Monday, August 13, 2018

Monarchs Bring Dance, Delight and Larger Meanings to a Backyard


These are the glory days for monarch watching, with the backyard packed with flowers--a veritable feast that we are grateful to provide.


Lovely as it is, the levitated landscape of pinks and yellows, reds and whites, gains a deeper meaning when a monarch arrives to animate the garden with its fanciful, danciful flight. Brilliance of color is matched by brilliance of movement, with glides and hairpin turns, sudden dips or dartings upward, gracing a garden's contours as if its flight were a form of affection. With an uncanny mix of power and whimsy, the monarch looks to know what it's looking for, as it approaches then darts away or doubles back, each minute of its flight a hundred instant decisions. What makes it land on one flower after approaching and rejecting so many others, seemingly the same, is a mystery.



This morning we saw four at once, two of which flew together, then collapsed upon the carport roof, there to mate for a minute while I ran to grab my camera. The one in front looks to be the female, with thicker veins and no little black spot on the wing.

This one here is a male, judging from the less prominent veins,

and those little black spots on either side of its abdomen.


The monarchs were especially drawn to the joe-pye-weed that with the summer's heat and rain have grown to ten feet high, like a mountain range of flowers.

Sometimes, when a monarch flew and flew around the garden, looking, looking, I thought it might be searching not for nectar but for a milkweed plant to lay its eggs on. Our swamp milkweed disappeared some years back, and this year my wife bought this kind, with orange and yellow flowers. Turns out to be tropical milkweed, native to Mexico but not here. It's pretty, easy for nurseries to grow, and rebounds quickly if ravenous monarch larva consume its leaves. It's also said to have some aspects, given the nature of its more tropical growth, that would make our northern native species of milkweed a better option,


like this butterflyweed that is flourishing in a neighbor's garden.


Most of Princeton's milkweed is common milkweed, which is less ornamental, spreads underground, and can be found in fields, along roadsides, and in this case growing at the nearby Princeton High School ecolab wetland. Other species include purple milkweed, a few of which grow at Herrontown Woods, and green milkweed, found years back in the meadows at Tusculum.

The dominant ideology of our day has deprived us of the satisfaction of contributing to something beyond ourselves. I grow more garden and less lawn because I love native plants, but the monarchs connect the garden to something much larger. Each March, starting out from their wintering home on just a few acres in the mountain forests of Mexico, the monarchs stretch themselves across all of eastern North America, ambassadors of beauty, as if to tell us that all our small efforts, spread across the land, are additive in and to nature, that we can contribute to something profound. May the monarch teach us how to find that satisfaction in other aspects of our lives as well.



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