I’ve spent all month blogging – and thinking – about butterflies. A good way to conclude for now is to review Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Flight Behavior, a novel that mixes science and song and explores the intimate story of an individual and the universal experience of living through a time of enormous change on Earth.
Dellarobia, a young mother in Appalachia, discovers a colony of migrating Monarchs diverted from their normal flight behavior by the erratic weather of a warming Earth. To her, it appears to be a miracle and she’s awed by the beauty of the butterflies weighing down the limbs of trees. But Tennessee is not the place for wintering butterflies, especially during a year of torrential rains and mudslides.
When Ovid Byron and his team of scientists arrive to study the Monarchs, Dellarobia’s world opens. She’s poorly educated but smart and curious, hungry for a wider understanding. She becomes his assistant and he becomes her first real teacher. In the book’s apocalyptic ending, we see her determined to learn more – even how to protect our endangered world.
Favorite quotations and ideas from Flight Behavior
Dellarobia’s first realization that what she was seeing was millions of butterflies:
“The density of the butterflies in the air now gave her a sense of being underwater, plunged into a deep pond among bright fishes. They filled the sky. Out across the valley, the air itself glowed golden. Every tree on the far mountainside was covered with trembling flame, and that, of course, was butterflies…. The fire was alive, and incomprehensibly immense, an unbounded, uncountable congregation of flame-colored insects.”
I love the way this description evokes color: “bright fishes,” “golden,” “flame,” “fire,” and “flame-colored.” Orange, orange, orange!
“… she watched her son love nature so expectantly, wondering if he might be racing toward a future like some complicated sand castle that was crumbling under the tide. She didn’t know how scientists bore such knowledge.”
“Once while she and Ovid were working … he had asked her what was the use of saving a world that had no soul left in it. Continents without butterflies, seas without coral reefs, he meant. What if all human effort amounted basically to saving a place for ourselves to park?”
Dellarobia meets a mother and daughter who have been making knitted butterflies and hanging them in trees to help make people aware of the plight of the Monarchs.
“The impulse to keep the hands moving, feeding tiny answers to vast demands. Like spooning peas into a child who would still be hungry for decades. It wasn’t wrong.”
What if “tiny answers” – like tiny butterflies – when combined, can create a great cloud of answers? Surely, it’s worthwhile for each of us to do what we can.
Dellarobia is shocked when Dr Byron tells her that the events of the winter are destroying the Monarchs. He speaks as a scientist: “We are seeing a bizarre alteration of a previously stable pattern. A continental ecosystem breaking down…. Climate change has disrupted this system.”
She responds in the heart-deep language of the Bible, “One of God’s creatures of this world, meeting its End of Days.… Not words of science, she knew that, but it was a truth she could feel.”
The language of literature can be powerfully evocative, like music or art. It engages us in an entirely different way from factual scientific material. I’m so glad this book was written.
Children and butterflies
Children and Butterflies: Activities for Kids
Plant a butterfly garden to attract butterflies to your yard. Choose a sunny location and plant flowers rich in nectar, such as butterfly bushes, lilacs, zinnias, phlox, bee balm, lantanas, and marigolds. Include flat rocks where butterflies can sun themselves.
Make a shallow, damp mud puddle for male butterflies. They will land on the mud to take in salts that they need.
Sometimes a butterfly will land on you. When you see a butterfly feeding, approach it slowly, and gently hold out one finger near its legs. In the eastern and southern United States, the Hackberry Butterfly often lands on people. It’s fun to hold a butterfly on your finger, but don’t touch its fragile wings.
Visit a butterfly exhibit at a botanical garden, zoo, or nature center. Watch butterflies eat and fly. Which is your favorite? Does the exhibit also have caterpillars and chrysalises?
Make a “Butterfly Field Guide to My Backyard.” Allow at least one page for each butterfly. Include the name of the butterfly, a sketch or photo, information that you gather, and notes about your own observations. (Use a field guide or search online to identify your butterflies.)
There are many organizations that provide opportunities for children to do “citizen science.” Two of my favorites are the North American Butterfly Association, which hosts a Butterfly Count to collect data about butterfly populations, and Journey North, where children can track the Monarch migration.
A wonderful list of other citizen scientist opportunities can be found at Monarch Joint Venture, which partners to conserve the Monarch butterfly migration. (http://monarchjointventure.org/get-involved/study-monarchs-citizen-science-opportunities#tracking-the-monarch-migration.
From the award-winning book, Busy with Bugs, by Toni Albert.
Monarchs and milkweed
A few years ago, we received a wonderful surprise. An entire garden of milkweed planted itself in a grassy meadow near our house. We didn't buy them or plant them or tend them. They were a gift freely given. Knowing that milkweed flowers attract pollinators and that the plant is a host to Monarch caterpillars, we welcomed these plants. They bloom for several weeks in summer. The gorgeous purple blossoms are fragrant and irresistible to bees and butterflies and many other insect pollinators. Last year I was so curious to see who was visiting that I checked the milkweed three times a day. I saw tiny multicolored hoppers, little flies with long wings, ladybugs and Japanese beetles, several kinds of bees and butterflies, and the exquisite Great Spangled Fritillary. But I didn't observe a single Monarch in our milkweed garden and there were not nearly as many bees as we would expect.
Milkweed is essential for the Monarch population. It's the only plant where Monarch butterflies lay their eggs and it is the only one that the caterpillars will eat. Milkweed contains a natural chemical compound that makes the caterpillars poisonous to predators.
When the agri-tech giants like Dupont and Monsanto developed crops that are engineered to survive the use of weed-killers, farmers began to use more herbicides like Roundup. Environmentalists believe that the loss of Monarchs is caused by farmers and homeowners spraying herbicides on milkweed, which serves as a nursery, food source, and habitat for Monarchs.
In an effort to help, the Fish and Wildlife Service has partnered with the National Wildlife Federation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to plant milkweed seeds along the butterflies' migration corridor. Scientists are also considering other possible reasons for the decline in Monarchs, including habitat loss, disease, parasites, and climate change.
What can children do to help the Monarchs?
Children can plant milkweed seeds to help provide habitat and nectar for pollinators, especially bees and butterflies. Check out the Milkweed Seed Finder. Ask seed vendors if the milkweed seeds they sell are native to your area. Or collect your own seeds to ensure they are a native species. This is a wonderful project for children in fall (mid-October in our area).
Some nurseries are beginning to sell milkweed plants. You only need to buy a few plants. When the large milkweed seedpods burst open, revealing the intricately packed rows of brown seeds, there will be explosions of flying white silk carrying the seeds to new locations. If you wait until the seeds are ripe, children can shake them loose from the pods directly into your milkweed garden. A very messy and fun project!
Children can write letters to your state's Department of Transportation. Ask them to stop killing milkweed along highways and to start planting it instead.
Toni Albert, M.Ed., is an award-winning author of more than 40 books. Her lifelong love for nature, children, and books inspired her to commit her publishing business, Trickle Creek Books, to “teaching kids to care for the Earth.”