Dancing with Monarchs, Defying Despair

The Earth burns. Citizens are shot for no reason other than the color of their skin, and children are sent to unsafe schools and back home again. The pandemic is ignored or politicized and masks are too much trouble for many, even if science says they work.

As I read the news, despair hangs in the air. Hurricanes in Texas and Louisiana. Too many western fires to count. China and Afghanistan struggle with floods.

At home, in my shelter from the storm, tan gypsy moth egg cases smudge the trunks of oak trees in the forest. They promise an infestation of destructive caterpillars followed by leafless trees next summer. Humans are no match for gypsy moths—or fire or tornadoes or floods. Meanwhile, I dutifully write “get out the vote” postcards and send donations as small exercises in hope.

How do I survive in this world?

I cling to beauty to avoid sinking beneath grief into despair. My teacher Marion Woodman warned me about my tendency to despair. Grief aches, but has quiet faith in transformation. Despair gives up. I’m not ready for that.

I find beauty and hope with Monarchs in late June, when the first few glide over milkweed fields, flashing orange in early morning light. Then my job begins.

I gather four dozen 1 cup jars and mesh crates from the barn and set up the back porch butterfly nursery. Each morning, I search milkweed leaves for eggs and bring them home to protect them from predators. After the eggs hatch, I fill each jar with a square of bamboo paper towel to absorb moisture, a milkweed leaf, and a tiny caterpillar. I give them fresh milkweed leaves each day since, in less than two weeks, they increase their mass 2000 times.

When the caterpillars are half grown, I move them to communal mesh crates filled with milkweed shoots. They munch and grow for another week before hanging in J hooks to become chrysalises. Then they pause in their green cases for over a week before becoming butterflies while I repeat the process with new eggs and caterpillars, more milkweed, and clean crates.

By late August, newly emerging Monarchs have long gliding wings for riding the winds to a small area in the mountains of Mexico. I begin saying goodbye after sharing three magical months with them, hoping to see their descendants in the spring.

Monarchs teach me a caterpillar’s pace, one leaf at a time without concern for the future. They teach me persistence as they survive impossible odds to transform from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly before migrating over 2000 miles. They show me transformation is possible in unimaginable ways. They give me faith in Nature’s magic dance.

I mourn the loss of Monarch habitat in California and celebrate each East Coast Monarch I release. Our dance continues until late September when I’ll have released over 120.

Each floating Monarch is a despair-defying prayer.


What helps you avoid despair? Poetry, meditation, family, friends, volunteer work, Nature, scripture, music, writing, painting? If you’d like to help save Monarchs and join the dance, I suggest a website called Monarch Butterfly Garden for every aspect of raising and protecting them. For the first article I wrote about Monarchs when I began this project in 2017, see Mothering Monarchs, Mothering My Soul. For another post about Nature’s essential role in my marriage, see Healed by Nature, Inspired by Love.

  1. I can’t help but see your ongoing care for Monarchs as an act of co-creation Elaine. The butterfly and it’s natural processes from egg to butterfly is an analogy that we as humans can only stand in awe, or an acorn to a mighty oak. But even Nature needs ‘a little help from its friends’ and when we have that friendliness to nature even in her extreme modes of expression, this can serve as an antidote to despair – thanks Elaine. We’re just about to set off to see the greatest flower show in Namaqualand – a road trip adventure which is helping me to feel less despairing about everything …

    • Flowers! I’m so glad you’ll see healing flowers, Susan. I thought I was about done with Monarchs for the season. There are 30-40 chrysalises (hard to count because many hide in leaves) and they’ll eclose with nothing needed for me except to open the crate and let them fly free. …But this morning one tiny 1/2 inch long caterpillar crawled out of the greens. It must have come in as an egg on a milkweed plant. I think I heard it say, “Feed me!” And I will. It has leaves for now and a few large caterpillar friends, but I’ll have to get fresh shoots from the field and bring it inside on cold nights so it can make it to butterfly-hood and migrate by the end of September. This often happens. In nature it wouldn’t have a change, so I’ll enjoy my last little friend.

