Vanity Fair, November 1999
One afternoon at the end of last August a monarch butterfly, a robust, freshly hatched male who had been cruising around for a few days in a meadow in southern Manitoba, taking nectar from asters and goldenrods, abruptly decamped and started to make his way south in a frenzy of flapping. He was following a migratory urge and a specific flight plan that have been inscribed in the genes of monarchs since well before the appearance of the first humans. Soon he met up with others of his kind: large, striking butterflies, their luminous, blood-orange wings scored with black veins and bordered with two rows of white spots.The monarch is at once the most familiar and the most mysterious of insects. There is scarcely a backyard in America through which one has not coasted at sometime or another, scarcely a schoolchild who does not know about its metamorphosis inside a jewel-like, jade-green chrysalis, studded with gold spots, from a candy-striped, black-white-and-yellow caterpillar to an adult butterfly.
The monarch was named in the 17th century for King William 5f Orange. The early colonists called it King Billy. It has had many names through the years, among them the milkweed butterfly, the wanderer, and the storm king. It goes by the official name of Danaus plexippus and is placed by most taxonomists in the subfamily Danainae of the family Nymphalidae of the order Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths).
By the end of summer there may be hundreds of millions of monarchs east of the Rockies, spread out over 155,000 square miles. Each year, as the days shorten, this eastern population performs one of the most spectacular migrations in nature, no less epic than the flight of the passenger pigeons that, before becoming extinct in 1914, blackened the sky over Philadelphia as they began heading north in the spring.
Our Manitoba butterfly joins a little swirling knot of southbound monarchs, and like a river, picking up innumerable tributaries along the way, the knot con verges with swarms and bevies, shimmering lines of translucent orange wings that take an hour to pass, billowing into scintillating clouds of tens of thousands of monarchs wafting up on thermals to 3,000 feet above the ground (scientists have tailed them that high in ultralight airplanes), sailing over cities and mountain ranges, riding 50-knot tailwinds, descending to only a few feet above the ground when there is a strong head wind or the air is too heavy with moisture. Each of them weighs little more than a fiftieth of an ounce, and although their bodies are bloated with lipids, fats they have been storing to live off for the next six months, their wings are no thicker than maple leaves. Some are blown way off course out to the Atlantic, some are pelted down by hail and drown in the Great Lakes. Many drift across highways and are slammed by the ~indshields of cars. But millions manage to skirt the perils, to thread a landscape that human alterations are turning increasingly into a minefield for animals on the move, and miraculously keeping their bearings they fall out of the sky at dusk to bivouac en masse in the same stands of trees year after year.
As early as 1885 a Pennsylvania naturalist, John Hamilton, described a monumental “pit stop” (as some monarch scientists call the phenomenon) in Brigantine, New Jersey, as “almost past belief. ..millions is but feebly expressive. ..miles of them is no exaggeration.” He estimated that the entire aggregation was two and a half miles long by 400 yards wide. In the 1930s, in nearby Cape May, the famed ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson reported such a huge landing that the trees seemed “more orange than green.” One morning in the spring of 1986 my friend Nicasio Romero, a sculptor and Chicano water-rights activist who lives on the Pecos River in northern New Mexico, opened his door to find that his entire six-acre spread was solid with monarchs; he couldn’t step outside without crushing some. Romero was marooned until the butterflies resumed their journey the following afternoon.
Traveling in fits and starts up to 200 miles a day in September and October, the butterflies move diagonally southwest on a broad front across the Gulf States. Some break off and head down the Florida peninsula, or cross the Caribbean to the Yucatan peninsula, and then continue to parts unknown, possibly Guatemala, Honduras, or Costa Rica. But the main waves stream through the Hill Country of Texas and funnel down to the Rio Grande. What happens to them after that remained one of the great unsolved mysteries in the natural sciences as the last quarter of the 20th century began.
By 1972, Dr. Fred A. Urquhart, a zoologist at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough College, was getting close. Having devoted 35 years to the question of where the eastern U.S. population went each fall, Urquhart was the grand old man of monarch research. Fascinated with lepidopterology since he was five, he had started catching large, charismatic moths-lunas, cecropias, and Polyphemuses-fluttering around the streetlights in his hometown of Toronto. In the late 1930s he began tracking the monarchs and experimenting with tagging them to follow their movements. In 1945 he married Norah Patterson, who was no lepidopterist but who became equally consumed by the quest. Carlos Gottfried, a Mexican collaborator of Urquhart’s who would organize Mexico City Boy Scouts to tag monarchs for him in the 1980s, described the Canadian scientist, now 87 and retired in Toronto, as “low-key, a real gentleman. He and Norah are like your midwestern grandparents.”
By 1952 the Urquharts had developed an “alar tag,” as they called it, that could be glued to the leading edge of a monarch’s forewing and would not falloff or impede its flight. That same year they founded the Insect Migration Association, and over the next 24 years they and an army of thousands of volunteers tagged hundreds of thousands of monarchs in Canada, the United States, Central America, the Caribbean, and even as far away as Australia and New Zealand. Gottfried, now 49, said the volunteers he talked to were “very peculiar. People who didn’t have anything to do with their lives, and suddenly they had a purpose: tagging monarchs for Dr. Urquhart.” Single women predominated, it seemed, and many became passionately devoted to the tall, darkly handsome professor and his inspiring cause.
Texas, and the Big Bend and found no monarchs to speak of. Nor was there any evidence from the recovered tags-small, white, numbered labels printed with the request “Send to Zoology, University Toronto, Canada”-that the eastern population joined the western, one of Urquhart’s early theories. A winter colony had been discovered in 1881 roosting on pine trees on the Monterey peninsula in California, but these migrants had come down from west of the Rockies, it turned out, and their numbers were much smaller. In the last two decades some 200 colonies, none with more than 250,000 butterflies, have been found along the California coast. At least 20 have already been wiped out by suburban sprawl.
