We may have masters in hand by Wednesday! Posting a new trailer this week 🙂
Ribbons of orange and black butterflies are stopping to roost overnight all along the Gulf Coast of Florida’s Panhandle. These Monarchs are primarily members of the Atlantic Coast population. Because these Monarchs live for about seven to eight months, they are often referred to as a super generation of Monarchs, and are also known as the Methuselah Monarchs. They will continue along the Gulf Coast, soon joining the steady stream of Monarchs migrating through the central part of the US to cross the great Central Mexican Plateau (Altiplanicie Mexicana).
The Plateau is bordered by the Sierra Madre Occidental to the west and the Sierra Madre Oriental to the East. The Plateau ends where the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Mountains begin, forming a natural barrier, which prohibits further migration. The butterflies roost in the beautiful pine-oak forests of the Eje Volcanico Transversal.
The Monarchs are arriving to Mexico in ever increasing numbers. Colonies have yet to form, but that is not unusual for this time of year. Below are reports from Mexico from two of the butterfly sanctuaries where I filmed Beauty on the Wing: Life Story of the Monarch Butterfly. Ellen Sharp, along with her husband Joel Moreno Rojas, founded the nonprofit organization Butterflies and Their People, located at Cerro Pelón, Macheros. Estela Romero is Journey North’s program coordinator for Mexico and writes from her home in Angangueo, Michoacán.
From Macheros, MEX:
Ellen submitted this report: “From 1:08–1:24 pm on October 31, 2019 we spotted at least 54 determined little specks pumping their way across the sky. Meanwhile up on the Carditos side of, the Butterflies & Their People guardians sighted many more. Starting at 12:16 pm, Leonel and Francisco counted an average of eight per minute for the next ten minutes. Ever since that day, the skies have been filled with monarchs flying overhead until the afternoon rains arrive. We have yet to hear any news of colony formation on Cerro Pelon.” (10/31/2019).
Regardless of bad weather with rain, fog and dark clouds covering the sky for almost three weeks, Monarchs found no obstacle and poured down from the sky to attend to their ancestral encounter with incredible accuracy on the October 31st and November 1st.
“There they come”, “down to the bottom to town those go”, “up they just lifted flight”, “over there many more”, students, Emilio, Fernanda, Kevin and Diana, shouted. The monarchs were migrating through the valley. Monarchs do their triumphal entrance and last flying performance before they make their choice and split to their final destination at the unique Oyamel tree spots in the Sierra Madre mountains of “El Rosario” and “Sierra Chincua”, in Central México, two of the three main Sanctuaries at the region.
Monitoring map kept by students shows how the numbers of monarchs suddenly rose to hundreds!
Our legendary Mathusalen Generation of Monarchs, the Daughters of the Sun, have been, since ancestral times, the symbol of the after-life world of our ancestors and recently dead close relatives — the Miktlan dimension. Our indigenous groups show deep understanding of the relationship between life and death. Monarchs are the connection of this mystic relationship between life and death.
“At last their souls appear shaped as orange and black beautiful energetic butterflies coming to all of us families, after longing for their arrival all year long; our memories will always prevail upon their absence; they will always be among us; not invoking their lives and our time together would be really letting them die and forgotten, no, never”, murmur parents and grandpas as they hod their children and grandchildren by their hands in the streets of the town.
“We all gather around our Ofrendas at home and even in public open sites. Each ofrenda may have from 2 levels, which represent heaven and earth, up to 7 or even 9 levels, each one a different dimension that the soul of our dead ones (the Tonali) will go through before reaching the Miktlan dimension”, explained elementary school teacher, Margarita. The Ofrenda is a collection of objects placed on a ritual display during the annual and traditionally Mexican Día de Muertos celebration.
“Each Ofrenda shall contain all favorite meals, drinks, objects, garments, and tools or utensils symbolizing our ancestor’s lives, preferences, enjoyment and ordinary living”, Víctor, Pamela and Juan explained as they gave their finishing touches to their beautiful Ofrenda.
