The Butterfly’s Effect

If you plant it, they will come. But they won’t stay

Photo by the Author ©Karen Fayeth. A perfectly formed butterfly that sadly would never fly

In September 2020, death was in the air. Both COVID and California wildfires raged and both drove me inside my home. The smoke was awful but the invisible killer was (and is) the more difficult to endure. A strange time in the middle of the modern era’s strangest time.

Under surreal orange smokey skies, I watched a little Monarch butterfly caterpillar eat and grow, eventually folding itself into its own green coat and forming the most perfect chrysalis. I named it Ash for the sooty flecks that decorated it’s perfect emerald home, and I waited.

Each morning I got up and slid on my gardening shoes, often while still wearing my nightgown, and went outside to check on the chrysalis. Was it still there? Had it changed? Would a butterfly ever emerge?

I took photos, lots and lots of photos, sent quickly to a family group chat for my dear mother-in-law in her hospice bed and my husband, her full time caregiver. I wanted them to see what I could see. I wanted them to have something to look forward to during literally and figuratively dark days.

On the afternoon of September 23, 2020, I watched as the most perfect male butterfly emerged from his chrysalis, dried his wings, and eventually flew away. Watching him go, I felt bereft. Joyful for the new life, but watching him evolve from a caterpillar to a butterfly had become my reason for being. A break from the misery. His departure on healthy wings had left me all alone.

I was so powerfully alone.

The people I loved the most were just an hour’s drive away. So tantalizingly close and yet so far. My days got very dark and I struggled with my own mental illness.

One day over Zoom I confessed to a therapist that I had thoughts of harming myself. It seemed an easy choice. So much harder to find reasons not to.

Growing up in New Mexico and growing up Catholic, Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, and it symbolism has always been important to me. Since Monarch butterflies make an annual migration to Mexico in late Autumn, it’s no surprise that the insect is iconic in Mexican folklore and is often closely tied to Day of the Dead.

A few years ago in a Mexican import store I saw a captivating sculpture of La Calavera Catrina, her long gown and enormous hat covered in brilliant orange Monarch butterflies.

Later, I was enchanted to see Monarch butterflies flying through my neighborhood and with a little research I found that where live is on California’s historical migration path. Western Monarch butterflies overwinter in central California rather than making the trek all the way to Mexico.

I questioned how to attract the butterflies to my yard and the answer is milkweed. The oft stated motto of Monarch butterfly enthusiasts is: If you plant it, they will come.

It turns out growing something with “weed” right in the name is harder than it should be. Finally in July 2020, a seed I had planted the previous year and forgotten about chose to emerge. Before long I noticed a fat caterpillar munching away on the fresh milkweed plant.

That caterpillar became the most observed thing in my world. A small drop of antidote to a lot of hard days alone, isolated-in-place.

Acrylic painting by the author, ©Karen Fayeth

Monarch Butterflies have not yet made the U.S. Fish and Wildlife endangered list, but they are a candidate. They missed making the list in 2020 only because there were other species in greater peril. The decline in numbers is due to several factors, including: Monarch habitats are being removed to make way for more development, milkweed is a toxic plant so most farmers pull it out, and the wide use of insecticides is a real threat to many pollinators.

So in my small yard and in my small way, I am trying to conserve the iconic butterfly. I know one postage stamp sized yard won’t save the entire population, but I’m trying. I’m also educating my friends and family and I’m even in process of pitching my employer to plant more milkweed and butterfly friendly plants on our campus.

It turns out that raising Monarchs is not easy. Less than 10% make it from egg to adult butterfly. There are well-meaning people who collect Monarch eggs in the wild and raise them indoors in mesh enclosures to up the odds of survival, but that is both illegal in California, and not my way.

Despite the endearing margarine ads from the 1980’s (“It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature”) it turns out ol’ Mom Nature can be pretty cold and callus.

I have found ladybugs on a milkweed plant with a half eaten baby caterpillar in their jaws, watched a wasp pick off larger caterpillars one by one, and just plain found dead caterpillars for no reason I could discern.

This year we got three eggs quite early in the year and all three made it through the caterpillar phase. When each formed a perfect chrysalis, I breathed a sigh of relief.

Until one night when one of the three disappeared. We will never know where it went, probably taken by a raccoon or skunk. With joy we watched the other two emerge. The first seemed perfect, a beautiful male that ultimately would never fly, one of the saddest things I have witnessed. The other a gorgeous female who emerged perfectly, dried her wings and took to the sky.

Later in the season, we were the recipients of an egg bombing. At least twenty-five eggs were laid on my seven milkweed plants. Of that huge number, only two made it into a chrysalis and in the next few days we’ll see if they emerge safely.

Turns out that the Monarch butterfly as a symbol of Day of the Dead is, well, rather fitting.

In 2020, death was here for us all, standing at the sidelines and waiting. In late March 2020 came the news that a coworker had passed away from COVID. That made it all too real very early on. In July my mother-in-law began hospice (unrelated to COVID) and in November passed with her son and me by her side. A week later my dear friend and photography mentor passed away (also unrelated to COVID). Grief piled upon grief, I ran out of places to put it, and it was…is…almost unbearable.

That one butterfly on my one small milkweed plant became a thing of hope. A reason to get up in the morning when all I wanted was to disappear. I created a playlist to capture the joy and melancholy I felt watching that beautiful butterfly fly away. It became a touchstone. Listening to each track a small ritual that helped me stay grounded. A lifeline.

Death had visited me before. My father passed in 2005 and it took me years to come out of the tailspin. With time and as I age, I have learned that no two griefs are the same. They each leave an indelible imprint.

Of the many lessons to be learned from 2020, here are two:

Mother Nature is a cruel mistress.

And death comes for us all.

Karen Fayeth was born with the eye of a writer and the heart of a story-teller. From her New Mexico roots she is constantly evolving through global experience. Karen has won awards for her writing, photography, and art. Currently, she is working on a collection of her many short stories titled, “A Delicate Pain”.

Now living in the San Francisco Bay area, she can be found online at www.karenfayeth.com and on all the socials: Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, Facebook

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Karen Fayeth

Karen Fayeth

I work all day, I art all night. Find me at karenfayeth.com and karenfayeth on all the socials (Twitter, Insta, FB, etc)