I am writing a children’s picture book titled Milkweed Matters: A Close Look at the Life Cycles within a Food Chain. It has made the submission rounds, had a few good critiques, but basically returned home, rejected. I’ve decided to publish it as an eBook and market it to teachers and tech-savvy youngsters with iPads.* I’ve found an illustrator and I am moving forward. This post is not about that process, but rather the ecological processes at work at Halcyon, how we sometimes help and other times hinder nature and how perhaps we have to do both to really be a part of nature. I begin with the little monarch that had to trust me.
On Friday the 13th of May, my illustrator emailed to say she’d do the project. Later, I was mowing paths already established, paths created each year as I mow around desired plant species. I was right beside a patch of milkweed when I spotted a monarch butterfly. My first sighting of the season! I watched her lay an egg on each of four plants before flying off. I was elated and couldn’t help making meaning out of coincidence even though I don’t believe in signs. See (http://www.halcyonnature.com/2014/09/16/fireweed/ ). I had a little mascot to observe while I worked on the book!
I checked the plants and photographed an egg every day. On the fourth day, I could only find one egg. I panicked. I thought about bringing it inside, still safe on its leaf, but then I worried about getting fresh leaves everyday, and whether that would be as healthy for the caterpillar. I fretted for the afternoon and then I dug up the whole plant, put it in a large pot and brought it inside. That would thwart any birds or insects that wanted my egg. All was fine for a few more days. Then on day 7 the egg was gone! I was quite bummed, but luckily I didn’t ditch the milkweed because 5 days later I saw the larva. It was so tiny, so cute, and definitely a monarch. I later read that they eat their egg when they hatch.
We had a delightful relationship, in that I delighted in watching it grow. I’m not sure what it thought of its nice cool spot with no sun and no wind. Then one day I noticed the milkweed plant looking weary and worried that it needed to be outside and that a sick or dying milkweed would not be good food for the monarch. I put the pot outside the kitchen door. A few days later, the caterpillar was gone. Did a bird or other predator eat it? I felt directly responsible for this little monarch’s demise. I interfered in an ancient natural interplay between plant and insect and perhaps made it easier for a predator to have a meal. This was not the first time I’ve made such a mistake.
I believe we need to observe, touch, care for and otherwise interact with nature in order to truly understand how our lives are connected to other life on our planet. When I was a science teacher, I looked for opportunities to help students make these connections. My first year teaching, I found a preying mantis egg case while walking in my yard. I knew that I could not pull it off the forsythia twig it was attached to without disrupting the egg development, so I broke off a long stretch of the twig and brought it to class. I placed it in a small aquarium with a screened top so that on hatching day the little insects would not escape until released outside. My students were excited, most had never seen the egg case and they were curious about the mystery inside. How many would emerge? How big would they be? How long would it take? We not only learned the life cycle of the preying mantis, we made a meaningful connection. It was wonderful.
And then I made a mistake.
We did see little preying mantises emerge. Their diminutive size was indirectly proportional to my students’ excitement. But it was time for lunch and I decided that the bottom of the container needed some water in case they were thirsty. We came back to at least half of the baby insects drowned in the millimeter-deep puddle. I never brought in another live creature to the classroom, and I still apologize to any preying mantis I meet.
But connections were made, and that is important. Actually, I think it is crucial to becoming fully human.
When someone says something like, “The problem with fruit trees or planting flowers near your patio, is that the bees come,” I deflate a little inside. Of course the bees come. Isn’t that the point? Those flowers we love in all their glory exist because of countless years of a partnership between bees and flowers – evolution at its finest. Without the bees, the flowers would not have bothered. Do you notice the glorious grass flowers? No. And not because you mow them, but because grass is wind pollinated. Grass flowers did not have to get brighter and fancier to vie for a bee’s attention. As for the fruit trees comment, it is hard to keep the DUH that bounces around in my head contained. There is no fruit without the bee (or other pollinators). Of course the people that say this sort of thing know about pollination; they know it as an abstraction learned in school. But they did not learn to rejoice at the sight of the bee, to be grateful for its existence, and that is why I despair.
I am not sure what happened to the monarch caterpillar. In the interest of easing my guilt I have written a probable ending narrative: Since it was in its fifth instar, it crawled down the stem, over the edge of the pot and to some close object that it could use to pupate. I didn’t notice since I was fixated on finding it on the plant. After two weeks, it emerged and flew over Halcyon sipping nectar and looking for a mate. Its short adult life would be over by now. I hope it was able to complete its life cycle and contribute to continuing another generation.
I will make mistakes living here at Halcyon, mistakes in managing this piece of land I love, and in doing so I will harm some of the life I love. But I will keep trying and learning to live in this space, and more importantly with this space. I attended a nature journaling workshop in Shenandoah National Park on Saturday. Since this is the centennial year of the National Park Service, there was a lot of talk about ‘whose park is it?” emphasizing ownership by the public. I realized I tend to think of ownership having a negative connotation when in fact the synonyms for own – keep, preserve, maintain, hold – don’t feel negative to me at all. They are how I try to approach Halcyon. And yet, with an eye on preservation, I embrace the change inherent in the evolution of ecological processes. And I accept that I am just a visitor here. Halcyon maintains and holds me far better than I will ever be able to reciprocate.
* I have mixed feelings about eBooks, about kids not holding a real book in their hands, and so I will continue to submit to traditional publishers, as well as explore these new technologies for reading. AND….I now have a contract with Arbordale Publishing for one of my picture books! I just found out last week and have been walking around on cloud nine. I will blog about it on my picture book website once I have a publication date.