Everything suggested that the millions of eastern monarchs continued south of the border, but to where? And then what happened to them? Did they remain celibate during the winter months, like their western brethren, who hang in the trees for several months, semi-dormant and in reproductive diapause? Or did they continue to breed, like those in the small colonies found in Florida in 1961 and Arizona in 1968? Urquhart had visions of a hidden Shangri-la-like valley in Mexico, ablaze with flowers, where millions of monarchs were copulating madly. Or was the journey to Central America a one-way ticket? Did they go there to die, like proverbiallemmings?
Sir Rider Haggard, the author of the 1885 adventure novel King Solomons Mines, had reported seeing thousands of monarchs flying south along a volcanic peak east of Mexico City in 1890, and in 1956, Jerzy Rzedowski, a Mexican botanist, had observed in the eastern Sierra Madre, north of Mexico City, a low, scattered wave moving in a southeasterly direction and then, as darkness fell, settling in some mesquite trees. But only a few of Urquhart’s tags were recovered from Mexico. The most tantalizing one was found in the late 1960s in San Luis Potosi, in the desert a few hundred miles north of Mexico City. The butterfly had been tagged by Urquhart himself in his backyard in Toronto.
This isolated recovery didn’t really tell the Urquharts much, so Norah started to write articles about their work for Mexican publications. One in 1972 in The News of Mexico City, a lively newspaper that serves Mexico City’s gringo community, caught the attention of Kenneth Brugger, a 53-year-old American textile engineer who was then living in the sprawling, seething capital. Brugger, who died in November of last year at the age of 80, was fascinated by intellectual puzzles. Although he had no college education, he had risen to chief engineer for Jockey International, the underwear giant back in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and he had perfected the compactor, a fiber-compressing machine that produced the first shrink-resistant T-shirts. In 1965 his wife left him, he recalled to Carlos Gottfried years afterward. “In a deep depression he traveled to Mexico,” Gottfried told me. “One day, down and out on a beach in Acapulco, he met a man who offered him a job at an underwear factory in Ixtapalapa,” a colonia, or district, of Mexico City.
Brugger didn’t know one butterfly from another, but he liked to take drives and hikes with his dog in the rugged, pineforested volcanic highlands outside of Mexico City. On one of these jaunts he drove through a blizzard of the very orange-and-black butterflies Urquhart was hunting for. Responding to the News of Mexico City article, he wrote Urquhart on February 26, 1973, about the sighting. At the time, Urquhart had a research grant from the National Geographic Society, so he hired Brugger to run down every rumor and follow every lead, to visit every place where a tagged monarch had been recaptured, and to question the locals. Brugger returned to the scene of the butterfly blizzard, but the trail had gone cold. A year of diligent but futile detective work ensued as Brugger showed photos of monarchs to wary campesinos (farmers) in mountain villages, only to meet with puzzled headshaking from them.
In 1974, Brugger, then 55 years old, married Catalina Aguado, a much younger woman he had met through a mutual friend. Catalina (or Cathy, as the Englishlanguage accounts refer to her) was from Michoacan, the state west of Mexico City, where most of the monarch reports and rumors had been coming from. The couple began to comb the craggy backcountry of eastern Michoacan on a motorcycle. Cathy was understandably much better than her husband at breaking the ice with the locals. One day in late 1974 the Bruggers found masses of dead monarchs along a mountain road. Excitedly they wrote Urquhart, who responded, “You must be getting really close. Don’t give up now.” The couple asked around and a 73-year-old man named Don Benito Juarez called in and said he knew of a place where there were trees filled with butterflies. But he was reluctant to take them there, because the site was on one of the ejidos, the rural common lands distributed to the campesinos after the 1910 Mexican Revolution. The ejidatarios don’t take kindly to trespassers on their hardwon real estate.
But after some persuasion Juarez agreed to show the Bruggers the site. It was near the town of Donato Guerra, approximately 100 miles west of Mexico City. They drove on a steep logging road as far as they could up the slopes of an inactive 13,500-foot volcano called Cerro Pelon and then proceeded on foot through a soaring forest of Montezuma pine, oyamel fir, and cedar. Narrow shafts of sunlight shot down to light their way. Mter several hours they came to an alpine meadow, on the edge of which, completely smothering about four acres of 60-foottall oyamels, were perhaps 15 million monarchs. Every trunk was so encrusted as to be invisible, every bough sagged with their weight. The butterflies’ wings were closed, revealing only their drab orangy-tan undersides, making them seem like so many pale dead leaves (although this ingenious camouflage was lost on Brugger, who was color-blind). They were motionless, except for an occasional frisson here and there.
A cloud passed overhead, and when the sunlight returned, the butterflies rose into the air like a huge wave rolling into a calm bay. It was January 2, 1975, a date as momentous in the history of lepidopterology as July 30, 1858-John Hanning Speke’s location of the source of the Nile~was in the annals of geographical exploration. Who would have guessed that the monarchs came all this way, more than 2,000 miles, to spend the winter at 10,000 feet above sea level, three-quarters of the way up a volcano in central Mexico?
One would have expected that Mexican naturalists at least would have known about it, but they didn’t. The local campesinos, obviously, were aware of the seasonal presence of uncountable multitudes of torpid palomas, as they called butterflies, but never having been anywhere else, they had no way of knowing that the phenomenon was anything special. They believed that the monarchs were the returning souls of ~ the dead, because they usually showed ~ up around November 1 and 2, All Saints’ 3 Day and the Day of the Dead. One 10- ~ cal group of semi-acculturated Indians, : the Otomi-Mazahuas, had a special word :; for the monarch, seperito, which means ~ “the butterfly that passes in October ~ and November”; the Mazahuas ate (and § apparently still do eat) the protein-rich = monarchs, frying them up in the insects’ own oily lipids. The local campesinos let their cows graze on the butterflies that fall out of the trees and litter the forest floor. Sometimes they set fire to the monarchdripping trees for fun, and stomped on the creatures, joking, “There goes your grandfather. ..and your late sister-in-law.”
