Flight of the Monarch

Life Lessons from a Delicate Butterfly

The view outside my plane window, as I took my seat after taking out my computer from the overhead bin to write this blog. The flight map said that we were at that moment above snow-covered Wyoming and Montana. We had exited the continental United States, and was over the Pacific Ocean, by the time I was writing in earnest.

 I write this reflection from 34,000 thousand feet above the Pacific Ocean (the flight map said so), on my way to another vacation with my wife to our beloved Kauai. I just finished watching a National Geographic documentary on the ancient annual migratory journey of the Monarch butterfly, marveling at the incredible beauty and order innate in nature. The documentary stirred my intellectual curiosity and scientific sensibilities so, that I was prompted to stand up and grab my laptop from the overhead bin after the show ended to put down in writing some of the pressing thoughts that it evoked in me.

Here’s my amateur(rish?) entomologist attempt to summarize what I saw and heard. 

It begins in Mexico’s amazing Monarch Butterfly Bioshpere Reserve – a roughly 50 square mile natural conservatory in the forest of western Mexico. In the spring, millions of butterflies – bundled together on trees and branches of that forest preserve like thick, fluttering blankets of fur – suddenly, as if by the prompting of an orchestra conductor, awaken to begin their migration north sacross the United States and to Canada. The migratory journey is an amazing display of the beautiful life cycle of the butterfly, and an abject lesson on how nature orchestrates the propagation of a specie. 

Yes, one can only imagine the distance of the migratory path, and the many dangers that the insects face along the way – from the weather to other predatory insects and birds. And no, not the same butterfly that awakened in Mexico reaches Canada. In fact, it turns out, 3-4 generations are necessary to complete the journey. Along the way a generation reproduces and lays eggs, and die. The eggs hatch and birth caterpillars. The caterpillars go through an amazing metamorphosis. As if hearing an ancient genetic signal, the caterpillar stops eating, secretes a sticky, silk base on a plant stem from which it anchors itself to hang upside down. Then its skin hardens to create a rigid shell, the Chrysalis. Inside, it secretes an enzyme that dissolves the caterpillar (yes, it dissolves itself!). But, alas, nature’s symphony summons an exultant biological chorus. The liquid inside the Chrysalis contains the genetic codes that order the cells to reorganize itself to form a butterfly. It is a breathtaking phenomenon to behold! 

This cycle repeats itself 3-4 times, like a relay race, until the final generation gets the proverbial final baton to Canada. That last generation is called the “super generation”, because it is birthed with adaptations that the previous generations did not have. This super generation is born to complete the entire winter migration back to Mexico without renewing itself generationally. Like mutated and enhanced versions of its original self, they are born with their reproductive function on pause, they have more powerful eyesight, more stamina, more diverse and hybridized biological capacities, and are born with an inner GPS imprinted with the opposite direction of the earlier generations – south. The one role of this super generation is to return to its nesting groun in Mexico to ensure that the specie’s life cycle is perpetuated. Much has been understood about this amazing insect and what it teaches us about nature, but much remains a mystery, buried deep in nature’s beautiful – and at times inscrutable – sentient world.

But the documentary reports a worrisome trend. The Monarch butterfly is facing danger. From 1999 to 2016, researchers have observed that the number of butterflies residing in the preserve has dropped by 80%. Their migratory life, it turns out, requires specific biological partners. Milkweed, a common grass that grows wild in vast areas of the US especially along the Plains, is where the butterflies lay their eggs. It is what its larvae (caterpillars) eat. Scientists say that Milkweed is slowly being eradicated along its migratory path as agricultural properties expand and more weed killers are used by farmers who do not want weeds to grow alongside their crops. Researchers also attribute the massive reduction of the insect’s  population from vast logging that -together with the rapid expansion of farming and accompanying use of chemicals – has caused a dangerous disruption in the ecosystem of the Monarch butterfly. The eventual fate of the specie is not yet fully understood.

If I have enticed you enough to read up to this point, you might already be asking, “So what’s the point?” Watching this documentary on the life cycle of the great Monarch butterfly reminded me of several important analogical intersections in my own life and spiritual journey.

A Kaua’i sunrise. Our first, since arriving on our favorite island this time around. The constancy of sunrise and sunset reminds me daily of the innate cycles that govern all of life.

Birth and Death

The documentary reminded me that birth and death circumscribe the mortality and finiteness of all of life. But this existential awareness also has taught me that it is within and through the provisionality of my life that the miracles of nature work themselves out. The astonishing feats of transformation that propel the life cycle of the Monarch through its various stages, mimics that of mine. I have encountered the fragility of my own physicality, the many challenges of life, grieved through loss of loved ones, but through those losses and grief I have also been drawn into powerful miracles that defy logic and reason. In nature – despite its finiteness – we see the beauty of God.

Identity and Purpose 

Imprinted into the DNA helix of the Monarch are the genetic codes that ensure the flourishing of its specie into perpetuity. In them are contained the codes that give it its purpose and identity. It is a Monarch butterfly and its purpose is to migrate north every year to reach the zenith of its evolution. Along the way it needs to produce several generations that will culminate in the birthing of a “super generation” – one that is singularly equipped to travel back south in the winter to their nesting place in Mexico to start the life cycle all over again. 

It is vital for our journey here on earth that we embrace a clear identity – who we are, where we came from, a dream, a goal – because it is this identity and sense of place, and an imagined future, that give us purpose in life and directs our spiritual and intellectual trajectory. Embracing that identity is not a one-time act. It is an intentional reckoning that takes place in every stage of the journey. Some people relinquish that identity somewhere along the way, and some – like the Monarch that has to travel many thousands of miles and face the many perils of the arduous journey, and needs to reproduce new generations to complete the task – fortify and deepen their commitment to their identity. Our identity and sense of purpose enables us to move through life with deliberation and meaning. 

