Monarchs and Lightning Bugs
Today I saw a monarch butterfly. It was the only one I have seen this summer, and I am sad. I have been preserving all the milkweed that has been coming up as a weed in my gardens. An insignificant gesture, but for me it is a little prayer.
I’ve loved these butterflies ever since I was a boy and my father told me about their migratory journey. In those days there were three kinds of butterflies that frequented our suburban yard—little white ones, little yellow ones, and the monarchs. They fluttered about in great numbers, and I never thought they could ever disappear.
And lightning bugs. I haven’t seen any lightning bugs in our yard this summer. This is the first summer they have been absent. Their absence has fed a latent anxiety, a persistent feeling that all is not well. Disquiet. I remember the lightning bugs as a child, thick as stars in the undeveloped land atop the hill.
The butterflies and lightning bugs are a kind of wealth beyond price. When our days pass without them, we might feel a poverty that no amount of money or consumption can assuage. Will the next generation even know what they are missing? Do we ourselves know what is missing compared to the plenitude of life in former times?
When the grief rises in me I sometimes try to blunt it by searching for the cause. Is it climate derangement, interfering with breeding cycles? Is it urban development destroying habitat? Is it the repeated dousing of whole landscapes with pesticides? Is it the knock-on effects of ecosystem destruction somewhere else? Is it all of these things?
The pesticides have a bigger impact than most people realize. It isn’t just agricultural spraying. Vast areas of the country are routinely sprayed to control mosquitoes, gypsy moths, and other “pests.” These insecticides kill more than just the target species. They are an unremitting assault to the weave of food webs and ecosystems, and thus to the physiology of the entire planet. So who knows, who knows what is causing the disappearance of these and so many other insects.
What I do know is that if this trend is to reverse, it will not be because we have discovered the cause and invented a solution. It will be because we care. It will be because we let the loss hurt. It will be because we value as sacred the kinds of wealth money cannot buy. The first step may very well be to descend into perplexity, alarm, and grief. How long must we delay feeling these things, as we pursue business as usual? How many beloved species need to disappear before we stop in our tracks, just for a moment, and allow ourselves to be overcome?
Some environmentalists believe—I used to believe—that collapse will save us, that someday things will get so horrifying that we will have to change. Now I think that if that day were to come, it would have already come. If the loss were to become intolerable, it would already be intolerable. The only thing that will save the butterflies, the lightning bugs, the oak trees, and indeed all wild things is that we start to care, a lot.
When that happens, the healing will be swift. I would be quite a “doomer” were it not for my knowledge of the miraculous power of life to regenerate. Despair rises when I shut this knowledge out.
I could end this piece with “practical” proposals about soil regeneration, pesticide bans, wildlife refuges, wetland restoration, and so forth. But again, the problem is not that we don’t know what to do. It lies in what we hold—or do not hold—sacred. So here I will affirm what everyone already knows in their hearts. The monarchs are sacred. The lightning bugs are sacred. Not because they are “indicators” of ecological health. Not just for their “ecosystem services.” They are precious in their own right, beyond all measure. If they are not precious, then what is? As we embrace this truth, we will find the courage to apply the solutions we already know.
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I can report that there are fireflies in NYC. I often think that cities are an unexpected saving grace. We have less pesticide use and less monocrop areas. We've got some serious bees and wasps, all kinds of birds including herons, ospreys, hawks, and recently the crows have returned after a long absence. There's a project I follow on IG called the Billion Oyster Project. They've been working on restoring the oyster reefs in the harbor. They have been reporting success as well as other species returning, like sea horses. There is love and hope. And never count the Earth herself out of the story.
Truly beautiful! They are sacred. When I moved into my current home there was nothing in the front or back yard but concrete, a patch of forlorn looking grass, and a lilac tree that had been repeatedly strimmed. It had a single spire. The garden was barren apart from slugs. Three years later and it is filled with insects and butterflies (red admiral, cabbage white, fritillary etc.) and we've even had a hedgehog and a frog. Birds visit to eat the insects too. It's not a large garden, but I've filled it with flowers, dug up the concrete at the front, and put down large raised beds on the concrete at the side for vegetables. I can't change the world, but I can do something about my own space. Around us, land is being gobbled up for building gargantuan warehouses and residential estates - not brown land, but arable! It is a depressing, worrying sight.