Brugger called Urquhart in Canada with the fantastic news. Urquhart cabled back his congratulations and instructions to keep looking. If there were only 15 million or so monarchs in this colony, there must be other colonies. Within the year the Bruggers had found two others, El Rosario, between 10,000 and 11,000 feet, and Sierra Chincua, between 8,500 and 11,000 feet, both a few miles from the mining town of Angangueo. So improbable did the elevation of the sites seem that Urquhart wanted to be sure that the butterflies were, in fact, the monarchs from eastern North America. But he had heart trouble and had been advised by his doctor against travel, so a year passed before the Urquharts, accompanied by the Bruggers and a photographer, reached Sierra Chincua.
“Norah and I are no longer young,” Urquhart wrote in an article for the August 1976 National Geographic. (They were both in their mid-60s.) “As we walked along the mountain crest, our hearts pounded and our feet felt leaden. The rather macabre thought occurred to me: Suppose the strain proved too much? It would be the ultimate irony to have come this far and then never witness what we’d waited so long to see!”
The article, called “Found at Last: The Monarch’s Wmter Home,” continued: “Then we saw them. Masses of butterflies everywhere! In the quietness of semidormancy, they festooned the tree branches, they enveloped the oyamel trunks, they carpeted the ground in their tremulous legions. Other multitudes-those that now on the verge ofspring had begun to feel the immemorial urge to fly north-filled the air with their sun-shot wings, shimmering against the blue mountain sky and drifting across our vision in blizzard flakes of orange and black.”
A branch, three inches thick, broke “under its burden of languid butterflies and crashed to the earth, spilling its live cargo.” Urquhart stooped to examine “the mass of dislodged monarchs.” One of them, by an incredible stroke of fortune, had been tagged. The tagger, Urquhart determined when he got back to his motel, had been one Jim Gilbert in Chaska, Minnesota. Urquhart had his proof. He marveled how “such a fragile, wind-tossed scrap of life” could have found “its way (only once!) across prairies, deserts, mountain valleys, even cities, to this remote pinpoint on the map of Mexico.”
In the days that followed, Urquhart, Norah, Brugger, and Cathy tagged with distinctive fuchsia labels 10,000 of “my beautiful monarch butterflies,” as Urquhart called them in his 1987 book, The Monarch Butterfly: International1ravelel: Decades of tedious detective work had finally paid off. Urquhart had found his holy grail.
Urquhart had no idea at the time that another American lepidopterist, Lin
coln Brower, was himself close to discovering the locations of the winter colonies. Twenty years Urquhart’s junior, Brower had grown up on the edge of the Great Swamp in New Jersey, and, like Urquhart, he started collecting butterflies at the age of five. When he was 18, Brower played hooky from school to indulge his passion and caught a beautiful Feralia jocosa, one of the first spring moths, whose mottled green wings resemble lichen. His truancy, however, was discovered, and for punishment he had to sit in a chair for a day, suspended from classes.
“At that point I knew I would never be like the rest of them,” Brower told me when I visited him earlier this year at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, where he is a research professor of biology. “I learned from this early little act of civil disobedience that you have to rely on your own judgment as to what’s interesting in life.”
In 1953, Brower married his high-school sweetheart, Jane Van Zandt, and they both enrolled in Yale’s Ph.D. program in entomology. Jane wrote her dissertation on mimicry in butterflies, of which the monarch and the viceroy, a butterfly from a different subfamily that does its best to look like a monarch, are a classic case. The conventional wisdom is that since monarch caterpillars eat milkweed, whose leaves and sap contain cardiac glycosides (heart drugs) toxic to birds, birds learn to avoid monarchs; viceroys, which are nontoxic to birds, mimic the monarchs so birds won’t eat them. The mimicry of an unpalatable species by a palatable species is known as Batesian mimicry. Accomplishing a resemblance takes many, many generations and is governed by the evolutionary process of natural selection. In fact, Batesian mimicry was a cornerstone of Darwin’s theory of evolution. The more a viceroy looks like a monarch, the greater its chance of surviving, until eventually the entire species engages in this masquerade.
What is really going on, it turns out, is far more complicated. Recent testing has shown that the viceroy isn’t all that palatable to birds, either, so, as Brower explained, you have not only Batesian mimicry but also Mullerian mimicry-two unpalatable species converging on a similar color pattern-and automimicry, which is mimicry among butterflies within the same species. The Browers discovered that there is a broad spectrum, ranging from perfectly edible to extremely poisonous, among the 108 species of milkweed that monarchs eat, so the edible monarchs are “automimics” of the toxic ones.
The Browers increasingly focused their research on what Lincoln calls the “coevolutionary arms race” between the monarchs and the milkweeds. The butterflies have been voraciously eating milkweed for millions of years, and the plants have been defending themselves by becoming more toxic, which the butterflies counter by evolving their ability to metabolize the new levels of cardiac glycosides without harm to themselves. In northern Florida, for instance, a species of milkweed is so toxic that about a third of the young caterpillars that eat it become cataleptic (in a state of suspended animation).
Both the milkweeds and the monarchs were originally Neotropical species, but in the Miocene epoch, 24 million years ago, the milkweed family experienced an “adaptive radiation.” Some species evolved frost tolerance and expanded their range into North America. The monarchs followed, but they never developed the ability to withstand freezing temperatures, so each fall, as the milkweed dies back in North America, they have to fly down to the tropics and lie low for several months until the plant re-emerges and the temperature rises. The different areas east of the Rockies from Canada to Mexico that successive generations of the eastern monarchs occupy in the course of the summer are those of their food plant as it sprouts farther and farther north in the abandoned fields, roadsides, railroad beds, and other disturbed land that it prefers.
