Mystery of Milkweeds and Monarchs

After five years since planting an assortment of milkweed seeds, they are ready this year to complete their life cycle. They were slow to germinate and then slow to settle in after transplanting the seedlings. Over the past week, the seed pods of my common milkweed slowly opened from a sliver to fully split. They are now ready to disperse their seeds like parachutes.

All over the country there is an effort to plant milkweeds to help with the survival of monarch butterflies. Since I have many suitable habitats at my forest’s edge, I am hoping to grow patches of them to nurture monarchs and other butterflies. It has taken some time for my efforts to come to fruition, but finally the seeds are ready to take off and find new homes.

When I visited Mexico to see the monarch butterflies a couple years ago, I learned that many people living near the monarch reserves believe that the butterflies represent the souls of relatives who have died and have come back to visit them for a brief time on earth. Many years ago, my aunt had encouraged me to visit them. When a butterfly landed on me a local guide mentioned this must be someone who was trying to say hello, and I took it as a sign that my aunt was greeting me from the afterlife. In her usual humorous way, she was giving my shoulder a tap to ask why it took me so long to visit.

Right now, I have a connection again with these butterflies and their plants. My sister just unexpectedly passed away. I could not have imagined having lost my mom last year that I would lose my sister this year. After trying to process the shock of her sudden loss this past week, I am trying to remember and honor her in a way she would have appreciated.

In college my sister studied botany and horticulture. We spent many hours botanizing and enjoying wildlife over the decades. Though our formal studies were different, with her focus on plants and mine on animals, as time went on our interests converged. It’s impossible to study any organism without discovering endless connections to other life. We had continued to share our nature observations regularly, and both of us were inspired by a curiosity for the natural world in all its many facets. I would have loved to share with her the beauty and elegance of these seeds and their imminent dispersal. We could have talked for hours about the launch of these seeds, both of us giddy with nature’s wonders.

As an anthropologist, I have studied many versions of the afterlife. I feel the narrative shared in the Mexican highlands is as valid as any and has a magical eloquence. I don’t know where my sister is now, and she may never materialize back on earth. But I like to imagine that someday these seeds will grow a plant to feed a monarch butterfly that can ferry her soul back for a brief visit. Even if only for an instant, we can commune and share our love of nature as we have our whole lives.

I will never have another sister, but I will carry our shared memories, and be happy for the wonderful years we enjoyed together. Many years ago, in a letter I sent, when we hadn’t seen each other in too long, I wrote “The hardest part of having a sister, are all the many times I’ve missed her.” She appreciated this and reminded me of it often. Right now, I am missing her like never before. If I ever see an especially friendly butterfly, I will be sure to show it the same kindness and respect she gave to all living things. And just in case it is her, I will be sure to guide her to the sweetest flowers, and tell her she will always be loved, no matter where she may be.