“The colorful papel picado is exclusively sold at this time of the year for the decoration of our Ofrendas; the Zempatzúchitl flower’s (Marygold) fragance shall guide the spirits of our ancestors to reach home; candle lights meaning light, hope and faith, shall also help them come home and then go back to their Miktlan world; our moms and grandma’s assisted by the rest of the family shall cook our dead ones’ favorite dishes in advance for this day; salt and water are main components of an Ofrenda, meaning relieve to thirst and hunger to the visiting spirits; all kinds of drinks, fruit and our delicious “Pan de Muerto“ shall be included too. Tortillas, tamales, atole, tequila, mezcal andcerveza are indispensable in any Ofrenda; finally, at the very top, the photo or photos of our dead relative(s) to whom honor the Ofrenda has been set”,explained Ceciia, a middle school student, wearing her beautiful Catrina costume.
The Alebrijes also symbolize the Day of the Dead. The Alebrijes are bright, colorful, fantasy cardboard cutouts of creatures which are mixtures two or more animal body. The Alebrijes is part of our Mexican culture which has hit the international screen in films like Coco. TheAlebrije’s role is to guide the spirits of our dead ones to earth and back to the Miktlan underworld once their two-day visit is over.
“Our ancestors spirits shall share with us a big, big fest while we sing their favorite songs, play their favorite music, tell unforgettable anecdotes and memories and fill our homes with colour, flavors and joy to know that they shall be always among us and never gone from home and from our families”, teacher, Nacho, explained as he described the Ofrenda to the dead miners in town. Nacho is featured in the photo and shows how our town, Angangueo, was historically a mining town with mining the main employment for most families many decades ago.
Walo, a teacher who dressed up as Catrín, and Catrina Magali showed two different Ofrendas to our Monarch butterflies, souls of our dead ones, as the main symbol of these unique festivities in our region and all over our country as the ever living spirits of our dead ones.
As the festivals and the celebratory meals are over and our cemetery is dressed up to greet the monarchs as our ancestors, lets turn down our voices and let us be still and silent as we wait to see at least one single Mathusalen Monarch arrive; let us all children and families from our three host countries, Canada, United States and México stand hand-in-hand while sharing our wonderful responsibility and our ancestral, unbreakable link among our three nations, while watching great-great-grandchildren Monarch pouring down as if from the heavens to our majestic mountains where they will see the exact Oyamel tree where their great-great-grand parents overwintered the season before — and without having been to México before this week!
Angangueo, Michoacán, México
Our expedition to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserves was led by Tom Emmel, Ph.D. Tom is the Director of the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, which is part of the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History. He is also the university’s professor of zoology and entomology and the author of over 400 publications, including 35 books. Not only is Dr. Emmel a professor and director of the center, he leads expeditions to research biodiversity around the world, including recent trips to Bali to Komodo Island to study the Komodo Dragon (with a great story of how he and his fellow travelers very nearly almost became Komodo Dragon supper), the Galapagos Islands, and Madagascar.
This was Dr. Emmel’s fortieth trip to Angangueo to study the Monarch Butterfly migration. His first trip was in 1980 with Dr. Lincoln Brower who had, at the same time as Dr. Fred Urquhart, discovered the Monarch colonies in 1975. In those first early years of conducting research at the biospheres, Dr. Emmel and Dr. Brower traveled on old mining roads, rode horseback to the colonies, and camped in tents. Today, there are well-marked trails with options for either hiking or horseback riding.
On the second day of our expedition, I interviewed Dr. Emmel at the top of Sierra Chincua Monarch Colony. He was also interviewed by a Mexican television crew at the summit of the Sierra Chincua biosphere. I am in the process of editing the interview footage and will have that ready to post in the near future. Amongst the many aspects of the Monarch’s migration discussed during the interview, Dr. Emmel reveals exactly how one counts millions upon millions of Monarchs and offers several theories as to why the butterflies migrate to the very specific climate zone of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt. We cover the subject of Monarch conservation and precisely how Monsanto’s GMO genetically modified Roundup Ready corn and sorghum, and Bt-corn, are indisputably deadly to the Monarchs. You’ll be surprised at the results of the research that was conducted on our journey in regard to the numbers of Monarchs counted in the biospheres.
This photo was taken early in the day, before the butterflies awaken in the sun. You can see that the limb of the Oyamel tree is so heavily laden with butterflies, it appears as though it will snap at any moment. And oftentimes, the limbs do break! The butterflies scatter and then regroup to another location.
