There is a group around here that turns up at meetings and events, carrying posters about Monarchs. They are alarmed, and they want everyone else to be alarmed, too. I’ve been biting my tongue. My problem with this misty-eyed, poster-waving group is that in focusing on one species they are missing the larger point. Plant milkweed in your yard, they seem to be saying, and everything will be fixed. Well, ok. I have a river of swamp milkweed running through my garden (smells divine!) and I actually see Monarchs in about the numbers I would expect.
In the area that I monitored butterflies for 20 years, there are over 40 species of butterflies, and don’t get me started on moths! You might have to get close to some of them to see it, but each of these creatures is gorgeous and worthy of protection. Each one has complicated life histories, and each one faces challenges from the way humans do things.
And not just butterflies, of course. The bullfrogs who sang out all through my childhood…where have they gone? I don’t know, but I can tell you that the pond I so enjoyed now sports a ring of mcmansions, all with perfect Chem-lawn green skirts. Perhaps most distressing to me of all is that NO ONE else has noticed. Not even the naturalists I talk to. When I point out that you don’t hear bullfrogs anymore they scoff. Then they cock their head to listen.. Then their face goes still…. oh.
One of the big problems is habitat fragmentation. I’ll give you an example. There is a strip of dunes that a group fought to save, many years ago. Those dunes are the heart of Illinois Beach State Park. They are tricky to care for, because if you run fire through, the creeping juniper dies. If you go in and hand pull invasive exotics, you disturb the fragile sandy soil. And, I’ve been watching succession take place. This is as it should be, but it is also heartbreaking. As organic material accumulates in the older dunes, more species of plants are supported. So grasses and forbs are moving in, and even trees. The patches of juniper and bear- berry shrink. To monitor butterflies is also to monitor the plants they depend on, and by extension, the ecosystem. When succession proceeds, some of those species will wink out. If the park weren’t surrounded by towns and pavement, the rare plants and their butterflies could still find refugia further up along the shore. Sadly, though, this very specialized habitat is boxed in. There is nowhere for these species to go.
What can we do? Find locally, responsibly grown native plants. Native to YOUR region. If everyone dedicated even a corner of their yard to a native shrub or two and a handful of native flowers, those corners would start to connect up, creating rivers of habitat running for miles. Think what a difference that could make. Know ahead of time that native plants can be unruly. But they don’t require water or chemicals to thrive. You’ll notice it feels different, in that corner. The air has a different energy to it, the soil will be more springy. And you’ll start to see wonders. I am constantly surprised by new creatures calling my yard home~yesterday I saw a southern flying squirrel!
Another thing we can do: fight Monsanto! Pay attention to how much control over our food supply they have taken, how they have reduced the access farmers have to diverse seeds, providing seeds that require inputs of chemicals to grow. This is bad news for the farmers, bad news for butterflies, bad news for us.
So, yes, Monarchs deserve our attention. But it is a mistake to try to save the world one species at a time. I believe our world can weather global warming -ahem- if we pay attention to the forest, and not just the trees.