In 1970, the Browers split, and Jane left the field; she is now a New England antiques dealer. Four years later Lincoln and two colleagues discovered that you can “fmgerprint” a monarch by analyzing its cardiac glycosides. Each species of milkweed has its own cardiac-glycoside pattern and its own geographic range, so you can pinpoint where the butterfly fed as a caterpillar.
Lincoln Brower, now 68, was eager to find the eastern monarchs’ winter col
onies and “fingerprint” the butterflies in them. Hearing in 1973 that the Urquharts were getting close, Brower sent them a paper comparing the cardiac-glycoside content of various eastern populations, and Urquhart wrote him that “if we do fmd the areas of concentration we will certainly be able to arrange for specimens to be sent to you or, if you wish, give you exact locations and names of persons to contact.”
Actually, Urquhart and Brower already had a long history of bad blood. Urquhart disagreed violently with Brower about the toxicity of milkweed, and he went as far as to reject the entire notion of Batesian mimicry. The early pioneers, he claimed, boiled and ate milkweed pods like snow peas,and in the 50s and early 60s the Urquharts staged a series of dramatic experiments in which they had people eating monarchs to show they weren’t toxic. Their subjects reported that the insects tasted like dry toast. In 1962, Brower, reviewing Urquhart’s book The Monarch Butterfly for the journal Ecology, took Urquhart to task for his stance, and the ideological gap between the two widened with the 1969 publication in Scientific American of the results of the Browers’ celebrated “puking blue jay” experiments. Brower, then at Amherst College, fed blue jays palatable monarchs, which the birds gobbled up happily. Then he fed some different jays monarchs raised on the very toxic milkweed species Asclepias curassavica, which they promptly vomited. Thereafter the second group avoided further offerings of monarchs, including palatable ones, while the first group continued to eat them with gusto.
Urquhart would have none of it, and the bitterness between the rivals simmered. In 1973, Brower was asked by the National Science Foundation to do an outside peer review on a grant proposal from Urquhart. Brower recommended in the most glowing terms, he told me, the proposal, which asked for funds to continue the quest for the eastern monarchs’ winter colonies, but the grant was rejected, according to Brower, because “Urquhart didn’t know how to write a grant proposal.” Urquhart, however, was convinced that Brower had sabotaged the grant, and he implied such in a letter three years later.
When the Urquharts announced the discovery of Cerro Pelon in the 1975 edition of their annual newsletter, Brower called Urquhart in order to take him up on his two-year-old offer. But Urquhart explained he couldn’t reveal the locations until National Geographic published his article on the colonies. Mter the article appeared in August of the following year, Brower again wrote Urquhart, and received on December 3 a reply to the effect that he and the society’s president and editorial staff had met and “agreed that the site should not be divulged since it was anticipated that many people, collectors, film makers, etc. would wish to visit and, as happened in other similar situations, destroy it. …I would suggest to you, since the Mexican site is not available, that you examine the …monarchs that pass along the. ..Gulf Coast during October and November. These monarchs will eventually reach Mexico and you would accomplish the same results as visiting the area.”
Furious that his equally legitimate scientific motives were blown off, Brower set out to find the colonies on his own. The National Geographic article disguised the location, saying it was in the Sierra Madre, a rugged mountain range 250 miles to the northeast of the actual sites, but a brief announcement of the discovery by the Urquharts in the Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society was more helpful. The colony, they reported, was at 10,000 feet, “on the slope of a volcanic mountain situated in the northern part of the state of Michoacan.” So Brower and his colleague WIlliam Calvert pored over a topographical map of Michoacan and circled everywhere above 10,000 feet. This narrowed the search to a few mountain ranges in the geologically recent province in central Mexico known as the Transverse Neovolcanic Belt, and on December 26, 1976, Calvert and three colleagues drove down to Mexico. Four days later they drove up to Angangueo and were taken by a local man, Alian Ariega, to the Chincua colony.
Hearing the news, Brower rushed to Chincua. “It was like walking into Chartres Cathedral and seeing light coming through the stained-glass windows,” Brower recalled two years ago in an article for National Wildlife magazine. “This was the eighth wonder of the world.”
As luck would have it, the Urquharts and the Bruggers were at that very
moment tagging monarchs inside the colony. The Urquharts “were bewildered by our arrival and initially treated us rudely, then with hostility,” Brower wrote in a 1995 article, this one for the Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society. He related the episode in more explicit detail to me: “I put my hand out. Urquhart barely took it, then he withdrew his hand and asked, ‘How did you get here?’ It was a moment.” Brower’s assistant managed to take a snapshot of Urquhart sitting on a log and fuming. It is a portrait of a man who is totally bummed out.
Brower published his own article about the site in the June-July 1977 issue of Natural History magazine. He estimated that it contained between 14 million and 100 million monarchs. There was no mention of the encounter with the Urquharts or the fact that the Urquharts and the Bruggers had gotten there first. The Urquharts and their loyal army of volunteers were outraged. That September, Urquhart wrote a special eight-page report to his research associates accusing Brower of having followed Brugger to the site and starting a fIre “to dislodge monarchs from their roosting trees to provide material for dramatic photographic shots.” Brower vehemently denied both allegations in an article in The New York llmes.
“The Urquharts were devastated that we found the place,” Brower told me. “We were interlopers.” Mter the vicious attacks against him, Brower gave Urquhart no quarter, missing no opportunity to point out errors in Urquhart’s subsequent monographs, while Urquhart snubbed Brower completely, never discussing or even citing his work.
Carlos Gottfried, who has worked with and is fond of both men, told me that Brower “is a passionate scientist and so is Urquhart, but Urquhart’s science wasn’t up to the same level as Brower’s. In the 70s, Brower brushed off Urquhart as a rank amateur. He was very arrogant in those days. Now he’s a nice guy. He has grown. It’s been kind of beaten out of him.”
