transformation. Each person on this remarkable planet Earth is on their own personal expedition, and each one is unique. As I continue on my own voyage towards adulthood, I know that somewhere there is a magnificent monarch that just spread his wings for the very first time, floating up and up into an endless sky of blue. This butterfly and I may be drastically different in appearance, but we are both taking steps in a wonderful journey. The monarch has taught me lessons about humanity that I could never learn in a classroom, and has provided me with hope and comfort in times of sadness. As I step onto the lush green grass of my backyard, I smile at a passing monarch flitting happily among the blooming flowers. I follow him as he floats away from me, knowing that wherever we may end up, I will be content. After all, the journey of a thousand miles begins with one single step.