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In Our Own Backyard...One life, one hope

A butterfly hatching from a chrysalis has long been a symbol of hope and emerging life. A few years ago it became popular to buy live butterflies to release at wedding receptions. For a mere $100, you could purchase 36 live butterflies encased in protective packaging to distribute to guests. At the pertinent moment, everyone would open up the little plastic sleeves and release the butterflies as cameras snapped and the crowd ooh-ed and ahh-ed.

Many local classrooms have taken on the task of hatching their own butterflies so they can observe the amazing metamorphosis from start to finish. It's a great life lesson for students, just like when my mom did the same thing with my sister and I as we were growing up. We'd trek through the fields and meadows, checking the milkweed plants for the showy monarch caterpillars. When we found one, it was a little like Christmas and Easter mornings wrapped into one. We'd bring the brightly striped caterpillar inside, fill a Mason jar with milkweed leaves, and watch every day as the caterpillar grew and thrived.

And then, we'd discover one morning that the caterpillar had spun a bright green chrysalis, flecked with gold. Every day we'd wait for any signs of change, and vigilant though our watch was, it seemed we never actually saw the butterfly emerge. Suddenly it would be there, hanging from the lid of the jar, flexing its wings as they dried and getting ready for flight.

The biggest thrill was to be able to take it outside and coach it to crawl onto my finger for a few brief moments before it launched into the air. Then it would unsteadily circle the yard, pausing here and there to bolster its strength, before catching an air current and fluttering away.

That was part of the summer tradition as we were growing up, and it continued to be part of my seasonal ritual long after I became an adult. I simply can't bring myself to walk past one of the brightly striped caterpillars when I find one on the leaves of a milkweed plant. Every summer I've made a point of bringing at least one of them inside to hatch out in the windowsill of my kitchen. The thrill of feeling the brand new butterfly clinging to my finger just before it flies away is still as real and as moving as it was when I was a child.

The last couple of years, two of our young granddaughters have been at our house to visit during prime butterfly season. I've introduced them to the magic of gathering and nurturing monarch caterpillars, watching them turn into chrysalises and then emerge as butterflies. And I've eagerly handed over the launching ritual to them. To watch the excited glow in their eyes as the magical creatures cling to their fingers is memorable.

This summer, the little girls visited a bit earlier in the season than usual, and because of the late spring, the milkweed wasn't even up yet. They were disappointed, to be sure, but I told them I'd send them pictures of this year's crop of butterflies.

As the milkweed grew tall and thrived along the roadsides, I eagerly watched for monarch butterflies on my daily walks, knowing they'd soon be laying the eggs that would hatch into caterpillars. But they never came. Even after the milkweed plants burst into dusky pink blossoms, it appeared there were simply no monarchs to be seen. It was a strange sensation, almost like walking through a ghost town where the buildings all stand just as they were, but no one is there to inhabit them.

And then, one day I spotted a monarch at last, hovering over one of the milkweed plants ever so briefly before fluttering off. It was several more weeks before I found a single striped caterpillar on one of the plants, and I brought it into the house with a fresh supply of milkweed leaves. After that, there were no more.

I wondered if the late spring had caused the monarch butterflies that were migrating from the south to stop short of northern Minnesota in favor of warmer climes. I decided to do a little research. Right away, I found an article on the Internet that stated researchers reported 60 percent fewer monarchs wintering in the trees of northern Mexico this past year, a treacherous drop that would suggest the monarch population is severely at risk.

It made me sad to read how illegal deforestation of the monarchs' traditional wintering grounds in the hills of Mexico is destroying their habitat, and how the spraying of insecticides on the milkweed plants of North America that are essential to the monarchs' subsistence is destroying the food source of the caterpillars.

And the light began to dawn. I realized that perhaps this year's dip in the local monarch population was no mere coincidence -- but one more step toward their possible demise.

I looked with renewed awe at the caterpillar that chewed contentedly on milkweed leaves in the container on my kitchen windowsill, and I realized I had been granted a marvelous gift -- one that may not soon come again.