Late this summer, my wife, dog and I drove from the coast of Maine, returning to our home in central Texas. It was blue dark when we passed into New Hampshire. We blinked our way through 15 minutes of Vermont and skirted Boston traffic into New York State. The sun rose and the hours at the wheel began to mount, our passing the time with license plate games (which state license plate boasts “The First State”?) and promises to return to vistas blurred as we headed south and west. 60 mph or zero, we let the dog leave his mark in another state. Hours and days and eventually a week gathered.
Now October in Texas, I sit under a clump of cedar and cloud and watch the monarchs fly by. Their papered wings have flapped the distance of our epic road excursion, their inch long bodies torque themselves onward 1000 miles more to Mexico. A tracking map shows their paths like fingers on a rake funneling from Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and other summering locales towards a handle in Texas before diving even further southward. I’m told they fly alone, though in long watching it seems that some are at play, in what I imagine is the longest land game of tag attempted by an insect. We killed 40 or more on the road yesterday, my wife waking me to lament the carnage streaking our windshield. It was worse than that though, our headlights and grill plastered with shards of monarch wing and matter. It stained my hands. Even so, with a new day rising, I draw a seat among the grass and bear witness to their courageous flight. Picking a shaded section of cedar, I fix my eyes to count their passing. Like fallen leaves of gold they droop and turn, one hundred in a minute. Far and near and behind me and at my cheek they press. Some pass high overhead in a breeze. Some drink from the trumpeted wildflower patch. Some land to rest and bend the bluestem grass. But all head South, the compass fixed. They return to a place they have not yet been.
The monarch is peculiar in that they experience radically different life spans within the same species, depending upon their migrational state. Those flying north can live as little as two weeks before laying eggs in milkweed, while these southern bound will see as many as eight months as they find their way back to the pines of their ancestors. Four or five generations have passed since these last saw their winter home. And yet they return still, beating wings of stained glass carrying them towards what they do not know.
Are we so different? Are not our wings beating? Are not parents finding milkweed on which their sacred young themselves outlive? Are we not beautiful and numerous and killed off by the thousands? Are we not at play? Am I not, too, resting in the bluestem grass, returning to a place I’ve not yet been?