The milkweed is coming up in our yard. We’ve never planted or cultivated it, but over the years it has appeared on its own and we appreciate every plant, even the ones that pop up in the middle of the lawn.
Harriet taught me all about milkweed and how it’s the only plant where a monarch butterfly will lay its eggs. She’s an expert at finding the eggs. Some she raises until they hatch into caterpillars, form their chrysalis, and eventually merge as butterflies—a transformation so compelling and rich in metaphor that it inspired some of my work in In Flight.
Here, Robert is watching Sasha in the yard:
You needed sharp eyesight to spot the eggs, round specks that could be mistaken for flaws in leaf veins. You needed patience. Each leaf must be carefully examined. Protecting monarchs has been a personal mission since she found out from an NPR piece that its milkweed habitat -- the only place where monarchs laid eggs -- was dramatically shrinking due to over-farming and chemical weed control, causing the butterfly population to dwindle in North America. She’d begun cultivating milkweed in their backyard after she noticed a couple of the plants sprouting up in one corner of the lawn. The weed had spread quickly over the last few summers; she didn’t have to do anything other than not have that section of the lawn mowed. She hunted for eggs on the leaves and raised those she found, placing them in a screened habitat she kept on an end table in the sunroom. She would announce to Robert and Erin when an egg hatched to a caterpillar the size of a piece of lint, and she summoned the family to gather and admire when a butterfly finally emerged from its chrysalis. Some years she’d have a dozen eggs, and eight or nine would survive the cycle to monarch. Last year only three eggs, one butterfly.
Later that summer, with Sasha out of town, Robert has been entrusted to release the monarch when it sheds its chrysalis:
He unzipped and folded back the screen. Godspeed to you, butterfly. Good luck. May you live full and well the entire length of your potential forty-day lifespan. Although the sky had opened above it and freedom beckoned, the monarch remained perched on its twig. For thirty seconds. For a full minute. Wings opening and closing, still testing. For another minute. And then, prompted by instinct or a stimulus-response mechanism, by whatever rudimentary or complex decision-making process motivates action, Sasha’s monarch (he considered it hers, Robert simply the doorman on duty), founded as an egg, fed and raised as a caterpillar, protected in its pupa stage, housed until it kicked free from the cramped chrysalis, transformed from the ugly duckling into the lovely swan -- Sasha’s monarch did what butterflies do: it flew. It fluttered, rose and circled, zigged and zagged. It climbed in a spiral and vectored left over the garden, strafing the bee balm and the milkweed, flying over the forget-me-nots now forgotten with their delicate blooms shrunken and dried, gliding among the fruity orange and yellow day lilies, conducting a darting and dashing patrol of the entire garden, and finally soaring above the trees on an air current. Robert lost sight of the monarch through the gap in the tree canopy he had created by felling the limb. He continued scanning the foliage and above the treetops and all around the yard. He wanted one more glimpse.
Read more of In Flight.