This was my impression of Brower from the day I spent with him in Virginia. The rivalry, Brower admitted sadly, “polarized the small community of people who care about the monarch, and this impeded the conservation effort.” Kurt Johnson, a lepidopterist and coauthor of the recently published Nabokovs Blues, explained the rivalry as largely generational: “I know both Lincoln and Fred. Both are great people, but rivalries -develop when you have institutions and people with the same research interests. The thing that’s special about this case is something we call the clash between the old science and the new science. Brower received his training more recently, so he was simply able to bring to bear on monarch research more sophisticated methods than Urquhart had been trained in. That’s something that all of us deal with in science: methods change so quickly and the level of sophistication changes so quickly.”
The Urquharts soon had to retire from the scene; they weren’t physically up to j working at the high altitude. Today, Urquhart is not involved, but his tagging pro~ gram continues, run by Orley “Chip” Tay: lor at the University of Kansas. It is now a computerized effort, and you can sign up to join it on the Monarch Watch Web site(www.MonarchWatch.com).
The next step after the first discoveries was to locate other colonies besides the three major ones at Pelon, Chincua, and El Rosario. This search was carried out by Bill Calvert and others from Brower’s lab. Calvert spent months at a time in the mountains, sleeping in the forest or in the back of a VW van that Amherst had provided. Calvert, now aged 59, is “a true field biologist,” Gottfried told me. Eventually, Calvert and others found 57 sites on 11 separate volcanoes in the Transverse Neovolcanic Belt. Their cones are like forested islands thrust up in a high plateau that is now planted mainly with corn. “Calvert has spent the rest of his life mucking with monarchs,” Brower told me. Based in Austin, Texas, but no longer affiliated with any academic institution, Calvert leads trips to Michoacan during the butterfly season.
If only the monarchs continued down to Costa Rica, one of the world’s most environmentally enlightened countries, or if they spent the winter in, say, the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, it would be possible to protect their sites. But instead they land in a country whose natural resources have been plundered for centuries, first by Spain and then, thanks to the granting of large mining and timbering concessions by President Porfirio Diaz around the turn of the century, by the United States.
“Our word for wilderness, maleza, means ‘a bad thing,'” Gottfried explained. “Land to Mexicans is worthless unless it is being used.”
Brower and Calvert soon realized that the first priority was to safeguard the colonies. The forest was fast disappearing, particularly at the Rosario site, where the village carne right up to the trees in which the butterflies roosted. But to get anybody in Mexico City to care was a monumental task. The politicians had no environmental awareness; the notion of stewardship of the natural world was simply not in their mind-set. “We don’t even have a word for accountability,” a Mexican friend told me. “We don’t say, ‘I dropped it,’ but’ Se cayo’-‘It decided to fall.'”
Who was going to take seriously two American lepidopterists telling them, “You have the Eighth Wonder of the World in your backyard and guess what it is: a bunch of butterflies”? The only solution Brower could think of was to “overwhelm the politicians with data” and to provide them with an unassailable “scientific rationale for not cutting down the forest.” He and Calvert set up weather stations in the colonies and determined that it seldom froze there, because the forest acted like a blanket; below the forest, where the trees had been cleared, it froze regularly. Cutting a single tree in the forest, Brower argued, was like cutting a hole in your sleeping bag when you were camping out. Any butterflies directly exposed to the night sky would be killed. Calvert and Brower wrote a paper on the effect of forest thinning on monarch mortality that Gottfried said was “the linchpin” in persuading the Mexican government to include the colonies in its national-park system.
Urquhart’s 1976 National Geographic article also attracted new friends for the monarch-a group of dynamic young Mexican entrepreneurs who had weekend homes in the Valle de Bravo, a lakeside resort town 20 miles south of the butterfly area. Highly educated, all fluent in English, the members of this group shared a love of the outdoors. As Gottfried explained, “We all saw the article and wondered, What the hell is this and where is it?”
Among them was Rodolfo Ogarrio, a lawyer who today runs the Mexican Foundation for Environmental Education, which is chaired by Manuel Arango, one of the few wealthy environmentalists in Mexico. “The first time my family became exposed to the butterflies was on March 21, 1973,” the charismatic 54-yearold Ogarrio recalled in his office in Mexico City’s fashionable Colonia Polanco. “We were trekking in the western foothills of the Nevado de Toluca volcano, and on top of a hill called Cerro de las Palomas, above 10,000 feet, we found thousands of monarchs in a field of milkweed. We had no idea what it meant until three years later, when the National Geographic article appeared.”
After reading the article, Ogarrio’s cousin Gina Ogarrio became obsessed with finding the location of the sites. She approached Urquhart, who told her it was “impossible. The colony is much too fragile.” But Gina persisted, threatening to shadow his every movement, until he relented and gave her the name of a local man who would take them to Sierra Chincua. “It was something that changed our lives,” remembered Ogarrio, who was taken there by Gina. “It was a perfect blue day. All the butterflies were flying because of the bright sunshine. We had no information or understanding of anything, except for what we had read in the article. The experience was sensory, almost religious. I remember this scene of us lying on our backs and watching the butterflies, a silent river of wings, fly down to a small creek to drink, thousands of living pieces of stained glass against the bright-blue sky moving in all directions. We stayed hours in silence, not speaking, absorbing something we realized from the very beginning was sacred. Another couple with us gathered some of the butterflies on the forest floor to show their children. Back in Mexico City they opened the bag and the butterflies flew out. They were alive! And then we realized that in our ignorance we could have trampled hundreds of what we considered to be dead butterflies.
“I left with the thought, This has to be protected. This is not a place where humans can just walk in, and it just will have to happen. This is something that we have to do. Gina swore she would never go back and she hasn’t. What I did was start groping my way to do something. I was already searching, desperately, for something larger than my life and my job. And because we were working for something larger than ourselves, there often happened acts of synchronicity, in which difficulties that seemed insurmountable solved themselves so we could advance. There were so many positive coincidences.”
