Butterflies play important roles in culture and ecology.
Their ecological role is well defined, like that of many non-human creatures. As vital pollinators, they facilitate plant reproduction. They also cycle nutrients by munching leaves and serve as an important food source for birds, bats and insects. But butterflies do not simply inhabit the biosphere. They live as well in our minds and hearts, in longstanding cultural traditions around the world, as well as in metaphor, poetry and visual art.
Not only do they make life as we know it possible through the important ecosystem services that they provide, but they also make life worth living. Too grand of a statement? Imagine living your life without ever catching a surprise glimpse at the near-weightless flight of a butterfly, or without the rich notion of metamorphosis infusing your personal journey. It is a lesser world indeed.
This series is devoted to exploring butterflies as symbols in the collective psyche; as messengers from other worlds; as beings with whom humans throughout history have shared a vibrant, living spiritual connection—all that which science clunk-ily refers to as “aesthetic and cultural value.” Each month, we’ll cover a unique instantiation of butterflies in culture, tracing themes and asking questions about how humanity can embrace and repair our relationship to these magnificent creatures, and to the world we all share.
We’ll start with the Monarch butterfly and the Dead of the Dead.
The Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, is the Mexican celebration of loved ones who have passed away, occurring every year on November 2nd. It is a syncretic tradition, blending together cultural and religious elements of Imperial Spain with those of Mexico’s indigenous peoples, and it is ever evolving. In fact, a new component emerged as recently as 2016, when Mexico City held its first Dia de Los Muertos parade, appropriating the fictional event portrayed in the James Bond film, Spectre.
Families typically observe the holiday by building altars to their dead loved ones and decorating them with candles, fruits, pan de muertos, and other things that the deceased enjoyed in life. People gather to tell stories and sing songs in remembrance of the visiting souls. In small candlelit gatherings and large city-wide fiestas, the fact of death is tended to with beauty and levity, its inexpugnable reality softened and diffused amidst the rich aromas, melodies, and papel picado waving in the wind.
Fluttering through the air is la mariposa monarcha, the monarch butterfly, whose attendance at this celebration actually predates the celebration itself. For thousands upon thousands of years, the monarch butterfly has migrated from Canada down to the Oyamel Fir forests of Michoacán, Mexico, always arriving right around the 2nd of November.
First, whole clouds of monarchs darken the skies, then one by one they settle into the fir trees, covering every available inch so that the forest seems to be dripping with sun-orange butterflies. The sound of innumerable wings, lightly fluttering, finally finding rest after a 3000-mile journey, is said to be otherworldly. The monarchs will spend the next five months in this unique microclimate before journeying north again to lay their eggs.
The Purépecha people, indigenous to the Michoacán region, recognize these butterflies as the souls of their ancestors. Their name for the monarch is Parákata, or harvester butterfly, for their arrival signals that it is time to harvest corn. Centuries in relation, the Purépecha and other indigenous peoples of Mexico have thread thousands of stories with these creatures, generally regarding them as visitors or messengers from the afterlife.
In syncretic fashion, the monarch butterfly has become a powerful symbol of the cycle of life and death in the broader public celebration of the Day of the Dead. Monarch imagery populates the festivities, from the lyrics of songs to the costumes of dancers, while actual monarchs fly through the skies. Though there have been fewer—far fewer—in the last two decades than ever before. Actual monarchs, that is.
In fact, just 25 years ago, monarch butterflies draped over a full 45 acres of Mexican fir forest when overwintering. Now, they cover only 5.5, having dropped from 7 acres the year prior. That’s a 22% decline in the presence of monarch butterflies in their wintering grounds in just one year, despite concerted conservation efforts. This is a grave warning for an already fragile population: if we don’t act, we will lose them. The need for rapid, widespread biodiversity renewal has never been clearer.
What will it mean, if we push these winged messengers out of the world entirely?
80% of agricultural food production depends on monarchs and other pollinators facing similar population crises—so functionally, their extinction means that many other life-ways, including our own, may collapse. But what else does it mean, in context, to lose the creatures that alight upon the doorway between life and death?
What will it mean to the Purépecha and other indigenous Mexicans, whose ancestors will return fewer and fewer, until they finally stop, and the forests, once covered in millions of sun-warm butterflies, stand empty in the absence of this embrace? What will it mean for all the dead all over Mexico, whose souls can no longer be carried between worlds on the wings of monarchs?
For the secular, what does it mean to live in a world with more butterflies on paper and in ink than in the skies?
And what might it mean, to rebuild monarch habitat today, planting milkweed and other native plants in every yard from Canada to Mexico? To support a resurgence in monarch populations back to ecologically stable levels, resilient enough to face the onrush of climate change—what would that mean? What would it mean to you, to greet one or two along their journey to Dia de Los Muertos and back again?
One thing is for certain: in tending to this relation, we nourish and maintain humanity’s connection to the more-than-human world, and perhaps to other worlds beyond that. So go plant some milkweed.
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