“There is something fundamental about finding your way.”
Lincoln Bower has spent the last fifty years studying the monarch butterfly. This might strike some as a life not well spent and even Bower has posed the question, “What good is a butterfly?” But, the monarch’s story is compelling and the more you learn about it, the more amazing it becomes. Like legions of Midwesterners and Northeasterners, the monarch enjoys wintering in warmer climes. In the monarch’s case, that would be central Mexico. Triggered by the cool temperatures of autumn, the butterflies leave their Canadian summer homes and embark on a 2,500 mile journey south. This year, over 55 million of them set out on the two-month trip. They can sprint up to 30 miles per hour, but average about 50 miles a day. They fly at approximately 10,000 feet and have been known to traverse as much as 375 miles of open water. As the monarchs approach their winter grounds, they converge with uncanny precision on a 50-mile gap between Eagle Pass and Del Rio, Texas. It’s there that they cross the Rio Grande and come to rest in one of 12 forest groves west of Mexico City. The butterflies, whose migrations begin in an area stretching from the Canadian Rockies to the eastern seaboard, return year-after-year to the same forest and sometimes to the same tree. When Mexico begins warming up in spring, these same butterflies will head north again. In Texas, they’ll mate; lay eggs and their nine-month life-spans will come to an end. The eggs produce a breeder butterfly with a life-span of only six weeks. Roughly a thousand miles farther north, this fertile crew will mate and produce the longer lived Monarch which will summer in Canada and, in the autumn, begin the trip all over again.
Folks like Bower have spent decades trying to figure out how the monarchs manage to pull off their phenomenal migrations. They’ve long known that like many insects, Monarch behavior is triggered by light and temperature changes. They’ve only just discovered, however, that monarch butterflies share a trait with human beings. It seems that monarchs have a gene that up to now had only been found in mammals. The gene enables the butterfly—and you and me for that matter—to note the passage of time. Though scientists are sure that light, temperature and time are keys to understanding the monarch’s migration, many mysteries remain. It’s likely to take decades longer before science can tell us if older butterflies believe time is flying by (literally) or if adolescent butterflies are clock-watchers during the school year like their human counterparts. Only additional grant money will answer these vexing questions.
What isn’t a mystery is that there’s something in the monarch’s migration that touches the human spirit. Since it turns out that the monarch shares some human characteristics, it may not be anthropomorphizing too much to say that their journey reflects purpose, direction and perseverance. There’s a reason why they travel. The journey isn’t random, but has a clear goal. Finally, in the beating of the butterfly’s wings, there is the will to get the job done. There’s the sense that in the face of impossible odds, they can succeed. That, after all, is what it means to find your way. Purpose, direction and perseverance are the very antithesis of the aimlessness felt by so many folks today. They’re the antidote to fear and uncertainty. Finding your way is the source of achievement and a declaration of hope. It’s spring. Do something fundamental—let your journey begin. —Ebert