  2. Yesterday I read a post from a Canadian friend who reviewed her time in a cottage getaway where her son in law and she discovered a chrysalis, which pictured and described as a green treasure chest with a golden edge. She also included a Nathaniel Hawthorne quote: “Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”

    When I feel the oppression of despair, I ask myself, “Is this something I can or cannot control?” If it’s beyond my ability, I notice it, pray about it, and then move on to create something good, like an uplifting blog post. When it cheers me up to write it, I hope it does the same for readers.

    You are doing just that here: highlighting the gentle pace of the caterpillar’s growth and the persistence, surviving impossible odds. From your menu of choices above, I pick, meditation, scripture, family, friends, writing, and of course walks in nature. I applaud your releasing over 120 monarchs, indeed a despair-defying prayer.

    Huge hugs to you during this desperate time, Elaine – and a lovely dance, defying despair. ((( )))

    • Thank you, Marian. Your technique of letting go of what we have no power to change is taught by so many world teachers of so many religions. The Dalai Lama comes to mind for me, but also St. Francis and Rumi. I’m better at this sometimes than others. I keep writing about Monarchs to try to understand my fascination and the allure. I got close to the core in this post because, no matter how I feel, their transformations bring me back to the miracle of life. Meniere’s Disease and a cochlear implant are challenging every day, but the world crisis and the increase in violence and rage (magnified by the news) weighs on my heart as it does for so many. These butterflies are oblivious to those concerns. They want a milkweed leaf and peace so they can transform and transform and transform. They’re teachers in that way and their teaching includes the need to accept butterflies with wings that won’t fly and caterpillars that don’t thrive, so even in their little “safe” nursery, mortality rules. They don’t fret about it, but keep transforming.

  3. Wow, You have given so many lives to this beautiful creature and to our saddest world! It is a strangely good idea to run away from this brutal and painful world into the mother-nature. Thank you, dearest Elain, your tip is awesome Stay safe.

    • Thank you, Aladin. I don’t run away from the brutal world, but allow the butterflies to provide balance so I don’t drown in hopelessness. I hope humans will rise above their basest instincts, but it’s an archetypal war. You’ve probably read Jung’s writings about Fascism in his time which I found illuminating for now. It’s a challenging period in this country, and I feel unsure about the outcome. The Monarchs will fly to Mexico, but their Biopreserve is threatened by climate change and humans who cut the trees illegally. They’ll still head south hoping for the best. They’re great teachers.

      • Of course, I never meant we might run away from this chaos, as you say the only outcome is to challenge as the monarch will surely does. Take care dear friend and stay safe ❤

  4. Elaine, I love hearing about and seeing your work with the Monarch butterflies. Each image and story you share provides a moment of joy and optimism.

    Yes, these are terrible times and it would be easy to fall into despair. Some mornings I do wake up feeling that way. For me, painting is what helps: working with thick and thin paint, bright and dull colors–exploring shapes and lines to see what might show up on my canvas that morning. I give myself freedom to paint ANYTHING.

    Walks in the woods are also restorative. I try to take one every day.

    • Thank you, Lynne. Color is a big help for me and I’ll get out my watercolors when the snow flies. You’re an accomplished painter and you use COLOR. I play with color and paint my dreams. I had one with dancing women a few days back and that will be the first thing I paint. Thanks to my pup who gets wild without long walks, I walk the trails twice a day and sometimes three times. It’s been good for my old dog to have so much exercise and good for me, too. In the fields, the New England Asters are beginning to bloom in my favorite deep purple set off against Goldenrod and White Aster. This time of year, it’s hard to remember the flat tones of winter. In winter, it’s hard to remember this vivid time.

  5. Oh Elaine, thank you for this post. I’m so glad I happened upon it while perusing LinkedIn. I’m raising monarchs for the first time this year and it has been an immeasurable blessing during otherwise dark times. I’m grateful to be working from home due to Covid; otherwise long days at the office wouldn’t have allowed for this in-depth exploration of such miraculous creatures. My numbers aren’t as impressive as yours, but I’m increasing my milkweed crop in hopes of expanding next year, work permitting. I expect that I’ll have reared and released about 30 monarchs in 2020, along with about 20 swallowtails.