Humans are the only creatures on earth endowed with the gift of imagination and memory. Because of that gift, the past, present, and the future are not compartmentalized dimensions of being, but rather they coexist in the same continuum of our existence. We are the only species on earth blessed with a consciousness of the irrepressible and chronological march of time, alongside an innate sense of eternity, and an imagination of the future. Said another way, not only do we have the capacity to remember the past, but our experience in the present is informed and shaped by what we have previously felt, tasted, learned, and our memory of the past and our experience of the present come together through time to give us a vision of the future not yet realized but only imagined in our spirit and soul.

This fusion of our consciousness of the past, of the present, and the future forms our sense of history and our sense of story. Without the consciousness of that story, we will not have roots, and if we do not have roots, we will be living lives devoid of identity and purpose. Our story is the power that sustains our spirituality, and that story is watered and nourished by the memory of our roots.

Tradition and Ritual 

As human beings we are a distillation of inherited patterns of behavior and customs from our ancestors and the generations in our family before us. This inherited past creates our story. The agglomeration of these historical elements passed down from generation to generation forms our tradition, and we reenact these inherited stories through ritualized behavior (family reunions, the commemoration of an anniversary, personal pilgrimages to an historic site, etc.) to keep the story going. Biblical faith is grounded in the stories of many generations as they encountered God in their own eras and, before a single letter was put into writing, the biblical faith was handed down from generation to generation for hundreds and hundreds of years in oral form. Hence, the call to “remember” and to “not forget” redounds all throughout scripture. 

The act of handing down tradition from one generation to the next, and ensconcing it through the ritual reenactment of vital milestones in this tradition, does not happen by osmosis. It is accomplished by the commitment of each generation to preserve the stories of the clan by telling and retelling these stories, and the ritualization of significant milestones that in turn become practices that shape the unique history of the journeying community. These disciplines bind an individual into community and family. Being part of a community, of a family, gives us a sense of home and a sense of place. Moses, in Deuteronomy 6:7, enjoins the Hebrew exiles to their high calling of obeying God’s law, and to their solemn and urgent duty to teach them diligently to their children, “When you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise!”

The Monarch butterfly follows the tradition of its life cycle unwaveringly, generation after generation without changing course, so that it can teach the succeeding generation how to live. Yet there are perils along the way that already threaten to obstruct their life cycle. The rapid disappearance of Milkweed, an unobtrusive but vital component of their life journey, endangers the larval stage of the butterfly. If that plant disappears, the entire ecosystem of the Monarch butterfly will be destroyed. 

What are the threats that could obstruct the ecosystem of our spiritual journeys? What perils along life’s journey could get in the way of our spiritual formation? To preserve tradition, tradition must be transmitted. Without community and a nurturing family, one’s sense of meaning is truncated and one casts off into a solitary journey whose goals are only for the self. A solitary individual devoid of tradition and ritual is absolved of a sense of accountability and a sense of responsibility beyond one’s self. As a human community, we are intrinsically linked to one another in the ecosystem of life. While the Monarch butterfly cannot, humans – by autonomous moral agency – can choose to extricate themselves from that ecosystem of interrelatedness. But like all moral choices, there are consequences.

Metamorphosis and Growing in Divine Grace

As I mentioned, perhaps the most astonishing stage in the life cycle of the Monarch is the radical transformation that it undergoes during the pupal stage (the stage between larva and adulthood, represented by the Chrysalis). Heeding an archetypal genetic signal that always comes at the appointed time, the larva (caterpillar) stops eating. It secretes a sticky base from where it hangs upside down. Then its outer skin hardens to form a Chrysalis. When it is completely surrounded by this rigid shell, something utterly magnificent happens inside the cocoon – the larva “eats itself” and liquifies. But there, in its liquefied form, lie the genetic codes that order the cells in the liquid to reorganize to their assigned place. And soon nature takes a bow after this amazing performance by birthing out of the Chrysalis an adult Monarch butterfly.

Inspite of nature’s grandiose display choreographing the metamorphosis of the Monarch, we are reminded that such journey does not take place in a vacuum. The journey is fraught with peril and challenges, and part of the butterfly’s survival depends on its ability to adapt to its environment. In each stage the insect goes through necessary adaptive changes to ensure that it survives – and qualifies – to the next stage. 

The Apostle Paul, in addressing the divisions and strife in the church of Corinth on his and Apollos’ account, refused to call them spiritual people. He called them “infantile”, deserving only to be fed milk, and not solid food (I Cor.3: 1-4) Paul reminds us that an essential part of spiritual formation is demonstrable growth in the life in Christ that issues forth in outward behavior closer to the life of Jesus. This growth in divine grace does not take place in an instant, as it were, of spiritual eruption after one’s baptism or conversion. Rather, growth in the the knowledge of God is attained through the hard work of obedience and commitment to the commandments of Jesus. The confession and acceptance of Jesus’ lordship over one’s life at baptism is the beginning of our spiritual life cycle, the “metamorphosis” or formation of our spirituality. It is a lifetime journey of shedding the false-self. Along the way there are necessary challenges and dangers that will seek to disinvite us from the journey, test our faith, or even stunt its growth. 

Imagine, all this because of a butterfly. For me, I will never underestimate what a fragile insect can teach me about life. 

The mighty Monarch butterfly (Maryland, October 7-9, 2011). Up until preparing to publish this blog, I had forgotten that I have taken photographs of the Monarch butterfly (this, and the featured image of this blog) during a visit with friends in Maryland many years ago. I searched my photo albums and there it was! I wonder – based on the date when I took the photos – if this butterfly was part of the “super generation”, wired to head back south to Mexico for the winter.

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