Canadian winters are notoriously cold, even in southern provinces. In late summer and early autumn, monarch butterflies begin their migration to warmer climates to wait out the frost so they can return in the spring. Karl and Norah Urquhart spent 38 years trying to determine their migration pattern before finally figuring it out with the help of Kenneth C. Brugger and Catalina Trail (and even had a documentary made about their journey to discovery). As of October 24, the monarchs finally reached Mexico to settle in for the next few months.
All the monarchs except one.
I was walking downtown yesterday when my friends Ciara and Erin found him. Weak and alone, in the middle of the sidewalk. We huddled around him as he fought against the wind to make it to safe ground and tried to figure out what to do. Everyone’s heard about how if you touch a butterfly’s wing, you can hurt it, so I put my hand down onto the sidewalk and let the butterfly crawl onto it. Cupping my hand around him to shield him from the breeze, I walked over to some potted plants and placed him beside a beautiful flower. He crawled back toward the edge of the planter so I let him crawl back into my hand and moved him farther in. Satisfied that he was safe from the heavy footsteps of Toronto’s businesspeople, I headed to work.
Sitting here at my kitchen table, I wish I hadn’t left him.
If all the monarchs have already made the journey south, and this one was left behind, then he is going to die. I’m not certain, but if he was on the sidewalk and didn’t fly away from me, that must mean his wing was injured. If he can’t fly and rejoin his family, he is doomed to the frost.
I should have taken him home with me.
When I was a child, my mother used to hang her laundry out on the line to dry. One autumn, she was bringing in a load when she discovered what she called a “grub” hanging off a pair of jeans. She was about to kill it when I stepped in and declared I would keep the little grub as my pet. At the time, my mom was fond of washing out and keeping every single jar and container that crossed our path, so I had plenty to choose from. I chose a roomy pickle jar, truly the mansion of insect housing, and my mother punched holes in the lid. I furnished the jar with some sticks, leaves, and a little drop of water and my new friend moved in.
I took care of that grub for weeks. I would change the water, put in fresh leaves, and check up on him periodically. Then, for a couple of weeks, I got distracted and forgot about him (as children are wont to do). Imagine my horror when it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t replenished his food supply in several days. I raced to the porch and grabbed the jar in my pudgy hands.
He was gone. Dead. A husk in the bottom of the jar.
I began to weep, knowing that I had neglected him and had therefore caused his death. I was not his savior, I had only prolonged the inevitable end. As I began to quiet, I heard the slightest tapping sound. Immediately filled with hope and joy, I tilted the jar and looked underneath.
There was a butterfly hanging upside down from the bottom of the lid.
I turned on my heel and ran to my mother’s bedroom, excited and shouting about the grub’s miraculous transformation. She checked the jar and couldn’t believe her eyes.
“What will you do with him?” She asked me. “Will you still keep him as your pet?”
“No,” I replied. “I’m going to set him free so he can find his family.”
My mother, sister and I went outside and stood on the back steps of our tiny bungalow. I carefully unscrewed the lid and lifted it off with the butterfly still attached. There was a brief moment, as if the butterfly was considering the safety of his glass cocoon versus the unknown world laid out before him, and then he took his leap of faith.
Carried by the wind, his wings flashing a brilliant orange in the sunlight, he flew back to me and circled twice before drifting away, never to be seen again. My mother put her arm around me and told me I had done the right thing letting him go free. Years later I found out it had been a viceroy butterfly — a smaller doppelganger of the much bigger monarch and very common in Newfoundland. And I had been the one to help him get from grub to butterfly and saved him from my mother’s anti-insect wrath.
When I found the monarch yesterday, I was compelled to do something. I already knew he would likely die but I could not bring myself to be the one to end his life. Now I wish I had carried him all the way to work and brought him home with me to help him through the winter. All I managed to do was prolong the inevitable, and all I can do now is hope that if he does die, he’ll die knowing that someone at least put him somewhere beautiful to enjoy his last moments surrounded by the flowers he’ll never see again. I will never forget the viceroy or the monarch. I will never forget that the smallest actions in life can often have the biggest impact of all.