Every year, millions of Monarch butterflies make a long journey from the United States and Canada to winter in the high mountains west of Mexico City. Some of them travel 3000 miles on their fragile wings, Fueled by flower nectar and carried by ascending warm-air currents, they travel for months, landing and resting each night. What an incredible migration!
But there’s more. Monarchs have a surprising system to support their migration. Since adult Monarchs live only three to four weeks, it takes several generations of butterflies to migrate north from Mexico, but for the trip south, the Monarchs produce what scientists call a Methuselah generation, born near the end of summer and able to live up to nine months. This generation doesn’t breed in the north. It will arrive in Mexico by November, rest during the winter, and breed there. Then by mid-March, the Methuselah generation will complete the first leg of the journey back into the US and Canada.
After several generations of Monarchs work their way north, another Methuselah generation will be produced, and without ever having made the trip before, it will know how to migrate thousands of miles back to Mexico. Isn’t this process elegant?
. . .
A few years ago, Bob and I were privileged to visit the El Rosario sanctuary, part of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in the state of Michoacan, Mexico. We had flown to Morelia, the capital city of Michoacan, to attend a quinceanera (a lavish fifteenth-birthday celebration) for the daughter of good friends. Knowing how much we wanted to see the Monarchs, our friends came with us and made all the arrangements, which are tricky because the sanctuary is so remote. Yes, one leg of the journey was in the back of a wide truck.
It’s cool in the mountains where the Monarchs gather. It’s “breath-taking” too, because the altitude is 10,000 feet. We climbed up a steep trail, stopping often to sit on a well-placed bench along the path. We began to see a few butterflies. We admired the hemlocks and wildflowers. Then the trail narrowed. A sign advised us to turn our phones off and to speak softly. We began to walk silently in single file exactly like a procession of pilgrims approaching something sacred.
The hemlocks looked strangely gray and unnatural. Their evergreen limbs were hanging close to their trunks like trussed Christmas trees ready for sale. As we drew nearer, we could see that the branches were held down by the weight of millions of butterflies, layer upon layer resting quietly in the cold. When a shaft of sunlight warmed them, the Monarchs would flutter and fly, a cloud of orange jewel-light.
I’m so grateful to have had this experience – to be surrounded by butterflies, to marvel at their life story. I want my grandchildren and their grandchildren to be able to stand here surrounded by the whisper of butterfly wings. But sadly, Monarchs are disappearing along with the trees that are illegally logged in the Biosphere Reserve and the milkweed that is poisoned in the US. When will we learn to cherish and care for our Earth, our home? Do we want to live in a world without butterflies?
Renewal: The nature of nature
All my life, I’ve loved the idea of new beginnings. I like the first day of a year, or the first day of a season or month, or even the first day of a week. I make resolutions and plans and design elaborate projects for renewal. I daydream about going away for a week alone just to focus on new ideas and progress -- a week that I imagine would transform every aspect of my life. But right now that isn’t practical.
Couldn’t I find moments in each day to cherish renewal? Wouldn’t one step lead to the next? Could I resist working from a “List of Things to Do” and just let life be an adventure, which will unfold on its own? We don’t have to travel extensively or explore exotic places (although that’s certainly fun!) in order to renew our sense of wonder. We can discover new aspects of ourselves, try new activities, read new books and listen to new music. Just when I think I know our woods and its wildlife by heart, we discover something new: miniature bird’s nest mushrooms with spore packets that look like tiny eggs; a hummingbird moth that looks just like a little hummer; the tangy taste of a spicebush twig. It’s our nature – and the nature of nature – to be constantly renewed.
Happy New Year to you all!
Shinrin yoku, or “forest bathing,” is a Japanese therapy for reducing stress and finding a sense of wellbeing. (See my October 3 blog, Forest bathing.) Forest bathing can be done in a group with a facilitator or alone with your own thoughts to guide you. We benefit most when we walk slowly and attentively with all of our senses engaged until a feeling of peace replaces the pressure of daily demands.
I live in a forest and walk daily on paths through the trees. Over the years, I’ve taught myself to be more observant of the tiny, incremental changes that mark the seasons. Spring is filled with promise; summer is extravagant; fall is surprising and otherworldly; and winter is quiet and bleak. (The seasons in Japan, where I spent my childhood, and the seasons in Pennsylvania are almost identical.)
