A Vast Domain
Panda Uno led us away from the JM Butterfly B&B down a dirt road into the woods, clearly unfazed by her lame hind leg. We had only been at the bed-and-breakfast for an hour, and were just two of many people staying there, but she already knew we belonged to her. The sandy brown dog urged us ahead, our spirit guide in a magical forest of towering pine trees (Pinus pseudostrobus) studded with plastic containers capturing sticky resin from vertical scars knifed into the bark.
She led us past 6-foot tall Rumfordia oribunda plants with giant clusters of yellow flowers arching over the trail. Pink blossoms of Monochaetum calcaratum sparkled in the dappled light of the understory. A bright scarlet-and-black vermillion flycatcher slipped in and out of view high in the pines and oaks. White-eared hummingbirds darted into the forest from the edge of the pasture to sip nectar from red Salvia fulgens flowers.
Panda Uno padded on ahead of us, barking when we weren’t keeping up.
A break in the forest revealed the town of Macheros, Mexico, in its entirety — a knot of about 400 people centered around a tiny Catholic church, our white-washed bed-and-break- fast and a few other buildings. The town rests in the cupped palm of a valley at 7,800 feet elevation, surrounded by avocado groves and horse pastures. Turkeys gobbling and dogs barking provide a near-constant soundtrack.
Somewhere opposite the town from me and my husband, toward the peak of Cerro Pelón, rested millions of monarch butterflies. But for now, all we could see was green.
Monarch butterflies have been staying the winter in the Sierra Madre mountains around Macheros since long before the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés landed on the Yucatán Peninsula in 1519; long before the Aztec people he conquered built their ancient city of pyramids and canals, called Tenochtitlán, on an island in Lake Texcoco — now buried beneath Mexico City, just a two-hour drive to the east.
The monarchs in those mountains were the so-called “super generation” of butterflies that emerged as adults in the northern United States and Canada in late summer and early fall. From there, they rose on thermals and floated southward on northerly winds for thousands of miles to escape the coming winter, putting their reproduction on hold. They are celebrated locally as the souls of ancestors coming home.
The butterflies arrive in the Sierra Madre every year around November 1. They usually stay in the mountains until March 21, the spring equinox, after which the travel-worn butterflies fly as far north as Texas to lay their eggs and die, making way for the next generations.
Up the Mountain
The next morning, the horse assigned to me, Colorada, huffed as we pushed up the mountain into the Cerro Pelón sanctuary, her hooves clopping against stones and stirring up dust from the puffy soil. Our group of four tourists and just as many guides passed by a dozen men, women and children clearing the path for future travelers. We gained elevation quickly on a trail lined with dozens of species of flowering plants, from red-flowered Lamourouxia xalapensis and yellow Packera sanguisorbae to the tall and airy purple blooms of Senecio callosus, which looks a bit like Joe-pye weed.
We passed several huge pine trees recently fallen illegally by loggers, their fly-by-night work still a major threat to monarchs’ overwintering habitat.
At about 9,800 feet elevation, we left the horses behind. Our guide, Ana Moreno Rojas — a Macheros native who said she first visited the monarchs in her mother’s womb — whispered us forward down a narrow path littered with thousands of dead monarchs. Many of these unlucky souls fell to the ground and were too cold to make it back up into the warm embrace of their friends hanging in the trees. It was difficult to not be shocked by that, but then we got to the butterfly trees.
Monarchs spend their Mexican winters clinging together in clusters of millions in oyamel fir (Abies religiosa), pine and cedar trees, coating their bows like orange-brown snow. We were standing in one of 13 colonies scattered about the Sierra Madre, eight of which (including Cerro Pelón) are protected within the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. This past winter, the World Wildlife Fund-Mexico reported that monarch colonies collectively covered about 7 acres of trees (sadly, a 27 percent drop from the previous year). Where we were standing in the Cerro Pelón sanctuary, the monarchs covered a quarter of an acre, which included as many as 60 trees and possibly as many as 2 million butterflies.
But we didn’t know any of those numbers yet. All we saw before us was magic.
Trees covered in dark shrouds of butterflies loomed in the woods around us, gently undulating with the small gestures of opening and closing wings. A monarch or two flitted along the trail, but most hung tight to the trees, hushed in stillness beneath the canopy. All was extremely quiet.
But at about noon, the sun began warming the trees, and the butterflies started flapping down to the trail to squeeze water and minerals from the soil (called “puddling”) and sip nectar from the purple blossoms of Mexican sage (Salvia mexicana) and yellow flowers of Verbesina oncophora.
More and more butterflies began to y between the trees and the trails until we were surrounded by an orange blizzard; a waterfall of wing beats rippling across the forest, our bodies, our faces. Seeing millions of monarchs is one thing, but the sound of millions of wings gently tapping together stays with a person forever.
In This We Share
We don’t share a government with the Mexican people. We don’t share a language. We don’t share a currency. But we do share a history of conquest, subjugation and war. Our economies and cultures are intertwined. We share a border, and we share these monarchs.
From the mountains of Mexico, you can’t see the farmers in Ohio and New York. From a backyard in Milwaukee, you can’t see a mountain looming above Macheros, blanketed in butterflies. When a Mexican man fells a tree for money to feed his family, you can’t hear it fall in Texas. When a Kansan plows under a prairie for a new road, it doesn’t provide any work for the people of Macheros. But all of these things are connected by a tiny-but-strong, road-tested-but-threatened butterfly we quite hopefully call the monarch, given such a name by 19th century lepidopterist Samuel Scudder because it “ruled a vast domain.”
The destiny of these miraculous butterflies lies with our capacity to embrace each other across a border like two sisters reaching through a fence. Just listen, and you might be able to hear the sound of millions of butterflies flapping their wings, urging us to pay attention. It sounds like drizzling rain.
Learn how you can help power the monarch migration by adding native plants to your garden or landscape.
PHOTOS AND VIDEO from January 2017 by Lee Clippard