Hominy & Hash
OF MARIGOLDS AND MONARCHS
by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- No doubt about it: it's nice to commune with nature. But to put it on my calendar as something I plan to do, well, it's not my style. But, every once in a while, always when I least expect it, nature comes to me.
The end of September on this island is every bit as hot as early July. Sudden rains do not chill the air; instead, steam rises from sidewalks. Pollen is washed from the trees creating the mold that stirs allergies into a sneeze. And, it's hotter than before, if that's possible.
My only chance for a breeze Sunday afternoon was to walk along the pier, crowded with tourists fishing, using rented gear from the shop across the way. Some cast nets, others lower wire baskets over the edge to the shallow water 15 feet below, using raw chicken pieces to lure their catch.
Since I was trying to lure a breeze, I reversed my steps. Walking toward the playground where a giant, ancient, live oak offered shade, if not a breeze, I crossed a well-groomed flower bed of yellow and orange marigolds, ordinary enough, you might think, until I saw it almost alive with silent activity.
There were only yellow marigolds; the orange was the color of the feasting Monarch butterflies! I knew immediately that this coast of Georgia was part of the migratory journey of the most remarkable species.
There were enough marigolds to feed all the hovering butterflies and the delicate way they sipped the nectar from the blossom didn't disturb a petal. I know better than to try to catch a butterfly but I did move into position ... just in case one decided it was safe to light on my outstretched hand, palm down.
For a few decades now, I've read about Monarchs and their ability to travel up to 3,000 miles. There might be a few thousand Monarchs bursting forth in Connecticut or Maine and a newspaper account makes the Associated Press wires and we marvel.
Late September may still feel like Summer to me, but the Monarchs know: They're going to Mexico and there's no time to linger. They're cold blooded and can't fly in cold weather. We see them sipping nectar but they're storing fat. If they don't have enough fat, critical to their being able to fly and survive until next year when they head back north for summer, they just won't make it.
For someone who doesn't commune with nature, I've picked up more than a passing bit of information about this remarkable species. They are the only butterflies to make a two-way migration every year. The world is full of butterflies but only these Monarchs of North America do this, and it rates some applause.
Their arrival in Mexico coincides with a festival called The Day of the Dead, Los Dias de los Muertos. It's a time of high frivolity, picnics in the cemetery, where families gather young and old to celebrate the life of their dearly departed, and the death as well. Of course, I don't mean to suggest the butterflies are going to the feast; however, going back in time as far as the Aztecs, the arrival of the Monarchs was thought to be the return of spirits to their home.
No one knows how the butterflies find their way -- often back to the same tree for a winter's respite in the tropics, but they get there ... even though they are now three generations after the ones who left that tree last Spring.
I was surprised that the Monarchs only chose the marigolds when flower beds of greater variety grew nearby. I learned that although there are many showy-named marigolds, they all, every variety, came from tropical Mexico. Marigolds are their taste of home on their journey back.
If we can accept this phenomenon as part of nature, and, as well, the changing of the seasons, the phases of the moon, the tides, the emergence of bulbs from their underground winter home, swallows returning to Capistrano, and how hundreds of ants will rush to bury the one you just stepped on -- why is it so difficult to understand natural inclinations in our human species?
I want to go home. I want to go to New York, and I want to go every Autumn. Is that so unnatural? Well, it would be if you buy into my husband's argument that it still is rife with all the reasons we left: snow that looks like soot crowding the curbs from November until March; a high crime rate, and noisy traffic, the rough and tumble sidewalks and impassable thoroughfares.
So, what else is new? That's how I remember it. The swallows remember Capistrano and they want to go again, and again, even though the monastery is crumbling. The Monarchs remember the oxymel fir trees and the milkweed they nourish upon. And if the natives believe they're the spirits of the their loved ones returning, who will argue?
My yearning to go home has nothing to do with dissatisfaction. I love living on this island. We've made our lives here. And yet, the pull to return to what I consider home is stronger than I am. The feeling can only be part of this natural phenomena all around us.
If the tiny Monarch can fly 3,000 miles to spend a cozy winter clinging to a tree in a place he never saw, I can say I'm part of a grand scheme. I want to replenish my soul, quicken my pulse, and start all over again.