The Last Monarch

At the end of the first week in March, we’d lived through “meteorological winter”. But the day was warm, only a little, where we could shelter a bit from the winds and bask in the weak white sun that barely clears one ridge mid-day before it sinks behind another. Each day our star strives a bit higher and stays for a few more minutes. We should be seeing signs of spring, even from within our fleece and wool and mittens and multiple scarves.

I had no more had these thoughts than Ann said “Look!” It was our first butterfly of the season–an unidentified dark erratic sign of spring. But it made me look ahead at the summer to come, and wonder about the “butterfly season” of 2013. That, too, over the past summers has been erratic, but mostly showing fewer of the predominant Tiger and Spicebush swallowtails than we became accustomed to our first few warm seasons on Goose Creek.

Worst of all, last year, I saw exactly one Monarch.

I know not to project from my tiny sampling to make judgements about butterflies or bats or bees on a global scale. And yet, the microcosm along Goose Creek is a corpuscle in the greater corpus of life on Earth, and we should pay attention to the land at hand that conveys small lessons of global change.

Apparently, monarchs are not only in local decline. Their recent decline across the US has been called “ominous.” Their end-migration roosting sites in Mexico show precipitous decline. The reasons are complex: habitat loss, the effects of pesticides and herbicides, clearing field margins of milkweed, and climatic changes and forestry mis-management.

Seeing pictures of these orange-and-black insects in their millions at roost reminds me of the vast number of passenger pigeons that once congregated in enormous far-as-the-eye-can-see flocks over our valley.

Then, one day in 1914, the last passenger pigeon died in captivity, a decade or more after all natural flocks had disappeared.

Will my grandchildren one day read about the last monarch, the last goldfinch, brown bat, coyote or two-line salamander? The answer is not a confident NO.

And the greatest threat to all species going forward is climate chaos. Extinctions are occurring at a rate as much as 1000 times that of the geologically-known rates in ages past. Change, if gradual, can lead to adaptive behavioral and genetic shifts. Change, if abrupt–as CO2 increase has been–overwhelms adaptive capacities.

Fortunately, given our thumbs and our technologies and language, our species possesses greater behavioral adaptive capacities than any other. But I wouldn’t go around thinking there might not be a time, if we continue down the road we’re on, when there will not be anybody left to note the last of the species.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Can you imagine what the Appalachians looked like in the early 1800s flora and fauna-wise? With ancient massive stands of American chestnut, hemlock, along with elk, bear (maybe even some griz), wolf, and even bison. How many species were wiped out before man even began to notice such things? To answer my own question, I just can’t imagine what it looked like only 200 years ago.

  2. It was just yesterday that Sherry and I were discussing the fact that we see butterflies here year round. Even on the coldest, windiest of rainy days at least one will flutter by. Maybe the fact that the butterfly bushes off the front porch bloom all year has something to do with it.

    For what it’s worth, we are already raising the first batch of Monarchs to send on your way.

    The goldfinches started north last week. The hummingbirds are starting to arrive here as of yesterday. And the bluebirds are nesting in the nest-box in the garden where the tomatoes, peppers, beans and eggplants are up and growing.

  3. Hi Fred! I think for the past few years, we have had more Monarchs than ever before! I could stand in the yard among the wild Ageratums and literally be surrounded by thousands! It was such an amazing experience! I am not sure why my yard has become a “stopping off” spot for the butterflies but perhaps it is that I do have an affinity for the Ageratums. From midsummer on, I do not mow the areas with the small plants and their purple blooms cover the lower part of the yard. It is thrilling to see the orange Monarchs mingled with the brilliant purple Ageratums! Perhaps we all need to plant more wildflowers!

  4. Here’s hoping you see monarchs this summer, Fred, although the sharp decline in Mexico tells the bigger story.

  5. Fred,
    This was interesting and depressing at the same time–as much of our environmental news unfortunately is. We hear so much in the news about the plight of polar bears and tigers, but we don’t really focus on the creatures struggling for existence in our own backyards. Thanks for turning our attention to closer realms also in peril.