Yesterday I went to see the Monarch butterflies in their reserve high in the mountains of Michoacan Province in Mexico. The landscape is startlingly different from the scrubby plains, full of cactus and brush that surrounds San Miguel. The car turns off the highway onto a twisting two lane highway and soon oaks and other deciduous trees appear. They are gradually replaced by a sort of pine tree, the whole tree shaped like a cone. They cover steep mountain sides dotted with villages. Sheep, goats and cows graze on dry meadows.
After a torturous drive up the mountains, involving much popping of our ear-drums we arrive at the reserve. It is run by the indigenous people who consider it their trust, their responsibility, their privilege to protect the mountain and the butterflies. There has been a lot of pressure on the environment by logging companies but the government has promised to put a stop to this industry. Recently, we were told, a company started cutting the timber again and when the villagers called for help, there was no answer from the responsible office. The villagers took matters into their own hands and burned a vehicle belonging to the company. The logging stopped. That news gave me a certain satisfaction. Direct citizen action!
Cars and busses ( how they navigate the end of the road was beyond me!) park in a lot far from the butterflies. There were small cabins where we could buy food cooked on a wood stove and handicrafts made by the villagers. After a delicious lunch we went up to a large paddock where visitors decided whether to hike up to the Monarch preserve or to ride on ponies, horses or mules. I chose a good sized horse and prayed that my artificial hip would hold up. The saddles are perfect for us scardy-cat Gringos as they have a large pommel and a raised back forming a sold wooden seat. Just sit tight and let one of the locals lead you on up. These guys must have tremendous lung capacity as they hike up three times a day! The altitude is enough to make me gasp and feel a bit queasy so – horsy it had to be.
Now, butterflies have minds of their own and we were led to a different observation spot than the one I visited last year. We dismounted and left the horses. Access involved a lot of scrambling around on a narrow sandy trail until we finally arrived at a small clearing where the beautiful Monarchs were fluttering about or landing on the branches of the trees. There were many dead butterflies lying about. After mating the males die, presumably with smiles on their faces.
There is something sobering, awe-inspiring about this place. People sit down quietly and even the many school children present yesterday were subdued and silent. There are “monitors” who remind us to be still and not disturb the insects. Most of these are venerable grandmothers who wear a badge of honor as elders of the group.
It is odd how people take many photographs, of course, but then they fall silent or start to talk about the fragility of life, the wonder of the cycle of the tiny insects that make such huge journeys. This is a place that inspires deep thinking with its tall majestic trees and its creatures that care nothing for our admiration or reverence.
The journey to see the butterflies takes many hours and I found the drive back to San Miguel tedious because of its many twists and turns, slow-downs for speed bumps and tolls. Seeing the Monarchs requires real effort. It requires that one obey the orders of the horse handlers, the silence monitors, even the weather, for if it is cloudy, the butterflies cluster on the trees and do not fly. There is a physical effort too of sitting in the car for a long time, hiking and riding up to the observation points.
I was tired when I got home. I ate a bite, drank a cup of tea and even took a headache pill as I think the altitude affected my pressure. I slid into my bed, defeated by butterflies, and I dreamed of those fluttering, elusive beauties that understand mysteries that we mortals can only theorize about. Why and how do such migrations occur, how does the fragile beauty of butterflies come to be, what is the true place of humans in all this? These are deep questions to keep us all dreaming, even past our fatigue and effort. Be eternal, butterflies. Stay tall and strong, pine trees. Indulge our shallow ideas, our ambitions and pursuit of wealth, you who live on the mountains. Our connection with you is as fragile as a butterfly’s wing yet as strong as the instinct to travel across the world, generation after generation.