Monarchs

A swarm of monarch butterflies all but obscures an Iva frutescens shrub, also known as marsh elder or, in some circles, “miracle bush.” The monarchs overnight en masse on the shrub, which grows along creeks and rivers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. (Dave Harp)

This month I give you autumn distillations from kayaking the edges of the Chesapeake Bay:

A girthy old white oak, flourishing near the tidal edge for centuries, senescing for decades, then finally barkless, limbless, reduced to a resolute crag.

And now comes a great eagle, heading for its winter home, alighting briefly on this perfect perch.

All of those seasons of growing, greening, enduring, sheltering songbirds, raining acorns on deer and squirrel and wild turkey, cleansing air, sequestering carbon and sunlight, filtering rainfall, shading minnows and shedding blue crabs among its roots, weathering to an ancient nub.

All is mere prelude, making ready a moment’s respite in the majestic raptor’s annual transit — centuries distilled to a sparkling drop in time’s flow. The oak, en-eagled, glows in the slants of late sun, ebbing like the tide. Raptor, rapture … any wonder they share the same root?

No mighty oak is the “miracle bush” (Iva frutescens), the marsh elder, also known as high-tide bush. It’s an unprepossessing shrub seldom more than a few feet tall along the Bay’s marshy edges.

An old Smith Islander told me they called Iva “miracle bush” because it is “a miracle anything grows out here at all.” I took it on ecological faith that Iva is necessary for something, but until this autumn afternoon I was never sure what.

I’m paddling the edge of a Bay river when I become aware of another river flowing over and around my kayak. It’s a procession of monarch butterflies, the annual migration that funnels the butterflies across eastern North America to a few winter roosts in central Mexico, so sequestered that scientists searched nearly half a century before finding them in 1975.

It’s a brisk and blowy day, and low tide exposes a couple of feet of rich, brown marsh bank, topped by thick ranks of spartina grasses that toss and gleam in the late afternoon sun. Tucked under the lee of the bank, I glide along in near calm, watching the north wind splay out dark catspaws out across the river, building to whitecaps in the channel.

The monarchs follow the edge too, handling 20-knot gusts with the aplomb of falcons. They fly singly, or in pairs and trios. All afternoon I never see more than a dozen of them at once, yet there is never a moment when several aren’t in sight. They are moving considerably faster than the 5 miles an hour I manage in a kayak, frequently flitting several yards out over the water, then tacking inland, then along the edge.

It looks inefficient. But we, who guide mechanical probes to the moons of Jupiter, know little about how an insect weighing less than a gram, with orange and black-veined wings that seem as delicate as tissue paper, navigates from Maine to Mexico. None of the sojourners gaudily flickering down the edges of the marsh this day has any acquaintance with where they are unerringly headed: mountain valleys 10,000 feet high, 1,500 miles away.

They are generations removed from the monarchs that last spring mated and reproduced and died in the highlands west of Mexico City, spawning successive waves of offspring that did the same, leapfrogging their generations north all summer across the continent. The onset of chilly weather has arrested this cycle, delayed sexual maturity in these autumn travelers, who will instead put their energy into traveling south to restart the whole, grand show next spring.

Some scientists believe the origins of monarch migration lie in the retreat of the last ice age. Plants expanded their range north, including milkweed, the only vegetation on which monarch females lay their eggs. Over millenia, the theory goes, the butterflies followed.

The sun is setting, and I’m tired, but something draws me to paddle another quarter mile or so down the marsh edge. Although I know the monarchs are going to Mexico, I am curious where they will go that evening. They become lethargic once temperatures drop near 55 degrees, and it is getting time for them to pack it in.

The resplendent flow has slowed to a trickle, and the light fades. Then, a little Iva bush down the shore seems to quiver. And its normally drab coloration is not quite right. On closer inspection — miracle of miracle bushes — the little marsh elder is virtually cloaked in monarchs, hundreds of them, wings folded back for the night to expose their duller underside. Layer upon layer, the weary migrants drape every twig-end and branch of the bush in living velvet.

Even minor discovery is thrilling. Imagine the reaction of the explorers who finally came upon the great winter roosts of the monarchs in 1975. That first encounter, sun streaming into groves cloaked with tens of millions of butterflies, was “like walking into Chartres Cathedral and seeing light coming through stained glass windows … the eighth wonder of the world,” one entomologist said.

And the discoverers coined a term for these roost areas, ranging from a few dozen to a few thousand trees, relatively tiny areas with microclimates uniquely suited to the butterflies’ survival.

They called them “magic circles.”

And here on the marsh, tossing in the north wind and the rich hues of late afternoon on the first day of fall, is a Chesapeake version of a magic circle. Iva frutescens, a way station for a few drops in this torrent of color and life that ripples across half the continent, never served so well nor looked so good.

The next morning, I return with Bay Journal photographer Dave Harp, cameras waiting for sunrise to illuminate our minor miracle bush. The monarchs hang motionless in the calm, crystalline air. A red-winged blackbird’s vibrato razzes the marsh. Terrapin heads peer up at us from the shallows, and a small striped bass jumps straight up. Out in the river, a trot-liner patrols his baited crab line, radio thumping to a local rock station.

Within five minutes of the sun’s first kiss, a few wings begin unfolding. More minutes, and the Iva begins to wink a deep, bright orange, then to flicker and throb, then to blossom and flare as the first monarchs go airborne.

One rises a few feet, circles the Iva once, then turns to follow the green edge — headed south by west, Maine to Mexico, coaxed and goaded by signals known only to itself, spreading beauty for all to see along its way, from miracle bush to magic circle.

The views expressed by opinion columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.

Tom Horton, a Bay Journal columnist, has written many articles and books about the Chesapeake Bay, including Turning the Tide and Island Out of Time. He currently teaches writing and environmental topics at Salisbury University.

(1) comment

Shari Wilson

What an amazing sight - thanks for sharing it!

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