By Cecily Markland
Just as the travel website had promised, they were there. In a small eucalyptus grove near Pismo Beach, California, were thousands of monarch butterflies—thousands of them, clustered together, hanging in clumps among the sage-colored eucalyptus leaves, their vibrant orange and black colors folded together, revealing only the muted underside of their wings.
At first, we couldn’t see them at all. They looked like a mass of dry leaves, simply an extension of the trees, but, as we watched, there would be a slight movement, a set of wings would open and we could see that the mass was made up of individual butterflies clinging together.
It was an amazing sight, one that can only be seen for a few weeks out of the year as the North American monarchs migrate to this small grove and to a few other places along the California. Knowing that this is the only kind of butterfly that migrates in this way, makes it all that more interesting. Unlike other butterflies that cuddle up for the winter and can survive as larvae, pupae or even as adults, monarchs simply cannot live through the cold winters of the north where they spend their summer months.
Yet, scientists don’t know why or how the monarchs consistently return to the same wintering sites. It’s not that seasoned veterans lead the others back to Pismo Beach. Monarchs only live about six months, so each of them only makes the trip once. Yet, somehow these monarchs, led by some force of genetics, or instinct, know just when it’s time to leave the northern climates before the life-threatening cold sets in. Then, guided by their invisible, inborn GPS, some of them fly as far as 3,000 miles to winter where it is warm. Once there, they somehow know that to find shelter from the rain and wind, and to generate warmth, they need to create a formation that provides a type of shingle effect, with one hanging on and draping its wings down over the one below. Researchers think their movement may have something to do with the magnetic pull of the earth, or the position of the sun, but they can’t really explain it. It’s all very fascinating and a little mind-boggling.
Yet, perhaps no more so than my own migration to that particular spot at that particular time. Whether it was the magnetic pull of the earth, the position of the sun, or some other force at play, something had drawn me back to the place where I was born and raised. I had been there only a few months before, but there I was again, soaking up some of the ocean spray, watching the sunshine burn off the fog and traipsing past the several different homes where I had spent my childhood. On the surface, it looked like a birthday trip. My mother was turning 87 and my sister and I were taking her to see her sister and her nieces. That alone was well worth the trip.
Yet, looking closer, there was something else at play. Something drove me to return to that place of safety and of warmth. Something moved me to hang together with a sister, an aunt, and cousins, shingle style and sheltered. Call it survival instinct if you will. Whatever it was has given me strength to again spread my wings and fly.