Ogarrio began contacting scientific institutions in Mexico and abroad. He wrote
to the World Wildlife Fund. “There were no environmental organizations in Mexico, although there had been national parks since 1930,” he told me. “I didn’t divulge the location of the butterflies until 1980, when I found out that a growing number of people were going to see them and treating them with no respect, shaking the trees to see them fall. I became quite infuriated with the situation.” In 1980, Ogarrio joined forces with Brower and Calvert, and they were able to persuade the minister of agriculture and forestry, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas (who later became the governor of Michoacan and is now the mayor of Mexico City and an opposition presidential candidate), to push through a broad decree to protect the monarch. “But I realized that there had to be some nongovernmental organization devoted to the interests of the butterfly,” so Ogarrio wrote up the charter for a nonprofit group to be called Monarcha A.C. (the “A. C.” standing for Asociacion Civil).
While Ogarrio found Chincua in Michoacan, an eccentric Englishwoman, Virginia “Whitty” McHenry, took Gottfried to Pelon in the state of Mexico in December 1977, and he felt the same call to duty. A mutual friend in Valle de Bravo introduced him to Ogarrio, who invited him to join the board of Monarcha. “In the beginning we waited for hours outside ministers’ offices,” recalled Gottfried. “We were laughed at. Nobody gave us the time of day. The ministries in Mexico City were these Machiavellian oxymorons like the Ministry of Urban Development and Ecology and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. ‘Why are you so interested in these freaking butterflies?’ the ministers would ask us. Five years later the same politicians were saying, ‘S~ Dr. Gottfried. How interesting.’ I took every ambassador and the heads of all the large corporations, and television and movie crews, out there. We got the government to issue a monarch stamp and a 50peso coin. We promoted the bejesus out of the thing, and eventually it caught. The phenomenon was bigger than all the forces around it.”
By 1986 there were several encouraging developments. The World WIldlife Fund decided to sponsor Monarcha, and though Gottfried said it never gave more than $20,000 a year, “having W.W.F behind us gave us tremendous credibility.” A shrewd politician, Manuel Camacho, became head of a newly formed Ministry of Ecology. “There was by now a growing environmental movement in Mexico to which the government was not sufficiently responsive,” Ogarrio told me, “and Camacho immediately saw the value of protecting the butter flies in environmental and local and international political terms.”
Calvert and Brower designed a proposal to make the five colonies in which probably 75 percent of the monarchs roost into sanctuaries with a combined area of 62 square miles, of which 18 were “core areas” that could not be touched, and the balance “buffer areas,” whose trees the local ejidatarios could harvest only by applying for permits from the Ministry of Agriculture and Hydraulic Resources. But if there was any evidence that the butterflies would be harmed, the cutting could be prohibited.
Another powerful ally, Homero Aridjis, joined the fray. A well-known poet,
now 59 years old, Aridjis had been Mexico’s ambassador to Switzerland and the Netherlands. “Homero had integrity, moral authority, and national visibility, and he wasn’t afraid to stick his neck out,” Gottfried told me. “We were the low-key activists, lobbying behind the scenes. We had to be careful not to be too associated with Brower, who was like a bull in a china shop, dangerously ignorant of Mexican culture. He would say things like ‘Why don’t you just put these people in prison if they’re cutting [trees] illegally?'”
Aridjis had a special affection for the monarch, having grown up in a mountain village in Michoacan called Contepec, which is right next to Cerro Altamirano, one of the five sites in Brower and Calvert’s proposal. “The hill with the butterflies faced the village, and as a child I used to go to see them,” Aridjis recalled over lunch recently in Mexico City. “For me they are visual music, the apotheosis of light, motion, and beauty, a solar-light symphony. In the morning the butterflies are in the trees, with their wings closed. When the sun comes out it touches their wings and they begin to open. Noon is the hour of activity. I learned to love nature through the butterflies. We didn’t know they were coming from as far away as Canada, or that there were people like Dr. Urquhart who were looking for their wintering places.”
Aridjis wrote poems about the monarchs, and, in the end, he persuaded Mexican president Miguel de la Madrid to sign the decree that made the five sites into an ecological reserve in 1986. Urquhart was unable to attend the ceremony dedicating the reserve because on that very day he had a triple-bypass operation. When he got out of the hospital, he wrote Ogarrio a letter which Ogarrio now has framed on the wall of his office. “This is the first time that I have had enough strength to …sit in front of my typewriter. You are doing a wonderful job, Rodolfo. I can foresee the day when many thousands of visitors will
visit the monarch sites-one of the most remarkable phenomena in the world today. I trust that you will be able to encourage the local citizens to take advantage of this popularity by providing accommodation, tours, and various souvenirs. I am certain you have given all this considerable thought. If the presence of the monarchs is meaningful to the citizens of Mexico, you will not need to fear for their preservation.”
The local ejidatarios, however, were hopping mad that the use of 18 square
miles had been taken from them, and within days of the decree they began to clear-cut one of the sanctuaries, Chivati-Huacal. “The butterflies returned to the sites as they had for thousands of years, and there were no trees,” Aridjis told me grimly. “They stayed around for several days in confusion, and finally left for God knows where.” (Brower told me, however, that some monarchs do return to roost in what is left of this sanctuary, but not every year and not in the numbers they used to.)
As with many cases in which Mexican law is flagrantly violated, the precise circumstances of the devastation of ChivatiHuacal are murky. I collected several explanations for why the trees were cut by the ejidatarios: (1) in protest; (2) to chase away the monarchs, whose presence the ejidatarios thought would result in the loss of their access to the forest; (3) because the ejidatarios feared they would not be able to harvest the wood in the future, so they had better get it now.
