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Magnetic North: Planting for butterflies

Monarch on Milkweed - Photo by Wplynn on Flickr
Monarch on Milkweed - Photo by Wplynn on Flickr

Welcome back to Magnetic North where Mother Nature has decided to give us the cold shoulder off and on. After several weeks of faux summer and a few gentle drenchings to turn all things green, she gave us rain, wind, frost and even a brief snow shower.

But am I bitter? Heck no.

For once, and probably for the only time, I have used Mommy Dearest’s fickle nature to my advantage. Because this weekend I sowed five packets of milkweed seeds in the meadow down by the cattail stand. 

Milkweed seeds, unlike just about any other seeds I know of, like to chill a bit after germination. And where better to do that than in the on-again-off-again warm, then cold, then hot, then frosty Cook County June.

Now friends tell me that growing milkweed - a favorite food of Monarch butterflies - is tricky when starting from seed. 

Frankly, the whole venture is a gamble, with the gorgeous black and orange butterfly declining in numbers over the past few years. Migrating from Canada to Mexico then back again, the Monarch is simply running out of food. Our bad, of course. We gobbled up the fields where their milkweed grows to plant corn and big box stores.

Still, I believe that the most fragile appearing living things on our planet often are the most tenacious in clinging to life. Butterflies certainly fit that description.

A few winters ago, I read a book centered on Monarch butterfly migratory challenges. Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver is part apocalyptic fantasy, part woman’s coming into her own. The novel is rich in unpleasant truths about the plight of Monarchs as their food sources disappear. And though it is long and pretty frightening, I highly recommend the book for its beautiful images painted in prose.

But as disturbing as I found the biological truths in Flight Behavior, I also found hope. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been clumping around my cattail wallow broadcasting milkweed seeds last week. 

As I let the mahogany-colored flat seed pods fly from my palm to the loamy earth around the cattails, I remembered my granddaughter Jane dancing in a cloud of Monarchs in my back yard several summers ago.

She was out there simply to pick dandelion flowers for a garland. The lawn seemed a solid carpet of yellow that day. And the warm breeze off the meadow made basking in the August sun a truly delicious experience, with the dandelion heads releasing their pungent perfume. Jane bent at the waist carefully choosing her garland specimens when suddenly she started. For no apparent reason, Monarchs, hundreds of them, were swirling about the six-year-old's bare legs. Tickling and delighting her.

And yes, I had my camera. For once. Drawn upright like a marionette, Jane merged into the flashing orange and black wings, giggling and shrieking to “Look!” “Look!” 

Honestly, I don’t even need to look at those photos to remember vividly that miraculous dance. My beautiful little blonde girl - the prima ballerina in a Monarch ballet. That’s when I fell in love with the creatures. 

And I am not alone in feeling that way. I have it on good authority - Google, of course - that the butterfly, any butterfly, carries all kinds of good portents on its fragile wings. Immortality of the soul, in ancient Greece. Fertility, love and summer breezes in China. Joy and longevity in Japan. And they are pretty and make little girls giggle when kissed by them.

My Jane isn’t a little girl anymore. She is an eye-rolling tween and doubtless will not be looking for flowers for garlands when she visits me this August. But along with her big brother, Jackson, I am confident that she will still insist on pumping the old well’s clunky hand pump and holding assorted bunnies and chasing around the pond and meadow with Zooey and Jethro, my two bone-headed labs.

Along with that, though, I hope that Jane will also find herself admiring butterflies, Monarch butterflies, as they partake of some succulent homegrown milkweed. If not, I’ll show her the pictures of the butterfly ballet she starred in when she was “little.” And I will tell her, “they’ll be back.” Because I do have hope. And because I do so want Jane to have butterflies in her world. 

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