Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The broken web


Every fall, when a mysterious seasonal alarm clock tells them to go, the monarch butterflies of our New England meadows set off on one of the most remarkable migrations in the animal kingdom. They wing their way to a tiny patch of forest in the mountains of central Mexico that they have never visited before, where they are joined by millions of their cousins from all over eastern North America. They rest and feed and wait out the winter. Then, in the spring, they set out for northern meadows, breeding and dying along the way. There will be no Mexican veterans to lead the next migration south.

How do they do it? How does a butterfly that has never made the journey know when to set out and where to go? That pinch of flesh with postage-stamp wings? The call, the map, and the navigational skills must surely lie in the monarch's DNA. The DNA encodes proteins. The proteins are a language of geometry that speaks through the monarch's nervous system: "Ven, sigueme! Come follow me."

To merely contemplate this mystery is wonder enough for a lifetime. Readers of my book The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe will know that I was once lucky enough to visit the monarch over-wintering refuge in Mexico. It was one of the most awe-inspiring adventures of my life: Tens of millions of monarchs, as thick as leaves on the trees. When they took to the air their numbers blocked out the sun. You cold hear the soft rush of their wings. On that trip, we also visited with the poet Homero Aridjis at his home in Mexico City. Aridjis has been instrumental in protecting the patches of forest crucial to the monarchs' survival.

That was some years ago. I recount it now because of a recent op-ed in the New York Times by Aridjis and Lincoln Brower, another champion of the monarchs. The monarchs are threatened as never before.

Nature strews the planet with miracles, which we have a gift for trampling. Even eco-tourists like me inadvertently contribute to the destruction of wonders that took nature millions of years to contrive. If I may paraphrase from The Path: The poet E. E. Cummings wrote of acceptance "for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes." Science and politics and poets alone will not save the monarchs. What is required is a deeply felt, unintellectualized, instinctive "yes" -- a sense that behind the gaudy delight of 20 million butterflies hanging on fir trees, there is a natural and infinite power that binds all life in a holy web.