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?
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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!
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.
Twenty years ago, I wrote and published a book called The Incredible Coral Reef, a companion book to The Remarkable Rainforest. Both ecosystems were already alarmingly threatened and both are homes to the richest, most diverse wildlife on our planet.
The Remarkable Rainforest continues to be used by teachers and home schoolers across the country as a complete curriculum about rainforests , but interest in teaching about coral reefs seemed to wane and we let The Incredible Coral Reef go out of print.
With coral bleaching episodes occurring around the world, there is a new urgency to protect reefs and a new interest in their fate. In the last 30 years, we have lost 50% of the world’s corals. Most of the heat (93%) trapped by greenhouse gases is transferred into the oceans, and the delicate corals can’t tolerate the rising temperatures – especially in conjunction with other threats, such as overfishing, pollution, and the pressure of tourism.
We may think we can accept the loss of an individual species, but what about seeing the collapse of an entire ecosystem? When corals die, it’s exactly like cutting trees in the rainforest. All of the complex and perfectly balanced relationships of animals and plants break down. Without trees, a forest is reduced to brush. Without corals, a reef becomes a rocky mass of coral skeletons. The unnumbered, even unnamed, life forms that depended on a tree-structure or a reef-structure are lost.
What can we do? For me, the answer always begins with education. I find that children love nature and want to learn about our natural world. I find them to be eco-smart too, unjaded and undiscouraged, willing to tackle the most difficult environmental challenges. If we give them facts to work with and encourage creative problem solving, we can trust them to take better care of our Earth than we have (because they must!).
I love working on The Incredible Coral Reef. The first edition won a Teacher’s Choice Award and a Parent’s Choice Approval, so I have a good foundation for the new edition. I’ll blog as I work, so that readers can follow the making of a book. I hope you find the process interesting.
This week, guest blogger Karen Johnson talks to children about animal-light (bioluminescence). Next week she’ll write for adults about people-light (LEDs). Karen gives weekly tips for sustainable living in her newsletter, Earth For All Ages.
Isn’t it nice that we can turn lights on in our houses? With a flip of a switch, we can have light coming from our TV, computer, and even our car, so we can see at night as well as during the day. But what about the other creatures? They must live by natural daylight, moonlight, or – their own light, which is called bioluminescence.
Bioluminescence is the ability of an organism to create its own light. It is one of nature’s most amazing accomplishments – like something straight out of a science fiction movie.
On land, fireflies and some fungi can make their own light, but bioluminescence is actually more common in the deep sea. Bacteria, jellyfish, starfish, clams, worms, crustaceans, squid, fish, and sharks are some of the groups of marine animals that have bioluminescent family members.
Bioluminescence (nature’s way of bringing your own light) may help creatures find food or a mate, or it might help with self-defense.
Check out this TED-Ed video for kids.
Happy World Turtle Day!
How should we celebrate?
I have a few turtle stories. (Doesn’t everyone?)
One: On a cold spring morning when the ground had just thawed, Bob and I were walking along a path in the woods. He said, “I smell a turtle.” I was doubtful. “Really? I don’t smell anything.” Early spring doesn’t offer much to interest your nose.
But he insisted, so we started looking for a turtle. Nothing. We looked more carefully. No turtle. We stirred some leaf litter. There was the turtle just emerging from his winter hibernation-home in the mud. The turtle, a box turtle, looked at us somewhat cynically with his red eyes. “This is my first day in months to open my eyes and move my body and pick up my turtle life. Did you ever think I might want some privacy?” No, we never did.
Two: I once bought a painted turtle at a pet store to release in our pond. I saw it once sunning itself on a floating branch but never again. Then I found a painted turtle on a dirt road where I like to walk. I picked it up and carried it back to our pond. I thought, “Now we have two turtles. Unless the turtle I found was the turtle I bought….” Now, a decade later, we have painted turtles in all sizes. Our two turtles have populated a pond.
Three: I was sitting in the back seat of my son’s car, while in the front seat, he and his wife were having an escalating argument. Their voices were becoming shriller and louder, and I was getting worried. We drove around a turtle that was crossing the road. As the argument continued without a pause, my son turned the car around, stopped by the turtle, my daughter-in-law got out and moved the turtle to safety, we turned around again and continued on our way. The argument was not yet settled, but I was. Beneath the disagreement of the moment was a perfectly executed dance of agreement.
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World Turtle Day was founded in 1990 by American Tortoise Rescue as an annual observance to help people celebrate and protect turtles and tortoises and their disappearing habitats around the world. American Tortoise Rescue has placed thousands of rescued tortoises and turtles in caring homes.