    As I was cleaning the enclosures and adding fresh milkweed this evening, a feeling of melancholy poured over me as I realized it would soon be coming to an end for this year. I have about 12 “supers” in various instars; once they are released, that source of wonder, hope, and inspiration will be sorely missed. They have been a wondrous escape from all of the pain, sadness, and uncertainty in the world.

    I could go on and on, but I won’t. I suspect we share many of the same feelings about the upcoming election, racial unrest, natural disasters, and so many other worrisome matters of our time. I just wanted you to know that your piece moved me to tears this evening. When I talk to my daughter or friends and coworkers about my butterflies, I’m pretty sure they think I’ve lost touch with reality. 🙂 Joking aside, it was a breath of fresh air to read the words of someone who completely understands my sense of awe and appreciation for these magical creatures.

    Thinking of you and sending love and light across the miles.


    • So nice to hear from you, Ann. I’ve raised and written about Monarchs for 4 summers now and released 3 today. Each one is a miracle and for the last two weeks, every new arrival has been a long-winged migrator, maybe what you’re calling a “super.” They’re big and the wings are so long. I have fields of milkweed which solves that problem and fields of wildflowers for nectar needs. They are soothing and give me faith. In the evening, I check the chrysalises to see what is darkening and will likely eclose the next day. In the morning, I check before breakfast, on my hands and knees on the back porch floor looking under leaves to find J hooks and new chrysalises. My flower garden is planted just for them with nectar plants they love.

      It makes me sad to know they’ll all be gone by Fall Equinox–but yesterday I found a tiny muncher about 1/2 inch long in a crate with chrysalises and a a few fat caterpillars. One caterpillar was in a J hook and one had become a chrysalis, but in my search, I saw little holes in a fresh green leaf, sure sign of a little one. So, I’ll be raising this one inside where it’s warmer to help it move along faster and I’ll hope for a warm day and favorable winds about 3 weeks from now for releasing this last one. (There’s usually a last one that comes crawling out of the leaves I’ve collected to feel the bigger brood because I missed an egg hidden on a plant.) What can I do? I try to help it survive and fly.

      We’ll both be searching for color and new joys soon. Be healthy and hopeful, Ann. I’ll try to do the same.

  6. Thank goodness for Mother Nature and how she relentlessly holds on despite the elements of the world. I’m so glad you had this whole birthing process to keep you busy throughout the summer and sending new wings into the world. God willing we will have new rebirth with Joe. 🙂

    • God willing. Cheating and lying and complete lack of ethics in US politics right now, so I don’t trust we’ll have a fair election. I’m writing “get out the vote” postcards to registered Democrats who didn’t vote in the last election. Many organizations are doing a good job of providing and organizaing various options for helping from home and this is a good one for me. Will it help? I don’t know, but it feels good to do something. Best to you and your husband, Debby. You may not have a big get-away planned for this winter, but I hope you can work that out.

      • I follow your politics very closely Elaine. Strength in numbers. Statistically, they lose, but it’s the proven Russian interference and their ballot BS that is frightening. Both me and my husband watch closely. We say that 4 more years of him will not only be the end of the US, but ultimately of the world. The collective of sane people across the world are pulling for Joe. May goodness prevail. 🙂

  7. Thank you for this moving piece, Elaine. I love to think of “each floating Monarch” as “a despair-defying prayer.” The monarchs you tend have been a shimmering thread in the weaving of your posts these past years, and seeing a photo of, as well as learning more about the actual nursery, adds to the beautiful tapestry. I also love the photo of you with Marion Woodman. Her books and recordings have meant so much to me over the years. I know your life has had its share of struggles, as all do, but I am smiling at your good fortune in the teacher, husband, and “living in beauty” arenas.
    I wonder how that tiny muncher you found over a week ago is doing and whether your little friend is yet able to be outside at night.