But Aridjis suspected that high-level government corruption was the actual catalyst. “To give you a taste of the politics of duplicity, on October 14, 1986, only five days after the decree, the Ministry of Agriculture and Hydraulic Resources gave the ejidos permits to cut without restriction in the buffer zones that were renewable for the next 12 years,” Aridjis told me. “I only found this out in 1992.”
At six on a Saturday morning last July, Gottfried picked me up at my hotel in Mexico City in one of his five vintage Jeep Wagoneers in order to visit Pelon. The monarchs would not arrive for another five months, but we wanted to see how successful the preservation efforts had been. Gottfried is a vibrant, bearded man. A fanatical paragiider, he likes to jump off mountains in Valle de Bravo and make like a monarch. We sped through the usually clogged streets of one of the world’s largest cities, 16 million souls suffocating on their own fumes. The pollution here is the worst on the planet, so bad that in February, during the winter inversion, sparrows have been known to drop dead from the trees in Chapultepec Park, and you can allegedly get hepatitis simply from breathing, as fecal storms waft into the city from outlying shantytowns. The monarch colonies are only 100 miles away.
Before long we were wending our way up into craggy, forested high country. Oyamel firs loomed overhead, their tops veiled in mist, their thickly needled branches drooping. “The only remaining oyamel forests are here,” Gottfried told me. “Oyamels once spread from coast to coast, but during the presidency of Porfirio Diaz, American and British companies came in and took most of them. Alexander von Humboldt”-the great 19th-century German naturalist who spent five years exploring Latin America and classifying its flora and fauna-“called the tree Abies religiosa because their forests are like cathedrals, and the natives used to have religious ceremonies in them.”
After several hours we reached a high plateau spattered with volcanic cones. The campesinos were harvesting avocado trees. The avocado is native to the region. So is com, the creation of which from domestication of wild strains of maize triggered the New World’s agricultural revolution and gave rise to the high culture that Cortes found in the Valley of Mexico in the 16th century. The people in this part of the world have an ancient and profound relationship with com. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that the campesinos are as dependent on com as the monarch is on milkweed; you can see cornfields eating up the sides of the volcanoes. Gottfried explained that “the mission of agrarian reform, which the Mexican Revolution was fought for, is to deal out the land and to convert forest to com. The party”-the Institutional Revolutionary Party, P.R.I., which has ruled Mexico for the last 70 years-“gives the campesinos seed and fertilizer, buys their com, and sells them back the flour. The planners have everything ass-backward. The com should be in the plains, the trees in the mountains. Trees are the obvious crop to plant up here, but that would be contrary to the paternalistic revolutionary model. The oyamel grows nearly 365 days a year. It never goes into winter dormancy, unlike northern firs. It is soft and full of water and a fantastic pulp tree. A good man with an ax can chop one down in minutes. But instead we stupidly plant com, and are turning what was once the world’s richest coniferous forest into an arid landscape like Spain, and there are only a few remnants of the forest on the volcanoes.”
Tragically, the areas of greatest biodiversity in Mexico are also areas of grinding rural poverty. One hundred and fifty thousand people live in the monarch area, and as Jurgen Hoth, the scientific at tache at the Mexican Embassy in Ottawa, told me, “The best-laid plans in Mexico City to save the butterflies will come to nothing until the local social and economic problems are taken care of.”
In 1995, Monarcha A.C. closed up shop under murky circumstances. It wasn’t officially disbanded, it just faded away. Rodolfo Ogarrio told me that its mission had been accomplished: the monarch was now a well-known and beloved Mexican phenomenon, its colonies were sanctuaries, and the local people were being trained in ecotourism. World Wildlife’s Mexico program has taken over the monarchs’ cause, but the butterflies are far from out of the woods-or, I should say, safe in them.
Guillermo Castilleja, head of World Wildlife Mexico, Brower, Calvert, and their conservationist colleagues have determined that if the monarchs are to survive their existing sanctuaries must be greatly enlarged, and new ones created. They have been preparing a revision of the 1986 decree to present to the current administration of President Ernesto Zedillo, which calls for the reserve to be expanded to 174 square miles. Castilleja, over dinner at his apartment in Mexico City, showed me an aerial photo with the locations of the colonies marked on it. Some are in the buffer areas, and many are not in the sanctuaries at all and thus completely exposed. Since the decree, it has also become clear that the butterflies migrate down the watersheds in the course of the season, up to two miles in some cases, so the combined protected area will have to be tripled, according to Castilleja.
If the conservationists have their way, more forest will be taken from the ejidatarios, and “there will be a new flourishing of conflict,” Julia Carabias, the Mexican secretary of the environment, predicted. For better or worse, the discovery of the monarchs by the outside world has already transformed the local culture. Most of the campesinos I talked to about it thought for the better. About a hundred thousand tourists come to see the butterflies in a season, each paying 15 pesos-$1.50-for admission, and all this goes to the ejidos. But not all the ejidos who are affected by this invasion benefit, and a group of campesinos that calls itself the Alianza has been threatening to make trouble unless the tourist dollars are distributed more equitably and their continued access to the forest is respected.
Gottfried and I reached the town of Donato Guerra on a new asphalt road. He recalled that on his first trip here he had laid logs across the streams. “These roads have all been paved and the villages all have electricity and concrete buildings now because of the butterflies,” he told me.
We pulled into the pueblito, the hamlet of Macheros, and were greeted by Asuncion “Cho” Moreno, who was paid by the state as a vigilante to guard the Pelon sanctuary, which is the biggest, comprising 31 square miles. Gottfried said that he had personally drawn its boundaries. In no time we were on scrawny, surefooted, extremely intelligent horses, picking our way up through a magical forest of oyamel, cedar, and Montezuma pine.
