My trip started out as a bike ride to follow the monarchs and share my love of adventure, science, and conservation with students along the way. I picked the monarch because it was likely one of the only migrations I could keep up with by bike, and one with a range (all except near the sanctuaries) that was widespread enough so I had a decent chance of finding them. Since the migration didn’t discriminate between city and town, wild spaces and school playgrounds, or parks and roadside ditches I could travel without boundaries; and because the migration could reach anyone living on its route, my audience wasn’t restricted. The monarchs, like clouds, are democratic in their reach. So, I picked the monarchs for logistical reasons, but the monarchs turned my trip into something more. I learned to see the monarch not just as an inspiring creature, but as a symbol in many lights.
For one, the monarch is a symbol of our shared continent. Not Mexican or United Statesan or Canadian, the monarchs are instead Mexican and United Statesan and Canadian. The monarchs, you, me, we are North American. The monarch reminds us that borders are just lines on maps, and that our neighbors are our teammates. The only way to save the monarch is to work together. If we succeed it will be a win for every North American, and every future North American. If we lose, it will be a loss for all, and a shameful, selfish legacy.
The monarch is also a symbol for the health of our planet. Scientists call species whose populations give insights into the condition of ecosystems 'indicator species'. As the monarchs decline they are indicating problems. They show us that the prairie is sick, the forests in Mexico are degrading, the balance of plants and pollinators is askew, the prevalence of deadly chemicals is growing, and the climate has changed. All these things might first seem to only affect the monarchs and the frogs and prairie dogs, but as the problems grow the symptoms will reveal themselves more and more in our lives. We can learn to listen to the monarchs, heed their warnings, and perhaps one day we will see that we were not saving them, but they were saving us.
Perhaps as important as showing us our planet is sick, monarchs show us how to heal it. They show us with their presence; championing native gardens, public lands, un-mowed roadside ditches, and chemical free farms by visiting them. They oppose the vast sprawl of green grass lawns by ignoring them. Their eggs show us what works by simply showing up, their caterpillars show us by attacking milkweed bite by bite, and their pupae show us by transforming in unlikely places. The monarchs show us that to have a future they need a place to live. And for now, their declining populations show us that we must keep fighting.
But this is not my fight or your fight. This is our fight, and the monarch is a symbol of many adding up to something more. One monarch, alone, could never visit every town, inspire a movement, or paint the sky orange, but thousands and thousands of monarchs add up to a phenomenon. So while one garden might feel small and meaningless, this trip and the monarchs have shown me that thousands and thousands of our gardens add up to a phenomenon too. Our voices add up, our passion adds up, our hard work adds up, and our compassion adds up. Together we are becoming too loud to be ignored, too dedicated to give up, too strong to lose hope, too compassionate to turn away.
Compassion is perhaps the most surprising symbol held up by the monarchs. I came to this conclusion as I cycled and listened to the hate and fear caught in every news story. At first I didn’t see the connection between monarchs and boys shot by cops, families in Syria trapped, school kids deported, people gunned down in churches, and kids denied a proper education. Instead, I took in the news and began to question my bike ride. How could I spend one second prioritizing monarchs as injustice sharpened its sword and prepared for more and more attacks?
From the confusion and anger and grief I saw a symbol in the monarch emerge. I realized that no one blames the monarchs for their population plummet. No one says it is the monarchs’ fault that their babies can’t survive the herbicides and pesticides, or that they can’t adapt to the changing climate. No one thinks that monarchs are lazy because they can’t find milkweed anymore, or that they deserve getting hit by cars because their migration passed over I35. We don’t blame the monarchs. Instead we see their struggle. We rally, fight, cry, get angry, and do something.
This means we are capable of seeing that the world as an equation, tweaked in favor of some, so that the result is best for those making the rules and moving the pieces. It means we can see that the monarchs’ failures are a product of this equation built for and by people with investments, land, lobbyists, and lawyers; all operating in a world where science and education are under attack. Thus the monarch migration becomes a symbol of this compassion and understanding. The monarch shows us we can’t blame the victims or expect the most vulnerable to fight alone. So, as you listen to the news and reflect on your community, remember the monarch.
