Martha and the Monarch: Must we do it again?

“Martha,” the last known passenger pigeon. Photo by Carl Hansen, Smithsonian Institution, 1985 (click picture for source)

One hundred years ago last Monday, on September 1, 1914, with the Russian revolution in full swing, World War I raging in France, and in the midst of a thousand other events of note, a single, nondescript bird in a cage in a zoo in Cincinnati Ohio died. A century later, we remember the death of that bird. Why? Martha (Marta in some documents) was the last passenger pigeon still alive, and her passing marks one of the most dismal failures of humanity’s exercise of dominion over God’s creation in all of modern history.

The story of the passenger pigeon is well documented. In the mid-19th century, flocks of birds numbering in the billions streamed across the skies of North America. Huffpost provides one description of many:

At the time of the Civil War, the passenger pigeon was the most numerous bird in all of North America, probably even the world. There were as many as 5 billion birds flying the skies. They ranged throughout the eastern United States, parts of Montana and Texas and north well into Canada. Imagine looking up into the sky today and not being able to see the sun because a flock of birds was so numerous it blocked the light for hours and hours.

The story goes on:

…The bird’s numbers seemed so infinite in the 1700s and 1800s that market hunters erected huge nets to harvest hundreds of birds at one time. Far too quickly though, unrestricted hunting, combined with development from a rapidly industrializing America and loss of habitat, took its toll. The passenger pigeon went from billions to zero in a span of less than 50 years.

[Watch for more this Fall when PBS will show a documentary called “Billions to None”.]

Judging by the amount of press the 100th anniversary of Martha’s passing generated, many people would agree that this event – the wanton destruction of an entire species in a few decades – is shameful, tragic, wrong at the deepest level. One would think we have learned our lesson.

So why are we still doing it?

(Photo from Explore the Monarch Butterfly’s Winter Habitat in Mexico Photo Gallery – click for source of image)

Consider the monarch butterfly. One of God’s most amazing creations, this spectacular insect migrates as far as many birds, from Canada and the upper Midwestern states of the United States to a single secluded valley in Mexico, but does so in a multi-generational dance that still astounds.

The sacred breaches the earth at Michoacán, manifested in the bodies of millions of winged insects, each weighing about half a gram. Let those with eyes, see. At Michoacán, you would be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped into a fairy tale—an alternate universe of ruddy orange-and-black grape clusters, dripping from conifer branches, enveloping whole trunks, monarchs piled upon monarchs piled upon monarchs. Pinch yourself to be certain of reality. The single monarch that lights up a Midwestern garden in the heart of Chicago or a New England hedgerow—multiply that by tens of millions of delicate flutterings.

This passage is from one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I’ve come across this year. In “A Question of Monarchs”, Gavin Van Horn explores the meaning of this amazing phenomenon and the peril we have placed it in, a peril almost as bad as what we did to the passenger pigeon. Another excerpt:

It is August now, nearly time for the fall migration back to Mexico. The monarchs you see alighting upon stalks of goldenrod or flitting between asters are the great-grandchildren of those that poured from Mexico about six months ago. These intergenerational migrants are readying themselves for a 2000-mile return. Unlike their parents and grandparents, who lived fast and loved hard, these offspring survive up to eight months, with the majority of their energy funneled into completing the longest migration of any butterfly on the planet. All this from an insect whose weight is equal to a dusting of sugar.

The wonder of monarchs is a central theme in a recent novel by Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior, which absolutely has to be added to your “Must Read” list. This is a complex tale of tension in marriage, in a rural community and between members of that community and scientists. For reasons unknown a huge number of monarchs which should have flown to Mexico descend on a remote valley in West Virginia. What these creatures are, where they’ve come from, whether they will survive the winter – these questions drive a beautifully written novel as it explores the very human dynamics of an apparently mismatched husband and wife, tensions between a mystical/religious and coldly logical scientific interpretation of the same event, and the implications of global climate change.

Here’s how Kingsolver’s protagonist Dellarobia sees the monarchs for the first time:

A small shift between cloud and sun altered the daylight, and the whole landscape intensified, brightening before her eyes. The forest blazed with its own internal flame. “Jesus,” she said, not calling for help, she and Jesus weren’t that close, but putting her own voice in the world because nothing else present made sense. The sun slipped out by another degree, passing its warmth across the land, and the mountain seemed to explode with light. Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave, like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange glaze. “Jesus God,” she said again. no words came to her that seemed sane. Trees turned to fire, a burning bush. Moses came to mind, and Ezekiel, words from Scripture that occupied a certain space in her brain but no longer carried honest weight, if they ever had. Burning coals of fire went up and down among the living creatures. (Emphasis in the original] [Kingsolver, Flight Behavior p. 14]

Correlation sometimes means causation: Decline of monarchs tracks with increased use of Glysophate (Round Up). (Image from Van Horn article)

The plot device of Flight Behavior is fictional, though scientifically plausible. Monarchs are in fact under great threat not only in their wintering grounds in Michoacán, Mexico but throughout their migration range from Texas through the great corn-growing regions of the American Midwest and into Canada. The monarch’s problem is biologically simple but culturally and economically complex. Monarchs live on milkweed. Farmers throughout ‘corn country’ have been destroying their milkweed habitat both by increasing the amount of land in cultivation and by the use of ever increasing amounts of glyphosate (Trade name: Round Up). (See chart)

Van Horn again:

Together, these conditions add up to a troubling—nightmarish—scenario for monarchs. Their numbers always fluctuate, but in the last fifteen years, they have plummeted. This past winter, monarch estimates hit a record low. The population fell from one billion monarchs in 1996 to 33 million monarchs in 2013-14; the acreage covered by their winter colonies was 90% below the seventeen-year average.

The absolute extinction of monarchs is not in question. A western population calls California home; they reside year-round in Florida; they also travel to the Caribbean; and Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii host introduced populations. But the beating heart of the migratory population that pumps through the heartland of North America is faltering. In this case, it is not the wholesale extinction of a species but an entire suite of ecological relationships whose pulse is flatlining.

The monarch’s problem is not quite as simple as the passenger pigeon’s was. In that case, you could identify the cause by watching trains filled with barrels of dead pigeons on their way to becoming animal feed. The extinction of Martha and her kin was deliberate. The monarch issue is more one of collateral damage that results from running a society and an economy with no regard for God or his creatures. The end result  for the creatures will be the same – when you’re the victim, it doesn’t make a lot of difference if your death was targeted or “collatoral”.

What to do? Van Horn has a lovely paragraph toward the end of his piece:

Awareness does not suffice; confession is not enough. Monarchs don’t care if I’m sorry, if I feel they’ve been wronged, if I rage away at those who profit from producing poison. So the best way I know is to follow the example of monarchs and peregrinos. Begin the journey, keep the reminders in my heart, protect what is sacred, and maybe one further (and the largest) step: restore the sacred when and where I can.

And I would add to that the final paragraph of Lausanne’s Jamaica Call to Action:

Each of our calls to action rest on an even more urgent call to prayer, intentional and fervent, soberly aware that this is a spiritual struggle.   Many of us must begin our praying with lamentation and repentance for our failure to care for creation, and for our failure to lead in transformation at a personal and corporate level.   And then, having tasted of the grace and mercies of God in Christ Jesus and through the Holy Spirit, and with hope in the fullness of our redemption, we pray with confidence that the Triune God can and will heal our land and all who dwell in it, for the glory of his matchless name.

How about you? Are you satisfied to be part of the same culture and economy that destroyed Martha and is doing its best to wipe out one of God’s most beautiful insects? Or are you ready to change? What would that mean for you?