This article was written by Candy Sarikonda, originally published in the Wild Ones National Journal in November 2016.
Monarchs are a flagship species, a butterfly that is recognized and enjoyed by many people. Conservationists promote monarchs and their habitat, knowing that people's love of monarchs will help spur the preservation of habitat for bees, birds and other wildlife. But the gift of the monarch goes way beyond just being a flagship species. Monarchs unify souls.
I have witnessed many times how the joy of interacting with monarchs can help build bridges across languages and cultures. I enjoy Tai Chi, and take classes at a local community garden. Many times, I have left Wild Ones monarch brochures in their public displays. I arrived one day to find my teacher, Mr. Don, holding the brochure. A native of China, Mr. Don asked me about the monarchs while another student attempted to translate his words for me. I was surprised by his interest, he was really engaged and anxious to learn about them. He pointed to the caterpillar photo. I told him the English word for caterpillar, while he taught me the Cantonese word. He then pointed to the monarch butterfly, and we exchanged words for "butterfly." We laughed and enjoyed this time of sharing, and the entire class joined our discussion. I explained that monarchs were in trouble, and needed milkweed. Puzzled, Mr. Don looked at me. I pointed to the plant, and told him "milkweed." He asked me for plants. The next week, I brought him five swamp milkweed plants for his garden. He was delighted.
My mother-in-law is from India. She speaks little English, and I speak even less Telagu. But we try our best to converse, without my husband present to translate. One time, as I cleaned monarch enclosures, she came over to ask me about them. Why was I working so hard to care for them? I told her I am helping nature, I want to make this world a better place. She nodded, still unsure. I encouraged her to hold a butterfly. At first she declined, since she is quite fearful of insects. I reassured her that the monarch would not hurt her, and she held out her hand. I placed the butterfly on her hand, and she smiled delightedly. Her face just beamed, she could not suppress her smile and joy. She asked for a picture, and I took one. We had fun circulating the photo to other family members in India. It is my favorite photo of her.
On a broader note, it is well recognized that the monarch butterfly is an international traveler. The lifecycle of the monarch takes this butterfly across the borders of Mexico, the United States and Canada. Monarch advocates in each country are working together to preserve this beautiful butterfly and its habitat. As scientists and visitors from the U.S. and other countries visit the overwintering sanctuaries, the people of Mexico have the opportunity to share their culture. Visitors learn about the importance of the Day of the Dead, and the indigenous culture's special love of monarchs. This holiday is a time of remembrance, a time when families decorate their homes and pay homage to deceased family members. Each year, monarchs first arrive to the overwintering sanctuaries around the time of this holiday, signaling the arrival of ancestral souls to their hometowns. Since pre-Hispanic times, the people of Michoacán have believed that the monarchs are the spirits of their ancestors, and families anxiously await the arrival of monarchs around November 1st each year. Dr. Isabel Ramirez describes the monarchs’ magic, explaining “They provide a feeling of tranquility, peace and wonder… I think they are small pieces of sunlight."
Truly, the monarchs are beings of light.
Many of us who work with monarchs can share similar stories of sharing and transformation. Monarchs are a gift. Each one of us has the ability to save this spectacular insect. By working together, sharing together and planting together, we can make sure the monarch butterfly will continue to enthrall people of all cultures for many years to come.
A sincere thank you from the Monarch Joint Venture to all of you for your work to help monarchs, and to spread the joy they bring. We are inspired everyday by the amazing work our partners and supporters do to help monarchs, and the way monarchs bring people together in this conservation effort. Thank you, and Happy Thanksgiving!
Candy's mother-in-law holds a monarch for the first time.
The Monarch Joint Venture is a national partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, and academic programs working together to conserve the monarch butterfly migration. The content in this article does not necessarily reflect the positions of all Monarch Joint Venture partners. Header photo taken by Wendy Caldwell in California, 2013.