And remember that this is our only chance. So while we must fight for justice in all its forms, we can’t put anything on the back-burner. If we wait the monarch migration could be stolen from us, and never again will the orange wings dance though our yards, inspire our kids, or paint our skies. Never again could we see a female lay an egg and know that we were seeing the first moment of a life that might defy all the odds and fly thousands of miles to a distant tree. Never again. The monarchs need us now, and while the world can feel like it is falling apart all we can do is keep trying.
And try we will! We will try to find our voice in the conversation, and give our time, our power, our love, our hearts, and our heads to saving the totem of our dedication. Whether it is the monarch or black lives or immigrant rights or frogs, we are all fighting for the same thing: a chance for the world to give space for life to thrive. We are each a puzzle piece, and when we work together, we form a world where every color can render the world a rainbow, every song can mix with the wind, and every life can make long, seemingly impossible journeys. What matters is not which issue is the most important, but that you pick something and join the train moving justice forward.
On this train, the folks dedicated to the monarchs are a symbol all their own. They are a symbol of what a team can do. I felt their passion and dedication, I saw their accomplishments, and I experienced the community they nurtured. I was continually impressed by their commitment and willingness to teach and learn. I truly believe the monarch is still here because of them.
I am very proud to have joined this monarch team. Now, as I begin to make plans that are not on the migration route, I wonder what is next. Will I feel like I am losing my tribe, or will I simply be a butterbiker on migrations of different kinds? What I know for sure, is that the monarch will live in my heart and my head forever. They changed me, and I hope I changed the migration. I hope I made their lives a bit easier, a bit better. And I’ll keep using my voice to speak on their behalf.
So while my trip is over, the end is nowhere in sight. The road to a future with monarchs leads us forward on paths paved with wonder, gardens, education, and a bit of cultural wrangling. These were my rallying calls for 10,201 miles and here they are once again: celebrate the monarch, plant native gardens, teach your community about the migration, foster an informed, compassionate, and engaged team of monarch stewards, and scrutinize our cultural commitment to manifest destiny.
The last one is the least straightforward, the least discussed, and perhaps the most significant. We must reevaluate our cultural norms that suggest humans own the earth, deserve to use and abuse it, and are here to control it. We must learn to share the planet and work with it rather than against it. We must begin to see beauty in natives, waste in green grass lawns, threats in short term chemical fixes, arrogance in killing animals with our cars, our developments, and our blind need for more, and we must see protected spaces and limits as keys to our future.
So while the future of the monarch is unknown, I know the future is full of fight. My fight will shift course, but as things settle my future will show itself.
My plan for now is to stay in Mexico until March. I’ll use this time to practice my Spanish, hang out with my friends, visit the monarchs, and write a book. I’ve day-dreamed about writing a book for many trips and decided to make a try of it. My goal is to write a book for young adults which covers the science of the migration, while telling the story of my adventure. I want my book to make people look for monarchs and explore in their own ways. I want my book to be an example that normal people can be scientists, adventurers, and conservationists. I figure my first book will be like my first presentation eight years ago: not very good. But my trips have always been about figuring it out as you go, and improving with practice. I see no reason to change course now!
I also have plans to make a bit of money for my next steps. As of NOW I am currently selling prints of the watercolors I made on the road of the migration. The system is a bit jankey, but again, no reason to change course now! While I am at it, I am helping my friends at the monarch sanctuaries sell these totally unique monarch cross-stitched towels/napkins that they custom made for me. If you love monarchs or know any “crazy monarch people” and think a bit of butterbike bling would suit you/them, I’d be grateful for your order!
And being grateful takes me to the most important part. Saying thanks.
Thank you to the teachers who grant kids the opportunity to know monarchs. Thank you to every student that laughed at my jokes, gave my videos a chance, asked great questions, and now take the reins as unfair as that is. Thank you to every gardener with native plants and milkweed, leading by example and being inspirational. Thank you to every scientist for uncovering the details that make the migration more and more spectacular. Thank you to everyone using their voice to speak for the monarchs. Thank you to everyone that cooked me a meal, invited me into their house, shared their passion and knowledge of the monarchs with me, donated money, provided route intel, read my blog, edited my blog, shared my posts, decked my bike with monarch swag, let me rant about corn and politics, spread the word, helped me network, contacted the press, and lifted me up so I could keep going. I don’t remember every mile, but I remember all of you.
And finally, a shout out to the monarchs. You all are amazing. Thanks!