Danaus plexippus

Yesterday, I worked outside writing on something I would rather not work on, while I enjoyed the garden. My company were some birds I’ve discovered are “lesser goldfinches” which strikes me as a rather value-laden label. Were I them, I would demand to be called mustard-colored finches. Along with them was a gorgeous monarch butterfly, who flew back and forth from milkweed to milkweed.

I have rather a lot of milkweeds, as I like them, and if you plant them, they reseed like crazy (one of the reasons I like them.) In the corner near my porch, where this dear lady monarch was, I have two kinds of milkweeds where she could lay her eggs: one called “Mexican milkweed” and another called “Gay Milkweed” (neither of which are Bill O’Reilly approved to work in California). She passed between them, and I spent my afternoon writing away and absent-mindedly watching her.

Battery life drove me inside to plug in, and when I came outside later to tuck some tiger lilly bulbs into the ground, I stopped, startled, to see the monarch, struggling at the base of my white rose. She stretched out her wings, a struggle for her, and then stopped, falling to her side. My lively little acquaintance had laid her burden down, as the old ladies who cleaned my childhood Catholic church in Iowa used to say. A child then, I couldn’t understand what they’d meant: how could dying be anything but a burden itself? When you are young, you are so new to life you can’t imagine welcoming death. Now that I am middle-aged, I know exactly what those women meant.

I hopped online later in the day to find out that monarchs, Danaus plexippus, migrate every fourth generation. That generation gets a few more weeks of precious life than the others, so that they can fly from the northern US to the south, particularly California and Mexico, where they lay their eggs and then die.

I feel oddly honored to have shared her last afternoon and her last moments; I am glad it was one of those magnificent southern California fall days, with warm, gentle breezes. I wonder if she, like E.B. White’s Charlotte or St. Exupery’s rose, knew just how exquisite she was; whether in the insect mind there is such a thing as awareness of the end, or of delight in accomplishing what she set out to do. If not perhaps there is a peace that comes from blankness until there is nothing.