As my wife and I sat on our deck the other night, looking over Lake Ontario, butterflies drifted in and out of our field of vision, and flew over our heads or alighted on the leaves of the trees above us. In the setting sun and in the twilight that followed, they bedded down for the night.
The cold front driving them over the lake swells triggers their journey. The next day our yard was full of them, and many clustered around the goldenrod plants that grow wild under the dead ash by our back door.
The butterflies are known as Monarchs. They are a common butterfly, and one finds them in both North America and Eurasia. The old-world Monarchs and those from the New World differ only in one respect: the North American Monarchs migrate long distances. In our case they are moving south from New York State and southern Canada.
This butterfly gets its name from its orange coloring, the orange of William of Orange. It feeds on many flowers, but Monarch caterpillars feed only on the milkweed plant. This is a strength and a vulnerability as milkweed is considered a weed and therefore eradicated. On the other hand, the plant imparts a sour taste to the insect, and birds seldom eat more than one Monarch. Indeed, another butterfly, the Viceroy, takes advantage of the Monarch’s bitter taste, by mimicking its colors and patterns. Birds avoid the Viceroy, fearing the taste of a Monarch.
A few years ago I had wanted to cut down the goldenrod. The pollen of the plant is wrongly thought to irritate people with hay fever. My wife dissuaded me, and I am happy that her opinion prevailed, as the annual Monarch migration is a scene for us to behold. Though the scale and drama would not compare with the battlefield at Agincourt, the clouds of butterflies have a charm for us, especially as they presage and precede the change of seasons as late summer August slips into early autumn.
The Monarch migration is threatened these days. Not only is their food source more scarce and their routes filled with dangerous highways and other obstacles, but their wintering grounds in the mountains of northern Mexico suffer from serious loss of habitat due to deforestation and, perhaps, climate change. When we see the Monarchs on the move, there is sadness as well as joy, a sadness born of the increasing difficulty of their journey and their problematic reception at its end.
The sadness for me also comes from the personal knowledge of the travails and fates of human migrants around the world. Pushed by hunger and war, and that through no fault of their own, migrants everywhere are attracted to the richer societies around them where they are welcomed for their inexpensive labor, but feared for their skin color and religion.
When I lived in Morocco, the migration, though changing, was primarily a temporary one of single men, an age-old pattern for Moroccans where Swassa have long migrated from their arid, argan tree valleys to the imperial cities of the north, in the same manner as the Mzabis and the Djerbans in Algeria and Tunisia. Far from their families, they lived frugally, and maintained a reputation for probity. In old age, they returned to the Souss, or the Mzab, or the isle of Djerba, to the homelands they loved and missed, to retire in comfort.
During the First World War, with a dire shortage of men due to their continual slaughter on the battledfield, France found a temporary source of factory labor in Morocco, and, as the French say, rien ne dure comme le provisoire. And over time, North African migrants from all over the Maghreb began to bring their families and settle in France and other European countries. Weighing the pros and cons, many decided that a life in France was better than one in their homeland, however difficult the former might be.
Today I read in Le Monde that more and more small boats are trying to cross the English Channel, braving harsh enforcement, rough water, and dangerous shipping lanes. In the Strait of Gibraltar, the situation is the same. West African migrants cross even wider reaches to get to the Canaries. And who can forget the heart-wrenching photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, lying lifeless on a Turkish beach?
I recently sent my friend, Reed, some old American embassy guidelines for crossing the Sahara from Morocco. In the sixties and seventies, tourists routinely, if infrequently, made the crossing, and Reed replied by recounting his difficulties finding a ride and then, having found one, riding for two days in a cram-packed Land Rover on the long unpaved, and sometimes unmarked, track from Tamanrasset to Agadez. Today this route, though partly paved, is far too dangerous for tourists, but thousands of migrants follow it north every day, at great expense and peril. When and if they arrive on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, they then face an even more perilous sea journey, hoping to find refuge, but often being turned away. And some, like little Alan, never arrive.
As the earth’s climate changes, as senseless wars continue, as poverty becomes unbearable, the streams of migrants grow and multiply, pulled by aspirations to a better life for themselves and their families. If I were sitting on a beach in northern Morocco, I might see a migration not of butterflies but of people. As fellow humans, they are far more beautiful and precious than the Monarchs, and my thoughts, as I watch the butterflies, are often with my poor and persecuted fellow inhabitants of the earth.