The Unknown Unknown
Embracing the Butterfly Effect
In my neighborhood, one of the last undeveloped residential properties stands alone in its weedy wildness. Perhaps three acres, this property is home to many of the invasive species outlaws you might expect in an un-Tru-Greened Midwestern suburban lot. Weedy desperadoes share space with pockets of remnant vegetation from another era. Native little bluestem, purple love grass, figwort, and more, dot the property. In this vegetative hodgepodge a wondrously large population of fireflies still thrives. In peak summer, the landscape comes alive with the nightly miracle of these signaling insects. A scene that, I marvel, could possibly rival what I would see in the 1960s in this very field could I travel back in time. Maybe this holdout population has something to do with this land’s escaping the usual annual suburban ritual of drenching soil and spraying air with chemical concoctions.
In the early days of my passing-by I noticed that a very robust stand of regionally native milkweed—the exclusive host plant of the rapidly vanishing monarch butterfly—was thriving in one stretch of the property. Year after year I would walk by and lament that the property owners, while only mowing a few times each season, would have the acreage mowed at exactly the wrong time for monarchs. My heart would ache after seeing this property freshly bladed knowing that this was a massacre of a lot of monarch eggs, caterpillars, and chrysalides.
After walking by too many times for too many years and not even trying to do anything, I looked up the property ownership information in our local county records and gathered the courage to send the owners a letter. I no longer have this letter but I recall it probably sounded, let’s just say, “different” from letters these owners probably received that had more to do with an interest in buying the property than rescuing monarchs. It went a panicky-something like this: You are mowing at the wrong time! Let me help! Tell me when you are going to mow and I will, I don’t know, run around and pluck caterpillars off of milkweed plants and find them homes! I will look for monarch eggs and put the stems in water so the eggs can turn into caterpillars! I will save what can be saved! Here’s my phone number!
I sent the letter in December. Six months passed with no reply. I did not expect one. I wanted a redo on the “tone” of the letter. But in June, out of the blue, I got a call from one of the owners. He asked if I wanted to meet him out at the property and show him what I was talking about. So we met. And I showed him what I was talking about. He asked me what I would like to do and I explained I thought I could turn the milkweed area into a pretty robust Monarch Waystation (habitat that meets the needs of many creatures but with a special focus on monarchs). As I said this, he gazed at the property and noted all of the other milkweed plants scattered farther afield from the critical mass of milkweed, and asked me, “What about those?” Having never tried transplanting (the very deep rooted) milkweed before, I naively claimed I could move some to the imagined garden area. He, amazingly, volunteered to help me and a few hot summer days later we struggled to move other milkweed into the imagined garden area. He gave me carte blanche to set up shop at the bottom of his property to see what kind of wildlife would show up. I never imagined this as an outcome of the letter I had sent.
Years later, the Monarch Waystation is a native bee, frog, toad, beetle, bird, butterfly, spider, rodent, snake, and moth (and more) waystation. It is a fragrant, bustling, life-full isolated circle filled with native wildflowers growing in the middle of a residential area that is mostly “not that.”
I know that one day a backhoe will do what backhoes do on this property (and will do on pretty much any remaining open land in this metropolitan area). When that day comes, I will, I don’t know, run around and relocate what doomed wildlife I can find in the “monarch circle” and move it to—hopefully—decent homes. There aren’t many suitable spaces nearby for wingless creatures to flee. So I am already making a plan: Tree frogs will be united with other tree frogs at a friend’s lakeside home a few blocks away. (She’s spent years rewilding her property.) The black and yellow garden spiders can come home with me and hangout in my small prairie planting. And so on. Noah’s Arks of unpredictable success for the kidnapped.
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about eco-squatting on property I don’t own. Given this week’s headlines (here’s one from my local newspaper): Code red. Scientists warn of worsening global warming. And news reports such as this:
I wonder if my grain of sand effort to create an ephemeral monarch waystation was pointless. Except that this project has given me solace. And I have gotten to know and grown to very much like the real property owners. And, boy, have I talked to a lot of people who have dared to wade through the weeds to get to me (I’m usually taking pictures of insects) to ask me what I’m doing or if I intend to sell my property. Everyone who has approached me in the past many years has gotten a “plight of the monarch and how you can help” primer. Then I tell them I don’t own the property. For the genuinely curious, it has been surprising how many are unaware that the Eastern monarch population has plummeted 90 percent in the past 20 years.
On occasion the “butterfly effect” takes wing from this butterfly garden. I can tell from the length of time someone spends asking me questions and the thoughts they share as I explain the intent behind this planting. In that moment I know that something is fluttering out to become something more with someone else and perhaps beyond. And in that moment, I know it was worthwhile to have sent that letter. The cumulative impact of individual actions (my definition of the butterfly effect) matters. We see this in the damage the worldwide collective has caused. Dare we imagine the repairs that very same collective could make?
I still tend this monarch circle and take photos of its residents. I will until the backhoes arrive.