    • Anne, I know I have good fortune–with my husband, my two sons, the many spiritual teachers who offered guidance, my community here, and the beautiful and so-far safe place I live. Four Monarchs eclosed this morning and will fly today. I have more than 20 chrysalises still to go and hope they get a wing up within a week. While cleaning up crates and securing precarious chrysalises found under dried up leaves (I pin the leaf to the top of the crate so they have room to drop their wings after eclosing), I found two more little caterpillar munchers in the crates on pale tired leaves. I harvested new milkweed plants for the three who are about the same size and transferred them to their own milkweed crate. They’re growing like crazy and I hope they’ll become chrysalises within a week and be ready to fly south by the end of the month. On cold nights, I’ll bring their crate inside on cool nights to help them along. The world is so nuts and I feel helpless to do much about Nature’s rage with coronavirus and fires on the West Coast or the political insanity and lies from the White House other than to make a few donations and write get out the vote postcards. At least I can help these Monarchs make their journey. The large Migrators who hold so much knowledge in their small bodies and ride the winds to Mexico seem like Old Wise Crones to me.

  8. Hi Elaine, some years ago I learned to spot common milkweed, and as if that were invitation enough, one sprouted in my yard the following spring. It reseeded itself, as the Asclepias family often does, and ended up in front and back yards both. All this time, I have yet to see any caterpillars or a chrysalis. Adult monarchs flutter around the plants and feed on the flowers but otherwise I don’t see much other action. I’ve made sure to have Mexican sunflower and zinnias for food. But I wonder why no offspring. Maybe I’m only a waystation. 🙂 Today I noticed a smaller monarch in the yard and it seemed almost anxious, or that was the impression I got from its movements– maybe a recent hatchling? Some are sanguine enough to be approached for a photo op. Earlier in the year I went overboard with seed purchases online, but it paid off in terms of compliments from neighbors, and even neighbor kids noticing and asking for cut flowers to take home. I’m only too happy since most flowers will bloom even more when snipped back. I’m trying to figure out a way to make a free milkweed seed station for passersby to take some home. I need to act soon as the seeds pods are moving toward maturity. meanwhile I hope you’re well.

    • Hmmm… Bottom line is I don’t know, but I’ll guess. I have Common Milkweed in my fields. I also have some Swamp Milkweed, another favorite for Monarchs in the northeast. Monarchs prefer milkweed that isn’t close to many other milkweed plants, because the predators hang out there to eat eggs. I mow trails through the Milkweed patches in late June, just before Monarchs arrive, so about 1/4 of the plants are mowed down. Monarchs prefer laying eggs on the tender shoots that come from newly mowed plants. You can do the same thing by clipping some plants to the ground in late June. Yes, I know it feels terrible, but clip just before Monarchs arrive in your area and new shoots will grow from this tenacious root. The Monarchs will prefer the young plants, especially if it’s not next to more mature plants.

      Sunflowers come late in the season, but are great for nectaring along with asters and goldenrod. I have success enticing early butterflies in egg laying season with Benary’s and Profusion Zinnias. Both have open flat tops so it’s easy for Monarchs to get at the exposed nectar cups. (They aren’t attracted by Zinnias like State Fair that have a pompom flower.) Monarchs also love Echinacea, another flat headed flower. I rarely see an adult Monarch nectaring on Milkweed flowers even though they lay eggs there. Also, I don’t wait for caterpillars to appear or I wouldn’t have many butterflies. I collect eggs because spiders and other predators eat 95 to 98% of them. Occasionally while looking for eggs, I find a small caterpillar. Eggs are also more likely to produce healthy butterflies because some of those predators (wasps, for example) love to infect the cateroillars with parasites. Newly hatched Monarchs can flit quickly from place to place, especially the males as they search for a female. Monarchs I observe outside tend to settle down on warm afternoons for prolonged nectaring. A caterpillar rarely makes its chrysalis on a milkweed plant in the wild, but travels to another non-milkweed plant where there won’t be predators. My friend often has chrysalises on the side of her house or under her porch.

      This is the best website I’ve found for Monarch information and troubleshooting: Monarch Butterfly Garden. https://monarchbutterflygarden.net Good luck!!

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