Thinking of Japanese forest bathing and Japanese seasons makes me think of Japanese haiku, a short form of nature poetry. So … this blog is an invitation to find peace with images and poetry of fall.
Photo copyright for all photos: Toni Albert
Today I’ve been forest bathing. Well, I’ve bathed in the goodness of trees all my life, but I’ve just recently learned about the practice of shinrin yoku, or “taking in the forest atmosphere.” Developed in Japan in the 1980s, shinrin yoku is catching on stateside. Many studies are confirming what we might already know intuitively – we feel less stressed, happier, and more peaceful in the presence of trees. I read on the shinrin yoku website:
“The idea is simple: If a person simply visits a natural area and walks in a relaxed way, there are calming, rejuvenating and restorative benefits to be achieved."
In Japan, forest bathing, or “forest therapy,” is often practiced for its health benefits, including lowering heart rate, blood pressure, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol; boosting the immune system; increasing energy; and improving sleep. All from spending time under the canopy of a living forest.
To me, forest bathing is a new way of describing the experience of appreciating the strength and beauty and color and texture of trees, enjoying shade and shadows, hearing birds and insects or wind and rain on leaves and limbs, breathing fresh oxygen provided by the trees, and feeling protected and at home in the world.
When Bob and I first bought our wooded land, we spent an entire summer clearing a road to our home site. The road winds its way around the trees that we couldn’t bear to cut. One night after we had built our road and our house, as we were falling asleep, Bob asked me, “How many of our trees do you know by heart?” I readily answered, “Well, the big white pine is one of my favorites. And the maple with yellow blossoms – and the dogwoods, of course.” He said, “I like the tulip poplar with the double trunk and the ash tree that was hit by lightning.” I said I loved the snag where the woodpeckers nested. He said he really liked the big oak and I said I liked the bark on the cedar. He liked the red bud in the spring – and I fell asleep.
When I remember that sleepy, dreamy conversation, it reminds me that when we really observe a tree, especially over a period of time, we get to know that tree like a friend. Maybe forest bathing is just spending time with good friends.
As a visiting author to schools, I often told students that research is not a bad word. Research means reading books and articles and watching videos about a subject that fascinates you; it means exploring the web for more and more insight and information; it may include interviewing interesting people; it may invite you to try something new, to explore a museum or historic site, or even to travel to another city or country.
Since my books are often used by teachers, I research meticulously. I over-research. You would know how much if you could see my office. Ultimately, my research leads to hands-on adventures – or even hands-on-bugs adventures (for Busy with Bugs). To write The Incredible Coral Reef, I drew on a lifetime of snorkeling off the coasts of Florida and Hawaii and throughout the Caribbean.
To prepare a new edition of The Incredible Coral Reef, I wanted to get my eyes on a healthy reef. Sadly, in the last few years, I was shocked by a dead reef off the island of Grenada and a diminished reef off the coast of Panama. Last week, I snorkeled at Cozumel, Mexico, for a refresher – and refreshing – course.
If you’ve never seen a coral reef, I’ll try to describe the experience, but it’s like describing a dream. I’ll try.
First, the color of the water is swimming-pool aqua, neon blue, brilliant turquoise. It sparkles with light and foams with waves. When you enter the water, there is no sense of transition, because the temperature is exactly right for human comfort. The water is almost as transparent as air; you can easily see into the underwater distance. As you look around, you are amazed at the activity of swaying sea fans and soft corals, schools of fish, and crawling creatures. It’s like an underwater city built on complex structures of living coral animals resting upon the skeletons of their ancestors. It’s like a colorful garden of intricate texture and design. It’s like a dreamscape filled with strange unworldly creatures, each exquisitely patterned and recklessly painted. It’s like nothing on earth. It’s the Other, the Strange and Wonderful.
I didn’t really go to Mexico for the research. I went for the reef.
If the world held a Bug Olympics, we would be amazed by astounding athletic feats and new and different world records set by tiny competitors. Of course there would be gold medals for strength and speed and agility, but there would be new categories of competition, too, like the most explosive bug and the best glue stick….
Please send me your favorite bug athletes. I’ll add them to the list.
Email me at email@example.com.