Turtles are more threatened than birds, mammals, or amphibians. In 2010, almost 50% of all modern turtles were either extinct or threatened with extinction. They are collected for food, medicine, cosmetics, or to be sold as pets. They are subject to loss of habitat in its various forms: deforestation, drained wetlands, and rivers converted to stagnant reservoirs. They are often killed by traffic as they move around to feed and nest.
71% of all tortoise species are either gone or almost gone.
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NatureReconnect: Continuing to follow the Carolina wrens:
In the Old Testament, “Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field.” Men and women have always ordered the world by naming and classifying. It’s not enough for a birder to spot a bird he hasn’t seen before. He has to identify it and add its name to his life list. Nature lovers live with field guides.
In our home, we have field guides to birds; trees and shrubs; wildflowers; mushrooms; Eastern butterflies; insects and spiders; North American wildlife; animal tracks; edible wild plants; mammals of PA; rocks and minerals; fossils in PA; fishes and sea life; and coral reefs. And even a field guide to Eastern birds’ nests!
That’s how I identified a Carolina wren’s nest that is built under our deck and, at this very moment, has five tiny eggs in it. (There were only four when we took the photo.) Later, we confirmed the ID when we saw the wren fly from her nest.
From the field guide:
Habitat: Brushy forests – check!
Nest: Built in … nook or cranny around human dwelling – check!
Rarely higher than 10 feet – check! About 4 feet above the ground.
Bulky mass of twigs, mosses, rootlets, strips of inner bark – check!
Side entrance – check! The photo may look like one taken from above, but it was taken from the front, looking in.
Lined with … fine grasses – check! Messy on the outside, good camouflage, but neat and tidy inside.
Eggs: Commonly 5-6 – check! There are five today.
Short-oval shape. Smooth with little gloss. – check!
White, pale pink; typically marked with heavy brown spots, often concentrated at larger end – check!
So why do we love field guides? They help us identify what we observe. And think of the rich education one entry in a field guide provides. By the time we answer our question, “What is this?” we have a sense of ownership. I think it’s thrilling to investigate the great diversity of nature and, at the same time, to acknowledge the perfect individuality and consistency of each member. At a simpler level, it’s fun to recognize and call by name the living things around us. It’s a way of knowing a tree or a flower or a butterfly like a friend.
Aldo Leopold has been called “the father of wildlife management” and “the father of wildlife ecology” and the “father of conservation ethics.” Have children read about Aldo Leopold’s life and work. Ask them to list the “firsts” that Leopold accomplished. Then discuss what it means to be called the father of a movement or of a new way of thinking. What qualities does a person need in order to think in a new way and to become “the first” in his field?
Have children choose one month’s entry in A Sand County Almanac to read and study.
Aldo Leopold wrote, “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.”
Have you ever taken a child to a petting zoo? Have you ever slipped in by yourself, trying to look like you’re there with a child? My daughter-in-law Terri once talked me into going to a children’s event where we could feed giraffes. It was a little embarrassing but much fun!
I’m not sure why we love to feed animals. The exciting connection? The opportunity to see animals up close? The frisson of danger? The pure pleasure of pleasing them?
I’ve seen animals fed all over the world. On a bayou tour outside New Orleans, our boat pilot gave us marshmallows to drop into the water to attract alligators. And they came! They knew he had chicken for them. In Grand Cayman I swam with stingrays, and in Belize I swam with big brown nurse sharks – attracted by food. Some dive boat operators attract schools of brilliantly colored reef fish, causing a feeding frenzy among the fish – and the snorkelers (feeding on the experience). Environmentalists oppose this kind of feeding because it disrupts the natural relationships and behavior of animals.
At Tikal in Guatemala, there were coatimundi (the coati is a tropical animal related to the raccoon) boldly searching out scraps in a picnic area. In Morocco, endangered Barbary macaques, (a species of Old World monkeys) came to a remote intersection of roads, where tourists stop to feed them. In Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica, White-faced Capuchin monkeys patrol the beach for treasures ranging from bags of potato chips to expensive cameras or iPhones, anything left unattended. At home in our suburbs, raccoons and skunks eat from our trashcans or compost piles. When wild animals are enticed to mix with people, it can be dangerous to both. Animals are exposed to traffic, litter, and unhealthy food; humans may be exposed to disease or injury.
That’s another subject for another blog … “planting for wildlife.” And another … “attracting pollinators.” So much to write and so much to learn.
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.”