Thursday, February 17, 2011

questions about angels

I have no idea if the poet Billy Collins has visited the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary.

But as I stood there last week watching thousands of butterflies fly above me and millions rest around me, I recalled a couplet from his Questions About Angels -- questions people never seem to get around to asking about angels.

Do they fly through God's body and come out singing?
Do they swing like children from the hinges
of the spirit world saying their names backwards and forwards?
Do they sit alone in little gardens changing colors? 

Seeing the Mexican winter home of the Monarch butterflies has never been a big ticket for me.  It certainly was not on my "Bucket" list (if I have one) -- or even on my "B" list.  It might have made my "If you're going there, I won't jump out of the car" list.

I have been trying to recall when I first heard about the Monarchs.  I think it was sixth grade science.  One of the examples of migratory animals.  Swallows heading back to the mission.  Terns flying from pole to freezing pole.

To me, they were simply an exotic insect with a gypsy gene.  Exotic because I had never seen one.  We don't have them in the Willamette Valley.

What I knew I had seen in documentaries.  You know the type.  The Nova specials narrated by a sultry-voiced actress who tells us all about the risks the Monarchs take merely to meet up at the butterfly singles bar.

None of that piqued my interest.  But a visit to the sanctuary was part of our visit to Morelia.  And, at least, it would be a nice hike in the mountains.

Here is the short story.  The Monarchs can range as far north as Canada in the summer.  At some point, a special generation of Monarchs will hatch as fall approaches.  A truly Nietzschean generation of butterflies. 

Each butterfly of that generation will live for eight to six months -- assuming it does not end up decorating the grill of a Peterbilt.  Long enough to head south to Mexico.  Spend the winter.  And fly part way north again.

That generation will never see Canada again.  It will take three additional generations of butterflies in a single season -- most living a few brief weeks to mate and die -- to complete the cycle.

What we were going to see on our visit was the super generation.  Those who had made the full trip and were having a nice stay in Mexico -- just like some of their fellow Canadians on our tour.

The trip was about a three hour drive east of Morelia -- high in the mountains.  But that just got us to the parking lot -- where the local Indians sell food, drink, and butterfly-adorned gewgaws.

But all of that could wait.  We had climbing to do.

About eight of us met up at the entrance to start the trek with a local guide -- who patiently waited for his huffing and puffing charges.

At almost 10,000 feet, with a gimpy right ankle and being seriously out of shape, I started wondering if the hike up the mountain was going to be worth it.

I really have no idea what our altitude gain was or how long it took.  I just know it was a tough climb.

But nature can be kind.  We struggled over a ridge into a meadow filled with more butterflies than i have seen in one spot.  All enjoying a nice bit of nectar.

That was merely the starter.  A few hundred feet on, we saw butterflies gathered around the equivalent of a Kalahari water hole.

The trail ended in a grove of oyamel fir trees.  At first glance, they looked like oaks in the autumn.  A forest of brown leaves.

But they weren't leaves.  They were butterflies. 

Millions of butterflies on the fir needles and the tree trunks.  Butterflies that were in Canada or the northern United States six months before.

And then something marvelous happened.  As the sun played hide and seek with the clouds, the butterflies started soaring.

I wish I could describe the sight.  The local Indians believed the butterflies were the souls of their ancestors returning to their mountain homes.

The analogy worked for me as I stood there with my mouth open like some slack-jawed yahoo. 

The grace.  The beauty.  And the sound.  Like the whisper of seraphim wings.

Take a look for yourself.

I doubt I will ever visit again.  But I don't need to. 

I think I have learned some answers to those questions about angels.


John said...

Angels or Mother Nature at work - PRETTY amazing.

I am going to go with the angels ;-)

Steve Cotton said...

"Pretty" is the word.

Steve Cotton said...

It is worth doing -- once.

teresa freeburn said...

perfect description of that tree-it did look like leaves but i figured they'd be butterflies. great video! isn't it amazing what some little critters (big ones too) can do?

well, while you're enjoying mexico city, we are stuck in the snow. funny, we'd had nothing but springlike weather for about a month and this morning we woke up to a fresh blanket of the white stuff. we just got a little over an inch but because our area is so hilly and it's difficult for the school busses to get around, we have a 2 hour late start. more time to enjoy my book so i am off to bed to read.

have a great day wherever you are!

Steve Cotton said...

If you enlarge the third photograph, you will see some Mexican soldiers. They were there in full gear hiking up the trail in formation -- and moving at formation speed. That is about the only reason I would want to be 20 again.

Steve Cotton said...

Thanks, Mom. You would have loved it.

Steve Cotton said...

Enjoy your snow -- and I will battle traffic.

Tancho said...

During the migratory period, we find some butterflies hovering around some of our trees and vegetation. Their GPS genes must have been changed by flying too close to TelCell towers obviously.
I visited the sanctuary probably about 15 years ago and at that time they were saying that they were going to close it up because of the impact of tourism and the ruining of their habitat......I sense that it may have been a ploy for donations. You think?
It is interesting to see, now all they have to do is put a zip line in there with a few rides and amusements to make a real viable business.
Just kidding!
Glad you enjoyed it, can't wait to see what you have to say about Patz...

Steve Cotton said...

If a zipline was the reward for making the climb, I would return. ;}

tancho said...

When we went there was a road that the guide took us on, which he said was normally closed most of the time, so we were able to get up pretty close...