Best glue stick: Weaver Ant larva
Weaver Ants build their nests by rolling up leaves and sticking them together. They get the “glue” they need by picking up a larva and squeezing its abdomen to make it produce a sticky silk thread. The larva isn’t hurt and doesn’t struggle. Maybe it likes being a glue stick.
Worst dressed bug: Assassin Bug nymph
The Assassin Bug nymph dresses itself in sand grains and dead ants. Its outfit isn’t very attractive, but it provides good camouflage and attracts other ants, which the Assassin Bug nymph is glad to eat.
Most explosive bug: Bombardier Beetle
When a Bombardier Beetle is threatened, it squirts burning chemicals from the tip of its abdomen in a series of explosions of heat, color, and noise.
Fastest sprinter: Tiger Beetle
A Tiger Beetle, the fastest insect on earth, can run two feet per second, which is only 1.5 miles per hour, but if the beetle were as big as a horse, its speed would be 250 miles per hour.
Best gymnast: Springtail
A Springtail can jump 40 times its own length to escape predators. As it flies through the air, it does one or more back-somersaults.
Coolest bug: Wooly Bear Caterpillar
A Wooly Bear Caterpillar can survive an Arctic winter with temperatures as low as -90 degrees. The caterpillar produces a natural antifreeze that enables it to slowly become frozen except for the very innermost part of its cells. In the spring, it thaws out and crawls away.
Best weight lifter: Rhinoceros Beetle
A Rhinoceros Beetle, which is as large as a mouse, may be the strongest animal on earth. It can lift about 850 times its own body weight.
World’s smallest insect: Fairyfly
Fairyflies are tiny, tiny wasps less than .2 mm long, the size of a period at the end of a sentence.
World’s largest insect: Titan Beetle
The Titan Beetle can reach more than seven inches in length. It can inflict a painful bite, too.
Best sleeping pill: Pill Millipede
When a Pill Millipede is attached, it oozes a special chemical that makes its attacker sleepy. The Pill Millipede can put a Wold Spider to sleep for 12 hours. Maybe it should be called a Sleeping-pill Millipede.
Best soldiers: Army Ants
Tropical Army Ants march in an army of millions, up to 65 feet across. They eat almost anything in their path, including small animals.
Best snorkeler: Whirligig Beetle
Whirligigs have compound eyes that are divided into two, with one pair above the water and one pair below. Since they can see both above and below the water surface, they can watch for enemies such as a heron or a fish at the same time.
Most numerous: Leafhoppers
There are more leafhopper species worldwide than all species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians combined. In a field full of leafhoppers, there may be several million per acre.
From Busy with Bugs by Toni Albert. Check it out!
Christiana Figueres is one of my “eco-heroes.” As Executive Secretary of the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) between 2010 and 2016, she was responsible for leading the annual UN climate change conferences, which eventually led to the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Last year, she was a candidate for the role of secretary-general of the United Nations. When she wasn’t elected, I wondered what wonderful work she would do next.
. . .
Figueres is skilled in policy-making protocol and diplomacy, which is exactly what we might expect from the daughter of Jose figures Ferrer, a three-time President of Costa Rica who founded democracy there and abolished the nation’s standing army. Her US-born mother, Karen Olsen Figueres, served in Costa Rica’s Congress and as ambassador to Israel.
Costa Rica is a small country that has become a model for sustainable ecological development. They have set aside 26 percent of their rainforests and coastlines in national parks and kproved that ecotourism could become their most important industry. Christiana Figueres, small (five feet tall) but mighty, approaches her work with passion and energy.
When I first read about her in “Climate Controller” by Clara Germani in the Christian Science Monitor Weekly, I was struck by references to her deep concern for the environment. Here are some things that made her weep:
What is Christiana Figueres’ new project? She’ll join a group of global leaders and business executives on the Leadership Council for the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. Nearly three billion people around the world depend on wood, charcoal, animal dung, or coal in open fires or in inefficient stoves for their daily cooking needs. Their cooking emits pollutants, such as black carbon, carbon dioxide, and methane, which contribute to global climate change and pollution. Figueres will be working to improve health, empower women, and protect the climate and environment.
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.
