Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Brief Rest on a Long Journey

It started a week or so ago.

Monarchs began appearing in the sky.  One at a time, flapping then coasting, flapping a little more and floating on what breeze there was.

I didn't think much about it.  Monarchs are large butterflies, but not uncommon.

I was pleased, though, to see a monarch visiting our vitex tree in the backyard one late afternoon a few days ago.  Vitex is a flowering tree, with clusters of small blue flowers at the tips of its branches.  It hails originally from the Mediterranean.  (It is also known as Chaste Tree, Chasteberry, Abraham's Balm, or Monk's Pepper.)  Ours only bloomed once last year, its first at our address, but this year it bloomed off and on all summer and at this writing is fully decked out in its autumn finery.  It is usually crowned with a nimbus of bumblebees and common honeybees.

Late Saturday afternoon, the scene changed.

I was out on the patio having a cigar and reading a crime novel, my back to the vitex.  I got up to get the grill heating for that evening's repast, when my eye was instantly drawn to motion at the vitex.

I couldn't count the monarchs.  I'll estimate two dozen, flying and lighting on the blooms.  When one would light, it would fold its wings behind it and set a spell.  When one shoved off, it would usually fly around the tree and find another spot to investigate.

Monarch on vitex (not ours)
After about an hour, I noticed that there was no more flying.  There were only these handfuls of monarchs hanging off of the bloom clusters.

So beautiful, so rare.  One of those moments where spectacle descends into your everyday life and makes you feel good about being alive.

One by one, the monarchs lifted off the vitex.  They flew around the yard for a bit, but each concluded its visit the same way.

It headed north. 

I thought well that's pretty cool, just like on the nature shows, they're flying about to orient themselves to the position of the sun, or the earth's magnetic field, or however it is they navigate, and, having done so, get going on their storied migration of thousands of miles to their overwintering grounds.

Which, uh, makes flying north in October a terrible mistake, since they're supposed to be flying south.

I considered the usual suspects for mass species-destructive behavior -- cell phone tower radiation (I was checking blog hits on my Droid); global warming (hard to be unseasonably warm in the summer, but DFW has managed it); deforestation (I'd pulled some weeds).

Seemed unlikely.

So what motivates living things?

Monarchs have little use for cash.

They'd just chowed down on vitex nectar.

That leaves  .  .  .

So, after pondering the gorgeous pastoral mystery in my own back yard, I'm going with my theory that some hot monarch butterfloozy headed north for reasons best known to monarchs if not lepidopterists, trailing a string of irresistible pheromones and ardent fluttering suitors behind her, and leaving it at that.

Mm-hmm:  monarchs breeding on vitex

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