Sunday, March 22, 2015

Monarch Dream...Robert Michael Pyle from "Chasing Monarchs"

Robert Michael Pyle at a recent reading
 in Astoria, Oregon/
Photo credit/Carol Newman, with permission
Excerpt from Chasing Monarchs: Migrating with the Butterflies of Passage (p. 167)

...I didn't know when the wishful conjuring left off and the dream began.

The western edge of vision has the fiery intensity of an Arizona Highways sunset, but that isn't what I see.  The sun bores straight and narrow through a hole in dull clouds that rub into the horizon free of color.  The oranges and reds come entirely from the backlit wings of butterflies: four times as many gold-foil panes as the hundreds of monarchs clinging to the tamarisk at the top of the wash, where I have followed them to their evening's rest.  Their soft cluster-flutter keeps up until the dusk turns cool enough for wool, for fire, for stillness.  Then the brilliance fades to a vague peach glow in the brush of the bivoac.  Soon the desert stars take over even more, even brighter than the butterflies themselves.

When I sleep, cocooned just yards away from the hunkered bunch, there is nothing to tell me the monarchs are here beside me save memory and faith.  I wake and turn as the moon rises full.  In its werelight, I think I can see dull color in the cluster, a smudge on the night sky like bruised persimmons: enough to make me think it's real.

And when the cold sunrise again picks out their hue from the wispy blur, the low beams, raking straight across instead of burning in from behind, daub the mass more nutmeg than cinnamon, more maple than marmalade.  As some of the venturers spread their wings to capture the early rays, their massed palette grows brighter by measures, then takes on an oriole intensity I've never seen before.

The shivering begins -- first one, then several, then all together -- until the entire tamarisk looks ready to take off.  A magic degree is reached...the first great glider rises...and one by one, all the monarchs launch into another day.

Skyful of monarchs/Photo credit:Thea Linnaea Pyle
This, then, is how exodus goes.  You get through the night as best you can, shiver against the chill, accept what the next day has to offer as if you had a choice, and then -- just go!  I do the same, and I try to follow.  But I haven't even stuffed my sleeping bag, and already the monarchs are sailing over the far flat, sliding across the endless desert, sideways to the rising sun.

I blink and they are already gone.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Cinnamon Sailors: Robert Michael Pyle Discusses Monarch Conservation

Photo credit: Thea Linnaea Pyle
[Editor's note: First and foremost, Robert Michael Pyle wants you all to know the following information:  The deadline for comments on the Fish and Wildlife Service's Petition to List the Monarch Butterfly as a Threatened Species is TOMORROW, March 2, 2015]

And now, in his own words, Robert Michael Pyle:

How lucky I was to chase monarchs when I did.  The year 1996 did not offer up large numbers of monarchs for me to follow, but there were some, and it seemed a monarch always popped up where and when I needed it most: crossing the Columbia River, materializing out of the Bonneville Salt flats, beating across the desert toward the border.  But such has not been the case lately. Both the Thanksgiving Monarch Counts in California, coordinated and compiled by Mia Monroe and the World Wildlife Fund--Mexican government counts in Michoacan have reported in recent years the lowest numbers of wintering monarchs ever recorded.

Why is this?  Many reasons may apply, including development of overwintering areas and loss of milkweed in California.  As for the Mexican overwinterers, GMO (genetically modified organism) crops in the Midwest and ongoing logging in Michoacan play major roles, as Lincoln Brower describes in the Foreword.  There is some welcome evidence that large-scale illegal logging in the Mexican reserves may be diminishing at last.  Meanwhile, the threat from at least three genetically modified crops--Bt corn and Roundup ready soybeans and corn--is only getting worse.  Bt corn has been modified to carry the gene of the bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis) that produces a toxin lethal to the larvae of Lepidoptera.  The argument has been made and been tested that toxic corn pollen reaches milkweed on the wind, killing monarch larvae.  The loss to monarch numbers from this source is uncertain, but the injury from Roundup Ready soybean and corn is incontestable.  By rendering soybeans and corn plants resistant to powerful herbicides, the new genes enable (and virtually require) greatly increased applications of such chemicals across the Midwest soy and corn belt. This is how transgenic crops have made the heartland inhospitable for monarchs: the very region known to be the breadbasket for the species in North America.  Because all of these GMO crops and the herbicides they bring on are products of one company, the name Monsanto has become the antithesis of monarchs in many people's minds.
Monarch (ventral) on rabbitbrush in eastern Washington/Photo credit: Thea Linnaea Pyle
Everything I have written about monarch conservation earlier still applies.  But now comes a new threat, not as obvious in 1999 when this book was first published: global warming.  The monarchs go to high elevations in Mexico or the Californian coast in late fall not to be warm but to be cool: to preserve their DNA and stored fat over the winter months.  As the forests of the Trans-Mexican Neovolcanic Belt of south-central Mexico warm and dry, the winter clusters must rise higher and higher in elevation to find the cool,moist conditions they require.  Some scientists project that the only Mexican sites capable of retaining Oyamel fir beyond 2050 might be the high volcanoes near Mexico City.  But if cooked off the top of their current winter headquarters, would the displaced monarchs be able to find their way to Popocatepetl?

In the American West and Midwest , the great warming and drying are under way.  It seems likely that continuing drought has much to do with the low numbers of monarchs in recent years.  Both the absence of sufficient moisture for milkweed sprouting and succulence and the arid inhospitability of the migratory flyways stand to stem the natural and rapid replenishment of which insects are capable.  Climate change is implicated as well in extreme weather events that can cause major mortality, such as hurricanes during migration.  Great winter storms in Mexico have left deep drifts of dead monarchs, up to 80 percent of the population, in some years.  And yet, as Barbara Kingsolver has posited in her novel Flight Behavior, perhaps monarchs will respond to warming by shifting their locus of winter activity.  This could work either for 'em or agin 'em, depending on the reliability of conditions in any new winter resort that they could find.  In the West, we could conceivably see clusters shifting north into the redwoods or beyond. 
Future fossil Monarchs, Mexico/Photo credit: Thea Linnaea Pyle

All these factors make North American migratory monarch an endangered phenomenon: a new concept when Lincoln Brower and I developed it in parallel around 1980. Their future is more uncertain than ever.  Yet along with new and bigger threats have come novel and expanded efforts for their conservation.  The various projects of Monarch Watch and the Monarch Joint Venture, for example, are encouraging.  I am particularly heartened by the native milkweed cultivation, propagation, and distribution programs initiated by the Xerces Society.

Supposing all the good intentions and labor of conservationists, in concert with the supple adaptability of the organism itself, can give them a future after all, I wonder whether anyone will ever again attempt to follow the monarchs?  I envy whomever it might be.  I'll never forget those crisp autumn mornings, awakening in a campsite or highway rest area or beneath a monarch tree, and wondering what lay ahead for me, somewhere down the road, that day.  Would there be any monarchs?  If so, where would they be going?  Because where they pointed, there I would follow.  Nothing else to do, nothing at all, but chase the cinnamon sailors, seeking Danae's gold.

I'd go in a flash.

[excerpt from Chasing Monarchs: Migrating with the Butterflies of Passage]

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