This is Aldo Leopold Week and communities throughout our nation are celebrating his life and legacy. The events vary from interactive discussions of his ideas to family nature outings, from readings of A Sand County Almanac to viewing Green Fire, an award-winning documentary film about Leopold and his work. I'm celebrating all week by trying to see our woods and pond and creek through Leopold's eyes.
This is Aldo Leopold Week, a good time to get to know more about him. Born in Burlington, Iowa, in 1887, he would become a scientist, ecologist, conservationist, philosopher, forester, teacher, and author. As a boy, he loved and explored nature, so when Gifford Pinchot donated money to Yale to develop one of our nation’s first forestry schools, he determined to go to Yale and become a forester. After graduating, he joined the Forestry Service and worked in Arizona and New Mexico.
Leopold was one of the founders of the Wilderness Society, and in 1924, he initiated the first Forest Wilderness Area in the United States, the Gila National Forest. In that year, he was transferred to the US Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, where he was an associate director. He founded the profession of game management and wrote the first important book on the subject. In 1933, he was appointed Professor of Game Management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This was the first professorship of wildlife management. Shortly before his death in 1948, he was assigned as a conservation adviser to the United Nations.
This is Aldo Leopold Week, time to re-read his Sand County Almanac, an environmental classic. In Wisconsin, Leopold bought 80 acres in the sand country of central Wisconsin. The land had been deforested, overgrazed by cattle, and repeatedly burned by wildfires. It was a perfect laboratory for testing his theories of conservation and ethics. He advocated that each public and private land owner should manage and conserve wildlife habitats and diversity of species on the land. It was also the perfect place to write his almanac.
A Sand County Almanac is eloquent and funny, compassionate and determined, wise and important. It ranges from keen descriptions of nature on his Sand County property, month by month (the almanac), to essays on man’s destruction of the land and a “plea for a Wilderness esthetic.” The book begins: “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.”
Favorite passages from A Sand County Almanac:
“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
“I have read many definitions of what is a conservationist, and written not a few myself, but I suspect that the best one is written not with a pen, but with an axe. It is a matter of what a man thinks about when chopping, or while deciding what to chop. A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land.”
“But all conservation is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.”
“… I am glad that I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”
“Parks are made to bring the music to the many, but by the time many are attuned to hear it there is little left but noise.”
“A little repentance just before a species goes over the brink is enough to make us feel virtuous. When the species is gone we have a good cry and repeat the performance.”
“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
"That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics."
"A society grows wise when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they will never sit."
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Time to blog
There is a time for everything under the sun. (Even a time for Trump?) For me, it’s time to blog.
Many Americans who are deeply concerned about our environment are Trump-appalled. But I’ve noticed that some of our largest and most active environmental groups are working harder than ever. They are highly motivated, passionate, and energized. They’re gearing up to fight for clean air, clean water, uncontaminated food, and protected green spaces – the very things that we need in order to survive!
We all need to “gear up” and resolve to do our part. But what is my part? I’m a great-grandmother, a nature lover and a nature writer, an ardent student of birds and bugs and animals and children, and a bibliophile (I’ve written forty books and I’ve read one or two a week throughout my life). I will blog.
Most of my career has been spent “teaching kids to care for the Earth” in one way or another – through my books or in person. I believe that children who learn to love nature will naturally grow up to protect it. So as I blog along, I’ll include nature activities and nature news for children, as well as ideas for all of us to reconnect with nature.
NatureReconnect: 10-minute time-out
What would happen to us and to our lives if we took ten minutes each day to focus on some aspect of nature? How would it change our day, how would it change us, to suspend all activity (even the activity of worrying) for a few moments of quiet friendship with our natural environment?
When I was writing a series of four books with nature activities for exploring each season, I walked every day for a year through our woods, around the pond, and beside a little creek, Trickle Creek, with a notebook and pencil in my hand. I was teaching myself to observe the tiny, subtle changes that occur as the seasons progress. I recall that year as one of the most peaceful of my life.
Daily, consciously, reconnecting with nature can be therapy, meditation, prayer, rest and relaxation. It reawakens our sense of wonder, curiosity, and awe. In this blog, I'll be sharing some tiny discoveries and ten-minute adventures. This is such a small thing to contribute, but if each of us finds a way to stand up for a healthy planet – a small and modest way or an earth-shaking and stupendous effort – we can save our Earth-home.
“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire
to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” - Elwyn Brooks White
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.”