I have been obsessed with Monarch butterflies for a long time, perhaps since I was old enough to first see them in my yard in rural Ontario.
I love Monarchs so much that I have one tattooed on my left shoulder.
When I read Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Migration in 2000 (when it was first published), I couldn't put it down and devoured it in a matter of hours.
When our daughters were young, every year we sought out Monarch caterpillars on neighborhood milkweed and brought them home to our glass aquarium so we could watch them go through the magical cycle of metamorphosis.
I remember one particular morning in 1997 when we woke up to a clear chrysalis, which meant the Monarch would emerge sometime that day; our girls were heading off to school and day care, so we carefully placed the aquarium into our van and took it along. The butterfly hatched out of its chrysalis during nap time for our then-3-year-old daughter Hannah. Later that day, we heard she remained awake the entire time, lying quietly next to the rectangle of glass, completely absorbed in the butterfly's birth. She watched it pump its wings full of fluid and then sit quietly in the sun, drying its new wings until it was ready to fly. When we arrived at day care, she ran over and the details came excitedly spilling out, her eyes sparkling with wonder.
On another memorable day a few years later, I was lucky enough to catch a caterpillar in the act of transforming into its chrysalis (a challenging feat because this happens so fast!). I had placed the aquarium beside my laptop so I could keep one eye on the caterpillar; it had been hanging in its "J" formation for several hours and I knew the transition would happen soon (many times, prior to this day, I had turned my back for what seemed like a few minutes, only to miss the transformation!). When it began, the caterpillar straightened and began to undulate as a sliver of what looked like mint green silk emerged from its bottom (closest to the anchor point at the aquarium's mesh top). The green chrysalis seemed to grow from the body of the caterpillar itself, unfurling and spreading like the mirror that absorbs Neo's arm in The Matrix (remember that scene right before he takes the red pill?). Within minutes, the chrysalis, with its shining gold rim and dots, was complete and the caterpillar was no more, not so much contained within the chrysalis as having disrobed and stepped into something entirely new.
Can you tell how much I love these butterflies?
Thus, it was with great sadness that I learned a few weeks ago that Monarchs have been added to the official list of endangered species. Habitat loss and climate change, both the result of human behaviour, are listed as the causes for the sharp decline in Monarch populations over the last few decades.
While I was absorbing this terrible news and ruminating over the way our species has ravaged our planet, my daughter sent me a text to say a friend who lives in the countryside was bringing her some Monarch caterpillars from a large milkweed patch on her property. She asked if I would like some, as her friend was bringing her several; she was setting up a mesh insect tent (much like our old glass aquarium) so her daughter could watch the magical metamorphosis occur.
I confess my breath caught in my throat as I read this text. Imagining my wonderful granddaughter (who is now 3) bearing witness to the Monarch miracle made me so happy and sad all at the same time. Happy because she, too, will become enthralled with nature and its cycles by observing this incredible transformation. Sad because she may be part of the last generation to have the privilege of honouring the Monarch with such attention.
"Of course!" I immediately wrote back. "I would love some caterpillars, yes!"
Since then, I have been watching my Monarchs every day, attentively observing the caterpillars eat voluminous quantities of fresh milkweed leaves and grow rapidly, their rings of white, yellow and black expanding by the hour. Just as the caterpillars seem full-grown, they are already climbing up the sides of the mesh tent, hunting for the right place to pause and attach themselves, bottoms-up to the roof, inverting themselves to prepare for the change to come.
I now have two perfect spring green chrysalises hanging quietly downstairs. Some sort of alchemy is happening inside and, any day now, one of the chrysalises will turn clear, revealing the crumpled and cramped wings of an adult Monarch butterfly inside.
I await this moment with much anticipation and joy, nervous and excited to watch this next stage that symbolizes liberation and freedom, hope and perseverance.
And I find myself thinking a lot about climate change and my ongoing hope that we humans might still make the necessary changes to save the Monarchs and all of life on Earth.
If you have an opportunity to bring caterpillars (of any variety) into your classroom to teach your students about the magic of metamorphosis and the importance of habitat preservation, please do so. Often we assume this would only appeal to younger learners but students of all ages are fascinated by nature; having an aquarium in your high school math or English classroom will also spark wonder, curiosity and conversations about our role in preserving natural spaces.
Below are some links to resources that may be useful in teaching your students about climate change. Please use these resources and pass them along to other educators and parents. And if you live in North or Central America and can help preserve the Monarchs, check out this site for advice on what you can do.
Thanks for reading! I'm heading downstairs to check on my chrysalises.
Resources for teaching about Climate Change:
1. The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells: this book is excellent for high school readers. I used to include it as a book circle option for students in my grade 11/12 Global Development Studies class and every student who read this book was impacted deeply by what they learned about climate change and the urgency for each of us to become part of global solutions.
2. Taking Action Global has created a climate change book list for readers of all ages. This is an excellent curated list of titles, along with some ideas of how to incorporate the books into your curriculum.
3. Taking Action Global has a full program for students, teachers and schools about climate change, including training for educators. In September there is a period of onboarding for new participants and you can check out details here. There are options to learn about how climate change is connected to digital agency and action, project-based learning, and equity and inclusion, along with opportunities for global collaboration.
4. The Climate Action Project is a global endeavor linking students to experts and peers to learn about climate change. This year's experience will launch on September 27th and will involve a 6-week learning experience. You can enroll as an educator and take your students on this learning journey endorsed by HH Dalai Lama, Queen Elizabeth II, Dr. Jane Goodall, world leaders and Ministries of Education across 16 countries.
5. Resources about teaching climate change from the New York Times: check out this article with valuable links and resources.
Photos of my two Monarch caterpillars and chrysalises this year, along with a Monarch butterfly I saw in August at North Beach Provincial Park in Ontario and a photo of my 3-year-old granddaughter watching the butterfly fly down the beach. Bottom row, middle: Monarch letters my daughters sent to penpals in Mexico in 1997 to participate in a program linking children in places connected to the Monarch migration.
Update: Butterfly #1 emerged on September 5th!