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Monarch Migration

In second grade at Providence Day School, in conjunction with our social studies curriculum, we study the life cycle and migration patterns of the monarch butterflies. Each fall, the monarch butterfly participates in one of the longest migrations. They can travel from as far north as southern Canada, through the United States, and on to the Oyamel fir forests of Michoacan, Mexico.

This amazing journey spans as many as 3,000 miles and takes as long as two months to complete. The monarchs spend the winter in Mexico. When the weather turns warmer in March, the monarchs mate and the females fly north to southern Texas where they lay their eggs on milkweed plants and then die. The eggs hatch and the next generation of monarchs continue the journey north.

In January of 2020, I traveled to Mexico to see the monarch butterflies that overwinter in the sanctuaries nestled high in the Oyamel fir forests. I traveled by plane, but my path mimicked that of the butterflies. My trip was funded through the Providence Day Global Education Certificate program. This PD program offers teachers an opportunity to learn about other cultures and share their knowledge and experiences with students and the PD community.  

The trip was led by Natural Habitat Adventures, a group that works in conjunction with the World Wildlife Fund to lead environmentally-focused trips throughout the world. There were 14 travelers on the trip, plus three amazing and knowledgeable guides. I set off on this journey in order to enrich the second-grade curriculum with first-hand knowledge of the butterflies' migration and overwintering experience and to learn more about the local communities that support monarch conservation. My trip provided those experiences, and so many more unexpected discoveries.

I departed on a warm Sunday in Charlotte and arrived that afternoon in a cold and rainy Mexico City. After an afternoon exploring the city, I connected with my companions at a welcome dinner in the city. That night at dinner we went around the table and answered the question, “Why have you chosen this trip?” Some people shared that it had been a lifelong dream to see the monarchs in Mexico, others were inspired by recommendations from friends. 

When my turn came, I shared that our second-grade classes study the monarch butterflies, including their lifecycle and migration patterns. I let them know that my school has a wonderful program called the Global Educator Certificate program that supports teacher travel around the world in order to enrich and enhance classroom teaching. When I shared that my school funded my trip as professional development every jaw dropped. My fellow travelers were amazed at the opportunity offered by PD. They were thrilled with the idea that our curriculum covered the science of the monarch migration, but also a lesson in environmentalism and conservation for students of such a young age.  I could not have been prouder to be representing PD at that moment.

The next morning, we set off for our first encounter with the butterflies. We boarded a bus and began our five-hour journey west. The monarch sanctuaries are in the trans volcanic mountain range and we passed through the states of Mexico City and Mexico to reach our destination in Angangueo, Michoacán. Our group would stay in the town of Angangueo and make three different forays to two of the largest sanctuaries, El Rosario and Chincua.

Our first visit was to El Rosario. You access the El Rosario sanctuary by riding in open-topped trucks that take you to the parking lot swarming with children and women selling pine needle baskets and other souvenirs. There are images of monarchs everywhere and among our group, there was a buzz as we all prepared to see the monarchs for the first time. 

The next phase of our journey was on horseback. Each horse was led by a caballero and we traveled up a steep mountain path for about 20 minutes. The horses work hard, going up and down the mountain up to six times each day. Tourists pay an additional fee to ride, rather than hike up the trail. The horses are owned by the caballeros and these men and boys live in the communities surrounding the sanctuary. Leading the horses is a major source of income for each of the families that live in and around the reserves. 

The ride was amazing! I could hardly believe that I was trotting up a mountain on the way to the butterflies. I was excited and anxious; it was impossible to imagine what to expect. After dismounting the horses, you hike another 600 meters by foot up the trail. At a certain point there is no talking. You begin to see signs posted that say “Guarda Silencio.”

The sanctuaries maintain silence for several reasons including respect for the butterflies. But it is also true that the silence preserves the wonder and awe that infuses your time with the butterflies and allows visitors to stay completely in the moment. For many, viewing butterflies is a spiritual experience. For the Mexican people that is surely the case. The monarchs’ arrival in Mexico coincides with the Day of the Dead celebrated each year on November 2. As such, it has long been believed by the indigenous peoples and Mexicans that the monarchs carry with them the spirits of their family’s dead ancestors.

It is impossible to describe in words what I saw in the sanctuaries. On the colder days at El Rosario, I saw thousands of butterflies clustered together high in the branches of the oyamel fir trees. Their colors were muted, the bright orange of their wings not visible as they flocked together, preserving their heat.

The ground was littered with dead butterflies and single butterflies that had fallen from the trees and were now trying to gather the energy to return to the warmth of the clusters. It was cold in El Rosario; I was bundled in layers of clothing including a hat and gloves and I was shivering. I had empathy for the insects visibly shivering on the ground hoping for the sun to emerge and warm them up.

