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Armchair Tour: Monarch Magic

Thirty-three years ago when I moved to Pacific Grove, officially dubbed “Butterfly Town U.S.A.”, I was flabbergasted by my first foray into monarch land. At that time it was Washington Park, a lovely tree-swathed park that extends over several blocks in a wooded area, surrounded by an artist’s enclave of charming wooden cottages.

It moved me to write this poem, first published in The Monterey County Herald:

Spirited Monarch

The orange and black of Halloween

Is something that I’ve often seen.

As still as pumpkins – oak leaves for stems

Adrift on high – bewitching gems.

An apparition – elusive, small

Glowing in the eyes of fall.

The number of monarchs there was staggering; hundreds of thousands fluttered up in clouds whenever a limb on a Monterey pine was disturbed. A carpet of others, intoxicated during their mating ritual, flapped on the ground. Signs had to be posted “Watch your Step!” so you wouldn’t crush them.

Boughs of bushy pines sagged with the weight of what looked like plain clusters of brown leaves. But on a sunny day, when these artful beauties spread their glorious wings, it was a dizzying sight. Some of us brought blankets to lie on while we watched the show unfold overhead. We were drunk ourselves with the sight of these tangerine gems fluttering en masse in a sapphire sky.

Somewhere along the way, as happens with all good things, the show ended.

Some say it was pine pitch canker that took down their habitat which wasn’t replaced with new trees over time.

Whatever the cause, the next best place to watch them, but in considerably smaller numbers, was at the Butterfly Grove Inn, next to which is a grove of eucalyptus trees also alluring to the bugs.

Eventually the grove became the Monarch Grove Sanctuary, and it now draws tourists from around the world, year after year . . .

Today, I was really working on a case of winter blues and exhaustion from so much marketing, computer glitches and stress. I knew I needed a nature break.

So, at the tail end of my one-hour bike ride, I pulled into the grove and there was volunteer docent, Ro Vaccaro, official butterfly lady of P.G., who helped found Friends of the Monarchs.

I remembered our first meeting: an interview I did at her little P.G. cottage. There she takes international calls around the clock to disseminate information about monarchs.

She said, “The mystery of the metamorphosis gives hope to us ugly caterpillars. We may be at the top of the food chain but we’re not the most evolved creatures on earth. These butterflies can leave a message in their great grandchildren’s brain to navigate. They can change their clothes and fly away and, of course, they don’t kill each other. Their only predators are man and progress, with a dirty capital P: squeezing out the milkweed fields, demolishing the eucalyptus trees.”

Her quest for butterflies began with the sadness of divorce. She started collecting butterfly pins because, “They were a symbol of renewal and hope and rebirth. I decided to wear a butterfly every day and it would perk me up.”

I could see how she earned her title. Every nook and cranny was crowded with butterfly memorabilia: pot holders, jewelry, pillows, figurines, coffee mugs, etc. . . .

Well, there stood the vivacious woman, who has fought her way back from poor health too many times to mention. “It’s the butterflies,” she says. “I have a spiritual connection.”

She was, naturally, bedecked in monarch motif from her socks to her hat.

“I feel down today, Ro,” I said.

“Well, you came to the right place,” she said, wide-eyed and beaming as always. “Just take a peek through the binoculars. I’ve got it trained on a cluster of them.”

I peered through high-powered binoculars to see the butterflies close up and personal. Then I stepped away and tilted my head to watch the awesome array of bits of orange crepe paper, adrift in the crystalline sky.

After floating with them for awhile, I felt restored to sanity.

On the way out, I watched her line up half-a-dozen awe-struck children and tell them about the life of the insect.

They were enraptured – their eyes glassy with wonder. And that’s just the way I left the grove myself . . .

P.S. You may call Ro at (800) 888-PGMonarch



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