At first it looked like a torn shadow, tiny and lost as it trembled above the ocean. It might have been the smallest corner of a map, carrying an insufficient knowledge of latitudes and continents – the squandered seed of the compass rose. It struggled with the invisible complexities of the air currents, changing height and direction with dizzying fear and confusion.
That day, rays of sunlight intersected the gray air like a cat’s cradle. Whenever the dainty wings crossed the strings of light they gleamed with bronze and auburn. They shone like cathedral glass, the towering panes that once transformed the sun’s luminescence into color and religion.
But there was an imperfection in the flickering wraith. The wings were ragged, like exhausted flags – they beat against the wind with a heart’s weakened pulse.
It was odd that such a creature would be seen at such a place – Southern California – and at such a time, early February. This was a Monarch Butterfly on its migration – the grandchild of the butterfly that began this journey. No Monarch born knows where it will travel, how, or when. There is no one to follow…only the DNA passed from one to the next, the chemical spark that propels each one on its flight.
On the west coast, the monarch butterfly winters in Monterey and Pacific Grove (where it is a misdemeanor to kill or threaten a butterfly, punishable by a $1,000 fine). They keep warm in forests and sanctuaries, their vibrant flocks blotting out the sky, startling the air into prisms the color of sunset. They stay there until spring, when they begin their 2,000 mile flight into Canada. By summer, these wintering populations will all be dead. It will be up to their descendants to continue to their balmy destination, powered only by instinct – the element too subtle and distant to be measured on any table.
Some say that they are guided by the sun, reading its position and angle as if the sky was a compass riding an arc that gathered information from the horizon to the final curve of twilight. There are theories that solar winds, swirling in heated gasps across vast magnetic fields, energize the butterfly’s direction, and pulls it on to its mysterious course. Perhaps circadian rhythms – the cadences that hum behind the return of tides, of seasons, of sunlight – provide an invisible admonishment. Then there are others that say that they follow the evergreen scent of the distant groves – the verdant fragrance of amber and resin that lurks amidst the alluring trees.
But no one knows for sure.
This particular butterfly had begun its northward voyage early, urged on only by the blood of its predecessors. It was alone, damaged and doomed. Two generations would pass before this migration would end. But it had begun here, before spring had unleashed the exodus, with an impatient traveler listening to the whisper of its reflexes, above the darkened sea.