Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Of Monarchs and Milkweeds

In a small patch of miracles on Robert Frost Farm in Derry you might not notice that it's the season of the Monarch, a small but amazing force of nature that exists, in no small way, thanks to the humble milkweed.
By fall this season's fourth generation of the storied winged waifs will have emerged, fortified and ready to fly far from the incubator milkweeds that begat them.
The first three generations live only weeks. Their sole purpose is to procreate. They know their place -- live and die in the garden of their birth.
The autumn Monarchs are different; four times removed from the truncated life cycle of their great-grandparents, they are born with loftier goals: to live long enough to migrate south to their ancestral home in the mountains of central Mexico. Here they will soak up the secrets of life, like miniature mutant Mayans seeking some force stronger than sun. Impossibly they have found their way to a place they've never been, collecting on tree limbs like a million pulsing leaves.
In the spring, they head back in the direction from which they came, following the scent of milkweed blooms, breeding and dying along the way, sloughing off three generations as they journey home.
It is the fourth generation of these majestic flyers that will once again complete the cycle, settling among the milkweed of their predecessors, their predestined breeding ground, exhibiting a hard-wired instinct as inexplicable as it is magical.
Monarchs lay only one egg per plant. When caterpillars emerge, they feast on the milky weed, its sap laden with a chemical that renders the caterpillars toxic to its predators, even after they morph.
Through spring and summer the orange-and-black insects behave just like their less-majestic counterparts. But as the leaves begin to turn, everything changes. The last caterpillar, bred to survive, has climbed from its chrysalis, dried its wings in the sun and fluttered off to find the place where its great-great-great-grandmother wintered.
And so it is that the milkweed can finally fade, having served its purpose, as well. Its leaves shrivel against October's chill. Its pods, browned and burgeoning with fluff, provide a home for lady bugs and their tiny speckled larvae, which crawl like microscopic alligators along the thin bark of the craggy, skeletal weed.
And then it happens, one by one the pods explode, their puffball seedlings strewn in clusters, some clinging to the papery shell, waiting for the right motivation; others catching the first breeze that comes along, drifting until the air-borne seed is plucked from the atmosphere by tiny fingers that know a good wish-puff when they see it.
Some will be eaten by the birds; others will rot on fallow rock and stone. Those that find their way into the woods and weeds will wait for spring, to germinate and regenerate, and to beckon once again to the butterflies which will come back, because they must.

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