Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by
on their way to incredible destinations.
— Ray Bradbury, quoted in a meme on Facebook from The Writer’s Circle
In the last couple of weeks, friends on Facebook have posted photos of monarch butterflies and comments about the sad decline in their numbers. A friend in New Hampshire, for instance, may have seen one last week, others have seen one or two this season. I, too, may have seen one, but it was too far away to be sure. It might have been a falling sugar maple leaf.
Monarch butterflies figure prominently in my first novel, Song of the Blessing Trees. This time of year used to be almost magical because late summer-early autumn is — was — the usual time for the monarchs to embark on their annual migration from the US to Mexico and Central America. One scene in my novel came about because of a direct experience over 20 years ago during their migration — I wrote it word-for-word from my journal — and led to how I crafted the book’s final scene.
I used to look forward to this time of year because of the monarch butterflies. For some reason, their annual pilgrimage always uplifted me, whereas I usually feel … not sad, really, but melancholy when the Canada geese start their journeys, even though I am always awed at and by the mysteries of migration. Over the last several years, though — as most people know — the monarchs’ numbers have dwindled dramatically and are now dangerously low.
The year I wrote of was much different. In 1992 or 1993, my family and I were driving back to Connecticut after a few days in Vermont. The late September day was spectacular, as only Vermont can be. The trees were turning , the wildflowers were in prolific bloom, the air was crisp but warming up in the bright afternoon sun. We were stopped for road construction, and, as we waited, we were suddenly surrounded by hundreds of monarch butterflies. It was as if they had emerged en masse from the river beside us to greet the occupants in the short line of cars. They stayed among us, hovering, darting, floating for the 10-15 minutes that were stopped.
Once we started driving south again, the monarchs move alongside us. Now they went in front of us, there were others behind us, others on either side, some stopping to partake of the nectar of asters, wild sunflowers, and other wildlings along the roadsides. For almost two hours, the magic stayed with us as we drove, even once we got onto the Interstate.
About an hour before we reached home, the fragile migrants disappeared … but a couple of days later they reappeared. I was in the garden, on my knees as I did some weeding and transplanting chores, when I looked up to see a couple of monarchs on the late daisies and roses. As I sat back on my heels, more and more of the orange, brown, and black butterflies swirled around me and the flowers. This cloud of monarchs wasn’t as numerous as the Vermont pilgrims we’d left behind, but it was the most I’d ever seen at one time in our suburban yard. They stayed all afternoon, and I stayed outside with them, and a few more showed up the next day, and the day after that they were gone. I thought then, and I still believe, these late travelers had started out with us back in Vermont. I blessed them and asked for traveling mercies on their behalf as they went on their way and I shed a tear or two.
That was a one-time experience — it had never happened to me before and it’s not happened since. Looking back, it seems prophetic. At first the diminution of monarch numbers was too gradual for me to notice. Over the years, however, I saw fewer and fewer butterflies and I started to mention it to family and friends. Then I began to see and hear news reports that the monarchs were disappearing because we humans were poisoning and destroying their habitats. And Al Gore wrote his book and made his movie, An Inconvenient Truth.
And I finished and published my novel. And now, 20+ years later, I may have seen one, from a distance. Or it could have been a leaf falling, a leaf that was a dull, dark orange and brown instead of the neon orange and flaming crimson it should be this time of year.
So, despite what Ray Bradbury says, this plotline and these characters — along with the others who peopled the story — have left their footprints, their wingprints in my heart. Their collective imprint is much too deep to forget, especially as I watch the monarchs disappear. As sad I am now, though, I take heart that maybe the story was a prophecy after all, and the butterflies will come back again some day.
Song of the Blessing Trees by Eugenie R. Rayner is available from the publisher at http://www.gileadbooks.com/catalogue.php?uid=157, or on Amazon.com and Kindle.