Our visit to Chincua was another experience altogether. Chincua is a more modern sanctuary and the welcome area included informative displays and plenty of wide-open space. The sun was shining and the temperature hovered near 50 degrees. Once again we mounted horses and rode nearly 25 minutes to the trailhead. The trail was shaded but not steep and soon the familiar “Guarda Silencio” signs appeared.

But unlike El Rosario, where the trail ended at the lowest point where the butterflies were gathered, this trail opened onto a beautiful vista. There was a clearing and views of mountains in the distance. The sun streamed down and there were thousands of butterflies nestled in the trees. But on this warmer day, many of the insects appeared to be sunbathing. They were spread out on the trees and their wings were open, showing off the vibrant orange, black, and white patterns. 

As the day heated up, butterflies flitted and you could see them flying in the distance. I stepped away from the group and settled on a small rock that had been warmed by the sun. I sat silently and in awe as butterflies swooped around me. I could actually hear their wings flutter! It was magical! We stayed in this spot for an hour and the time passed quickly. It was hard to walk away knowing that what I had experienced was likely something I would never see again, but would always carry with me.

In addition to my times with the butterflies, some of the most memorable and meaningful moments of my trip came when I was able to connect with the people in the sanctuaries and in the town of Angangueo. Visiting a local school, talking with the guides in the sanctuaries, and interacting with the kids selling souvenirs at the sanctuaries helped me understand a bit more about local life in the towns surrounding the El Rosario and Chincua sanctuaries.

Spending time in and around the sanctuaries also made clear the important role local people play in conservation efforts to save the monarchs. Though monarch conservation programs have been led by the Mexican government with support from local and international nonprofits as well as the Canadian and American governments, it is the local communities that have come together to embrace and sustain the monarch conservation efforts on the ground. The partnership between local communities and the government has strengthened over time.

While environmentalists applaud these conservation efforts, they do come at a price to the local communities. With increasing limits placed on logging, residents in these communities who once relied on logging to make a living are now dependent on other income to support their families. 

Ecotourism is a reliable source of income during the migration season, but the season is short and so alternative economic options have been introduced to create viable income opportunities during the offseason. Mushroom farming and tree nurseries that support reforestation are two new options that have been introduced. In addition, nonprofits often lease the trees where the butterflies roost back from the landowners so they are able to make the same money leasing the trees that they may have made logging the trees. 

The monarchs play such an important role in the vibrancy of the local community. From my perspective as a tourist, it seems that the community has genuinely embraced the efforts to support the monarchs’ yearly migration. Their commitment is not only evident in the communities involved in the management of the sanctuaries, but also in the monarch imagery all around the towns of Angangueo and Ocampo.

Monarch images are on every street post and on murals that adorn the walls of the buildings and at the schools. In the bathrooms of the sanctuaries, there are monarch tiles on the walls and at the hotel there are monarchs on the keychain.

Now that I have returned, I am tasked with sharing what I have learned with our students. I have a captive and curious audience. One of the things I did before the trip was to solicit questions from second graders, science teachers, and kindergarten students, because they also “visit” Mexico as part of their curriculum.

After the trip, I created a presentation that addressed their questions and wonders. In addition to information about the monarchs and their migration, I included photos of the town where I stayed, students I met at a local school, and images of the houses I saw and the food that I ate in an effort to enhance and build on what the students are learning about Mexico in their social studies curriculum.

My hope is that my experiences in Mexico will help the students better understand the migration piece of our study and to better imagine what life is like in Mexico for the families living in and around the sanctuaries. In addition, I hope to be able to convey to our students all that is being done in Mexico to conserve the monarchs’ winter habitat and to emphasize the importance of the steps we can take to support the monarchs on the leg of their journey that takes them through our own PD community!

We already take steps to support the monarchs, but I know that when asked, the kids could think of ways that we could do more to support the butterflies. Currently, we have a campus pollinator garden to attract butterflies and PD is home to an official “Monarch Way Station,” a milkweed garden planted to support monarchs on the eastern migration path to Mexico.

As a traveler, you prepare for your journey. You study the language, learn some history, and research the culture and traditions of the place you are visiting. But you don’t really know until you’re there what your experience is going to be like. I set off for Mexico full of excitement, enthusiasm, and a healthy bit of worry. But from the moment I arrived, all my worries fell away, and I was simply thrilled to be immersed in another culture.

I have not had many experiences exploring other parts of the world as an adult. I traveled to Mexico to experience the phenomenon of the monarch migration, but I came away with so much more than just that single experience. I returned to Charlotte with a richer understanding of what it means to be a global citizen, with an understanding that really trying to get to know another place takes time, genuine curiosity, and the willingness to leave some of your assumptions and perspectives behind in order to discover a new lens through which to explore new places.

I hope that I can help my students share in the wonder and joy I felt sitting among the monarch butterflies and that my adventure might spark in them an interest in exploring other cultures, a love for the monarchs, and a passion for learning that is at the heart of the PD experience.  

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  • Erica Katz
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