The Charles’s Project

Charles The First, visits the Milkweed.

In the months leading up to the birth of our daughter, Sian and I attended a birth class. One night, the instructor, Kathy, told the class to write down their list of essential “Must Do’s” prior to the birth of their child. It was important, she stressed, that we were clear about what we needed accomplished BEFORE the birth. Without skipping a beat, I jotted down my top priority. One by one, we went around the room, reading our lists. Everyone had pretty similar “Must Do’s”: “install car-seat”, “purchase breast pump” or “build nursery”. I looked down at my paper. The only thing I’d written was, “Plant the Butterfly Garden”. Embarrassed, I tried to bury my paper in my pocket. But before I could, Sian raised her hand and, with mock innocence, asked, “So, Kathy, would planting a butterfly garden be something you’d categorize as ‘essential’?” Everyone laughed.

Look, all my life I’ve geeked out over animals. And one thing I always assumed I’d do is get to see the Monarch butterfly’s legendary migration. But then I began reading stories about the steep decline of the Monarch and a profound feeling took over took me: This can’t happen. I want to go see this with my kid someday. But what can I do? I’m not a powerful person. I don’t have much money, and I don’t have political office. My sphere of influence, as a great teacher once called it, is not that impressive. And so, I got this butterfly garden in my head.

Cut to 6 months later. My daughter is born, and my garden is underway. There’s all kinds of salvias, lavender and butterfly bush out there, but the Monarchs need milkweed. It’s all they eat, it’s where they lay eggs and the loss of it due to pesticides is why the Monarch is in decline. So, I planted a few milkweed plants among the others and went about my life. I think it took about ten minutes for the first one to arrive. Sian and I were both as thrilled as 9 year olds. She called him “Charles”, after the Monarch. He stuck around, this Charles. Sian and our daughter, Aniko, started laying on a blanket in the back yard to watch him circle lazily around the garden. Others came. “What’s the new ones name?”, I asked, “Elizabeth?”. “No”, replied Sian, “It’s Charles”. I was confused. “They’re all Charles?” “Yes”. Well, Charles The First wasn’t amused. They’re territorial, these butterflies. The good news is, butterfly battles are adorable. It’s as if they’re spiraling to a minuet in thin air. Or perhaps they were having sex, because one of the Charles’ (Charlene?) began laying eggs, miniscule capsules deposited on the underside of the milkweed leaves. And not long after that, several tiny little Charles’s could be found munching away on the milkweed. Euphoria ovewhelmed me. I had done it! I was successfully saving the migration. Every time I looked out at my garden, I felt good. Then the slaughter happened.

We took a trip back east for 5 weeks. When we returned, the first thing I did after tossing down our bags was bolt outside in hopes of seeing a cloud of Monarch’s drifting over a garden packed with young caterpillars. What I found was a killing field. Not a butterfly nor caterpillar in sight, the milkweed empty. On the ground, wings. Pair after pair of Monarch and other butterfly wings, strewn among the bushes. The culprits: about 3 huge, invasive mantises, laying in wait among the milkweeds. I had, as it turned out, lured the Charles’s to their deaths.

Charles The Third, Prepping for the Big Change

If you can be grief stricken over the death of an invertebrate, I was. Here, in my own paltry “sphere of influence”, I’d done nothing but contribute to the Monarch’s decline. It was a classic gesture of human folly. Over the next few days, visiting my garden felt like staring at a crime scene. It was depressing. Then, one morning as I was headed to work, I looked down, and something caught my eye. There, on a fallen milkweed leaf, was a young caterpillar. “Charles!”, I screamed. This was my shot at redemption. I picked him up and quickly brought him inside. I found this article on raising Monarchs and got down to it. Over the next few days, I found two more caterpillars, and brought them inside, and so began the “Charles’s Rescue Project”. If you’ve never actually taken the journey from caterpillar to butterfly, up close and personal, trust me, observing it is nothing short of mind-bendingly trippy, no drugs required. Scientific American does a nice job of breaking down the weird, liquid rebuild from caterpillar to butterfly.

So, that’s what we’re doing over here in Eagle Rock these days. We’re raising butterflies. And allow me 2 seconds on my soapbox: Monarchs are pollinators- they help make the food we eat and play a huge role in the health of plants and trees everywhere. And, thanks to that staggeringly beautiful migration, they’re a powerful indicator species for climate change. And finally, there are 3.2 million households in LA county alone. If 10% of those actually took the time to assure 1 Monarch made it back to the migration, then that’s 320 thousand butterflies added to the migration from LA alone. Expand those numbers nationally, and maybe you’ve reversed an extinction.

Next…The Charles’s Come Inside

9 thoughts on “The Charles’s Project”

  1. We had monarch caterpillars at Marly’s preschool. It was an amazing slice of the cycle to witness and I remember being there as the first butterfly emerged….it was breathtaking. It felt like I was witnessing birth without all the blood…

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