In Search of Monarchs

by Anna Boggs, Rural Retreat, VA | May 1, 2023 | 0 comments

They say ignorance is bliss. In some ways, I wish I had never taken that summer evening walk.

“Mom, could I head out and look for monarchs again?”

I’d waited long enough, I thought, for the milkweed-loving monarchs to populate the hay fields. I set off across two properties to reach twenty-one acres of open meadow our neighbor uses for hay.

I began my search in the lower front section. Milkweed there was plentiful, but I quickly realized I might as well be looking for dinosaurs. The plants were certainly being stripped—by everything except monarch caterpillars. I worked my way through patch after patch of milkweed, as my hopes of raising monarchs this year began to fade.

I heard a songbird calling from a sumac tree nearby, and barely made out the blue hue of a male Indigo Bunting against the yellow sunset sky. I felt somewhat consoled as to the worth of my walk—I hadn’t seen an Indigo Bunting in almost two years.

I slowly made my way toward the upper fields, the grass whispering and sighing against my skirt. A sudden loud snort made me start. I looked up to see a huge whitetail doe standing in the sparse tree line separating the upper and lower fields. She stomped, snorted again, and took off toward the dense woods beyond the meadow, her hooves pounding heavily against the earth.

By now the prospect of finding even one monarch caterpillar was pretty small. I’d seen only two adult butterflies since summer began.

Finally I chose to pray. I’ve always believed that God is big enough to care about the little things. “God, please send me one, just one, monarch caterpillar, if it’s all right with You. Amen.” I trusted that He heard me, and cared about my request, but I had no idea what was in store for me.

I scanned a few more plants, daring to hope that the answer to my prayer would be munching on a milkweed leaf nearby. My back ached from bending over the plants, and I straightened for a moment. The sun was behind the mountain now, but the sky was still bright and creamy yellow-blue. I watched a vulture wheeling on a thermal high above. Then I saw it.

A great ancient oak tree, once vivacious and green, lay before me in a gruesome heap of shattered limbs and dead leaves. It was almost certainly brought to its death when a freak storm-force gale tore through the valley several days before, leaving dozens of trees damaged or uprooted entirely.

I’m not a tree-hugger by any means, but a knifing pain went through me at the sight of the patriarchal old tree lying on the ground, broken and lifeless. I felt as though I had stumbled upon someone’s open grave. Monarchs forgotten, I crept toward the tree, hardly daring to breathe or make a sound. I stepped gingerly over a broken limb, and felt transported to another world. It was a strange feeling indeed, to stand in the midst of such a great tree, and sense so keenly the absence of life.

A soft breeze blew, spreading an eerie yet reverent whisper through the tree’s wilted leaves. I hardly dared touch the branches, yet I felt a sudden desire to stand on the massive trunk and feel its helplessness.

Overcoming the irrational sense of desecration, I pulled myself onto the trunk of the enormous tree. I stood and slowly turned, taking in the strange sight.

I considered the life of this tree—wondered what history it had lived through. How many thousands of birds sang from its welcoming branches? How many autumnal winds had touched its leaves and caused it to flame out into a massive torch of glorious oaken orange?

The setting sun gave a farewell flare of intense, golden light. The clouds turned brilliantly yellow-orange, casting an ethereal golden tint over the earth, while the sky remained deeply blue. I gazed over the whole scene in awe, gently running my fingers over the tree’s rough bark, listening to the distant call of the bunting, smelling the sweet smell of meadow grass mingled with the earthy scent of decaying leaves.

Yes, sometimes I wish I’d stayed home that evening. I’d still be blissfully unaware that out in the meadow, the majestic, bulwark oak had met its untimely death in the merciless onslaught of the gale. But there’s another part of me that deeply appreciates the reminder of the frailty of even the strongest among us.

I have no right whatsoever to the life I have. It’s a priceless gift, bestowed on us in love by the Father who created it. Just as He watched the oak tree grow and thrive, He’s watching me as I walk through my life. And He’ll be watching over me when I draw my last breath, just as He watched the oak tree fall.

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