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The Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly - 2001-08-23

In her new book "Four Wings and a Prayer," Sue Halpern is caught in the mystery of the monarch butterfly. She combines science, history, and memoir to create a portrait of the annual migration of the monarch from the eastern United States and Canada to Mexico.

This is a story about a common insect with a cult following. Each year hordes of tourists travel to mountain ranges in central Mexico to stand among millions of monarch butterflies. Author Sue Halpern made that same journey while on a family vacation seven years ago. In her new book, "Four Wings and a Prayer," she documents the yearly migration of these fragile creatures from the eastern United State and Canada to Mexico.

A butterfly born in August in the North will go to Mexico for the winter, then lay eggs as it heads back north in the spring but die before it gets there. The butterflies born from those eggs will continue the journey. So, she says, monarchs are not guided by memory, because no single butterfly every makes the entire 4,800 kilometer round trip.

"They are really not supposed to be in the northern parts of our country. These are tropical butterflies. That's one of the reasons that we are so attracted to them," she says. "They are so gorgeous. They are tropically colored. And I think we are immediately drawn to them for that. But they are out of place. Genetically they really need to be somewhere warm, and so they have to get out of the northern parts of North America and spend the winter somewhere else, somewhere they can survive, and that's why they make the journey in the first place." What's it like to stand among hundreds and thousands of butterflies? "Actually, among millions of butterflies!" exclaims Ms. Halpern. "It makes no sense. You say hundreds of thousands, and I say millions, and in fact you wouldn't be able to tell the difference because there are so many. There's a part of it that is a little creepy just because it is so weird. Everywhere you look there are monarch butterflies, and that was the thing that was so amazing to me. When I first saw this I thought I was looking at deciduous trees, trees with leaves, because everything looked like fall leaves, autumn leaves. And then all of a sudden I realized I was looking at green trees that happened to be covered with these butterflies, covered from the base to the top, so many butterflies that their branches were dipping to the ground. If I stood still for even a minute," she continues, "I would start to look like those trees and get covered. They would be in my hair and on my sneakers and on my arm and everywhere. It was just astounding."

A study last year by the World Wildlife Fund warned that given the current rate of deforestation, within 20 years the Mexican forests may no longer be a suitable habitat for the monarch. But the monarchs encounter other problems as well on their journey. They die from insecticides meant to kill pest insects. And herbicides and lawn mowers destroy the milkweed plants on which the monarch larvae feed. Earlier this year, the Mexican government created monarch sanctuaries to protect the butterflies. But Sue Halpern says despite this initiative, illegal logging remains a significant threat.

"The butterflies themselves are in jeopardy in these forests when people start taking wood out," she explains. "The forest acts as a kind of umbrella or blanket to provide a temperature that is just exactly right for the butterflies to spend the winter. It's cool, but it's not cold or warm. So, when you take trees out of the woods and put holes in the blanket, you are starting to let things like snow and ice and cold wind, and because these are butterflies that are extremely sensitive to temperature that puts them in great danger - and this spring there was this rare snow storm in one of the forest preserves and unfortunately many, many millions of butterflies were killed because they couldn't survive the temperatures."

"They can't really [move elsewhere]," continues Ms. Halpern. "That's where they are. That's where they are for the duration of the winter. What it might mean in subsequent years is that maybe they will move to a different part of the forest because that particular part of the forest is not well protected. But no, this is where they somehow are destined to end up."

What is the status of the monarch now? "The monarch is not an endangered species, and that's one thing that is very important to know," says Ms. Halpern. "This is a very abundant creature. It's the most common butterfly in North America. It exists all through Central America. It's in Australia, in Hawaii. What people point to is the migration that is so unusual and so unlikely. That is the thing that might be in danger, because if you start messing with the forests in Mexico, if you take that habitat away, then you are going to disrupt the cycle that lets the butterflies do this long-distance migration. And then you start losing butterflies in the eastern United States, but that doesn't mean you wouldn't have monarchs in the world - you would."

"Four Wings and a Prayer" is also a personal memoir about the monarch butterfly and its passionate devotees. Sue Halpern has met biologists and Mexican peasants, scientists and tireless volunteers including lawyers, teachers, students, pilots and even a woman on public assistance. Through them, she discovered a vast network of individuals which collects field data on migration patterns by gluing hundreds and thousands of small paper tags to monarch wings.

But how do the monarchs find their way back to Mexico each year? That's a question Sue Halpern never answers. "That's the thing I learned the most doing this book, that the questions are maybe more important than the answers," she says. "That's why it didn't matter to me in the end that nobody knows how these butterflies do what they do, because it's the pursuit of knowing that's really the most interesting and maybe the most moving thing. And all along as I watched the scientists and amateurs look and follow the butterflies, there was something about them that was very familiar. And I realized that it was something that I often see in my daughter, a complete devotion to observation, to looking at things. And, in the end it made me realize that this is really the origin of passion, this absolute curiosity and wonder, focus and attention and ability to loose oneself," said author Sue Halpern.

"Four Wings and a Prayer" is published by Pantheon Books in New York.