The Miracle Monarchs Of Michoacan

By Neil McKinnon

monarch butterfly


I shiver involuntarily in the warm sun as the spirits of millions of dead Aztec warriors silently surround me and tease my face with the gentle brush of their passing. In the quiet mountain glade only a faint murmur hints at their descent—a brief, near imperceptible, flutter against the background rustle of a mid-afternoon breeze inspiring tremors in lofty pines.

Their presence intimidates me. I think of generations ritually sacrificed who now, brilliantly garbed in their dazzling war robes, are returning to earth to sip nectar from the depths of radiant flowers—placed there by the gods so that the souls of these long-ago warriors can once again repeat the cycle of life to death and back again to life.

Here, at 3050 meters, near the village of El Rosario, in the high mountains of Michoacan in West Mexico all is plausible. The pre-Hispanic belief in butterflies as the spirits of departed heroes makes complete sense as does the Aztec cosmology that associates butterflies with fire and movement—perfect proxies for the sun.

We have come here to witness one of the great miracles of the world—the annual gathering of Monarch butterflies before the spring start of their 2500-mile trip to Canada and the northeastern United States. Now with the sun’s rays intercepted at all angles by millions of fluttering bright orange and black wings we stand wrapped in a warm, hypnotic kaleidoscope of crisscrossing shadows, immersed in the dizzying wonder of the annual spectacle.

For three to four months every winter the Monarchs cling to every grey-green branch in these mountains. The trees bend under the masses clustered in near-hibernation, bowing in homage to their burden of butterflies. In somnambulant stupor they wait for the spring sun, showing only their drab underside to the world.

Then the vernal rays penetrate the forest crown. The lifeless aggregate starts to quiver. Struggling off camouflage shrouds, millions of dormant butterflies begin to absorb the energy of Aztec souls through their solar panel wings. A random fluttering begins. Soon fire from the sun infuses their radiant wings and in a blaze of golden brilliance the transformed souls of the ancients rise over the cool forest floor.

They whisper past us—a purposeful stream down the mountain. Once again noble warriors, infused with the power of the sun, are transmigrated from a distant past to a new generation. Indeed, they are the embodiment of the sun. Each, who has made this journey through countless generations, pulses with the fire of life—a fire needed for the odyssey that will eventually return their great-grandchildren to this Olympus here at El Rosario—a cycle that mimics the birth and death of the earth itself.

Fluttering upwards, surfing on the wind, sipping nectar and, above all, mating and creating new generations, these winged warrior’s journey steadily north until, in April, they find their destination. There, they again participate in the endless loop of life—butterfly to egg to larva to chrysalis and back to butterfly. Toward the end of summer, the spirits begin to long for their ancestral home. Slowly and inexorably the Monarchs amass, and the journey south begins anew. By November more than 100 million will alight on the same trees on the same mountain their forebears left some eight months before.

A pre-Hispanic poet said,

“they are flower songs; they are butterflies of song.”

Another said,

“Sweet-smelling flowers

 are scattering among the butterflies.

All come from the region of mystery.”

A butterfly lands ever so lightly on my cheek. I feel its wings caress my eyelash and I think of the whimsical idyl...of the flowers scattering among the butterflies and it seems that the ancient poet had dreamed conversely. With the gentle velvet touch on my face, I watch the Monarchs scatter from this region of mystery, each truly a song to the flowers.

The Ancients believed in the birth and death of the earth itself—an endless cycle. The Monarch lives its cycle, and we live ours beneath a circling sun. From life to death and ashes to ashes the roots of all living things are tied together—interlocking spirals revolving through eternity.

The End


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