Meeting Dr. Emmel and fellow expedition travelers was one of the most interesting and exciting aspects of the journey. You can’t imagine traveling with a more knowledgeable expert than Dr. Emmel. He is not only a world authority on all aspects of the Monarch’s migration, the history of the development of the biospheres, and the community of Angangueo, he also has extensive knowledge about a wide range of wildlife species and topics relative to biodiversity and the natural world. He shares the information generously and with a sense of humor, too.
Dr. Emmel’s assistants, brothers Ian and Craig Segebarth, are two of the brightest and most helpful young men you could hope to meet. Marie Emerson, who works in the development department at the museum was a joy and also super helpful, as was Josh Dickinson, who was traveling with his wonderfully fun granddaughter, 5th grader Zoie Dickinson. Josh Dickinson has spent a lifetime consulting on forestry management and he will be helping with forestry management at the Monarch biospheres. Josh also speaks Spanish very well and was tremendously helpful, especially when I locked myself out of my hotel room! Thanks again Josh for your kind assistance!
After the four-hour drive from Mexico City, across a wide valley of rustic farmland and over and around volcanic mountains, we arrived in the early evening at the sleepy town of Angangueo. Pitched on a steep mountainside, the narrow streets and closely packed buildings with shared stucco walls immediately reminded me of southern European villages. Especially lovely were the modest and many handmade outdoor altars gracing townspeople’s homes and gardens.
Angangueo is located in the far eastern part of the state of Michoacán in the central region of Mexico in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt. In the late 1700s minerals were discovered. Large deposits of silver, gold, copper, and iron ore brought a rush of people into the area. Today, Angangueo is noted as home to two of the most beautiful Monarch Butterfly Biospheres, El Rosario and Sierra Chincua.
Our guesthouse, the Hotel Don Bruno, was utterly charming. As with many of the buildings we passed on the way to Angangueo, a cheery row of glazed terra cotta pots brimming with red and pink geraniums lined the hotel entrance. Through the entryway door and past the front office, guests entered the beautiful inner courtyard garden. All the rooms faced into the courtyard and mine had a delightfully fragrant sunny yellow rose just outside the door. I quickly changed for dinner to meet my fellow travelers in the hotel’s second floor dining room. A long dining table arranged family style, running the length of the room, had been set up for our group, with a view onto the flowering courtyard below.
As he did that evening, and every dinner and breakfast, Chef Jean Gabriel Salazar López had prepared an elegant feast of many different entrees, mostly native Mexican dishes, including and combining a fabulous array of local fruits and vegetables. The proprietors and hotel staff could not have been more friendly and accommodating.
Dinner was followed by a discussion led by Dr. Emmel. Tom Emmel is the Director of the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, which is part of the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History. He is also a professor of zoology and entomology and the author of 35 books (more about Dr. Emmel in the next installment). I recorded several of Dr. Emmel’s lectures and an interview atop the Sierra Chincua Biosphere and will be posting all on youtube.
At daybreak the following morning, I climbed the central outdoor stairwell to the top of the hotel to film the sleepy town awakening. Roosters crowed and the hotel’s freshly washed and drying sheets whipped to the wind in the crisp mountain air. The morning light did not disappoint. Kitty corner across from my rooftop vantage point was one of the small town’s several churches, with a walled courtyard and red and white banners fluttering in the breeze. The village’s main road leads further up to the mountains and is lined with red tiled roofed-homes and sidewalks swept immaculately clean. The sun was just beginning to peek through the mountains when I had to leave to hurry down to breakfast.
Despite the beauty and well-kept appearance of Angangueo, and especially of our charming guesthouse, the town and the Hotel Don Bruno were nearly empty of tourists. Reports of mayhem and murder in Michoacán have drastically reduced the number of people traveling to Angangueo to see the Monarchs at the biospheres.
The gang murders are taking place on the far western side of Michoacán, near the Pacific Coast. Angangueo is located on the far eastern side of the state, bordering the state of Mexico. Not traveling to Angangueo for that reason is as uninformed as if someone decided not to travel to San Francisco because of the gang violence that takes place in Los Angeles! The people of Angangueo have stopped logging to protect the Monarch’s habitat and have come to rely heavily on income from tourism. I was deeply saddened to see the lack of visitors, at this time of year especially, when the Monarchs are at their peak activity at the colonies.
Next installment: Day 1 at the Monarch Colony