Autumn's big soft black-dotted fluttering wings

by Rich Heffern

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On a walk yesterday at this city's nature center, the day before this one that marks the turning of the seasons, I stopped to pick up some of the first colorful leaves that had fallen to the sidewalk, then a monarch butterfly fluttered past me headed south, while a honeybee sluggishly toured through a blooming patch of goldenrod and asters, the wildflowers of fall in the Midwest.

The big black-and-orange monarchs buck the butterfly trend. Most other species of butterfly have settled down already for the winter, slumbering in the cocoon or going about disguised as caterpillars.

The monarch, though, migrates as many bird species do. They follow regular migration routes down from the North, along major river valleys, along coastlines. Some of them travel over 2,000 miles ending in southern Mexico.

No one is sure why these butterflies migrate, or how they navigate. All we know is that they do so by the millions and that they come back to their summer haunts every spring. Some are survivors of the previous year's journey; others -- probably most -- are a new generation hatched in the far south.

How do these fragile, fluttery, amazingly colored and beautiful insects accomplish this yearly epic quest? The one I saw was at about eye level when it fluttered past me, then rose thirty or forty feet to clear the top of a post oak, then dipped and rose again. A whole state full of forests and high plains, harvested cornfields, freeways and shopping centers, lay in its immediate path, followed by another and another until it got to the parched deserts of northern Mexico, perhaps the halfway or two-thirds point in its trip.

Here's poet e.e. cummings describing this yearly fall miracle:

Will you go, will you go from my warm house?
Will you climb on your big soft wings,
as up an invisible rainbow, an arch
till the wind slides you sheer from the
and in a strange level fluttering you go
south-ward, orange and black speck!

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