After an hour and a half the morning mist, which smothers the ribs and ridges of the volcano and is known locally as el lagarto, the lizard, had burned off, and we came out into a natural, grassy meadow. “Now you are going to enter heaven,” Gottfried announced. The final summit of Pelon loomed another 2,500 feet above us, sheltering the Llano Tres Governadores, as the meadow is called. “Pelon” means “the bald one.” There is a capstone at the very top, where the lava hardened like a scab after it had finished spewing. A dozen head of cattle were grazing in the meadow. I waded into the woods, 10 yards from the edge of the meadow, where Gottfried had told me the butterflies roosted. It was quite open, with a dense, tangled understory.
I found one oyamel about a quarter of whose trunk had been recently chopped into; the axman had evidently determined it was rotten and thus not worth cutting down. On the other end of the meadow was a bad road leading down to the ejido of Nicolas Romero. An oyamel had been dropped with a chain saw right across the road, and about 40 feet up its trunk a 15foot section had been cut out for beams. There were fresh tracks of the truck that had probably carried the wood out. So oyamels were being jacked right in the core area. This did not bode well for the future of the monarchs.
“Who’s doing this?” I asked Cho’s son Antonio, and he said, “In truth, I don’t know. It must be the people of Nicolas Romero.”
The World Wildlife Fund believes the only way to secure the sanctuaries is to buy the land from the ejidos, but Gottfried doesn’t think this will work. “Can you imagine what they’d do to this if it wasn’t theirs?” he argued. “Let’s say they had an army up here to guard the monarchs. Who’s going to take care of the army, and even if some people are arrested, who’s going to try them? By the time they figure all that out, the forest is gone. The best thing is to lease the land from the ejidatarios. Then it’s still theirs. You have to go to them and say, ‘How much would you make from cutting this tree down, and I’ll match it.’ They’ll still cut some down, but they’ll feel morally obligated to take care of the forest for their grandchildren.”
The mystery of the monarch is only partly solved: we now know where they go, but still not how they get there. We know the eastern monarchs remain in sexual diapause like the ones in California, clinging to their trees, until one day in early March the colonies come alive. All the butterflies awaken, their sex organs fully developed, and they proceed to engage in a huge orgy, males jumping females in the air, couples thrashing on the forest floor and rising up into the trees in coital ecstasy. Then they head north again, but in a much more dispersed fashion. The females usually lay their eggs in the Gulf Coast states and die soon afterward. (Reproductively active monarchs live for only two to six weeks.)
Except for four months of winter dormancy, the butterflies are perpetually on the move, and Lincoln Brower’s theory is that the direction of their movement is determined by day length, that they are basically moving clockwise one degree per day. “The migratory trigger and the orientation system of the monarch may be as simple as a built-in response to the changing rate of day length,” he told me. “After the spring equinox the butterflies leave their colonies and head due north, up to Texas. A new generation continues northeasterly up to Wisconsin, Minnesota, and southern Canada, then, after the summer solstice, the next generation starts to fan east into New England. By the fall equinox the third to fifth generation is heading south and southwest, leaving North America in force.”
Gottfried told me that since preColumbian times the local people have navigated their lives by the solstices and each spring make a pilgrimage to the top of Pelon in order to sing to a pre-Columbian cross, representing the four cardinal points, which is located there. I wondered if they realized that they were on the same wavelength as the monarchs.
Gottfried believed that the association of the butterflies with the returning souls of the dead is also pre-Christian. “I don’t think the local padre came up with that one,” he told me. “I think it’s much older.” The monarchs, he pointed out, are the same color as the zen1pasuchil, the orange flowers the can1pesinos put on the graves of dead relatives as offerings. Orange and black are also the colors of the Day of the Dead (and our Halloween), when the monarchs begin to show up in Michoacan. Is this just a coincidence, or is there some lost connection?
Brower emphasized that his day-length theory is still only just that. The genes
that govern the monarchs’ migratory behavior have not yet been found, but Brower’s 37year-old son, Andrew, a geneticist at the University of Oregon, is busily comparing the DNA of the eastern and western populations and the resident Mexican monarchs, a slightly darker subspecies called Danaus plexippus n1egalippe, which feeds on the abundant local milkweed and does not migrate north.
Andrew Brower told me about another genetic issue now confronting the butterflies, which may be as great a problem for them as the deforestation in Mexico, and which could do them in before they even get there: the transgenic com developed by the agribusiness firms Novartis, Monsanto, and AgrEvo that is now being widely planted throughout the American Midwest. This new com has been genetically engineered so that a gene from a naturally occurring bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, is spliced into its genome. Bt com, as it is known, kills the larvae (caterpillars) of a moth called the European com borer, which attack com, but it is also lethal to virtually all other lepidoptera, including monarchs, as has been demonstrated by a recent experiment at Cornell in which milkweed was dusted with Bt-corn pollen. Twenty million acres, 25 percent of America’s com, are now gene-altered, and in many of these areas milkweed grows on the edges of cornfields and is exposed to Bt pollen. The toxic pollen could end up on the food plants of other lepidoptera such as swallowtails and luna moths as well, so not only monarchs but who knows what other species could be affected.
The Environmental Defense Fund, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and other groups have petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to restrict the planting of Bt com until its side effects-which Lincoln Brower said “have been swept under the rug”-are known.
Bt corn may already be taking a toll on the eastern monarchs. This was not agood year for them, Brower told me, although they were locally abundant in our valley in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, where by the beginning of August there were three generations simultaneously in various stages of their metamorphosis. My four- and five-year-old sons and I found seven caterpillars feeding on milkweed in a small clearing in the woods above our house. We raised them until they pupated into gold-studded jade chrysalides, from which they emerged as gorgeous butterflies 10 days to a fortnight later. Then we glued to their wings tags that Brower had sent us, and released them from our deck, wishing them Godspeed on their perilous journey.
One thought on “Flight of the Monarchs”
Big story about the Monarch butterfly. But what a pity: not a single picture.