It’s early morning 9,000 feet high in the Sierras of central Mexico, and sunlight tunnels to the forest floor in shafts as if through the windows of a Gothic cathedral on a wintry day. Underfoot, the powdery trail confirms it's the dry season. Overhead, there's a gentle rustling noise, like the sound of a soft drizzle on leaves.
I stop to crane my neck upward. From the ground, pillars of Oyamel fir trees reach toward the heavens. In many trees, branch after branch bows, pendulous thrones holding thousands and thousands of butterflies. I've entered the winter palace of the monarchs. The light and the quiet make it as awe-inspiring, as indescribably moving, as entering a great cathedral.
Some clusters of soft orange and rich black appear as leaves on the trees, highlighted by beams of sunlight. Others remain in shadow, resembling enormous dark hornet’s nests from afar. Warmed by the morning light, a few butterflies take flight and I'm reminded of naturalist Diane Ackerman's description of monarchs as splashes of sun.
On weekends, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people make the trek over rutted dirt roads to view the colonies here at the El Rosario Sanctuary. It's one of thirteen monarch wintering areas in these mountains and one of only two open to the public. But this week day morning, only a handful of visitors whisper reverentially as they plod along the trail.
These fir forests are the southernmost point of an almost miraculous pilgrimage monarch butterflies make annually. From as far north as the Canadian provinces and as far east as Maine, the monarch population east of the Rocky Mountains -- perhaps 150 million insects -- funnels to a small area west of Mexico City high in the Sierra Madre seeking winter refuge. Here, the climate offers what one scientist calls a delicate envelope of light, temperature and moisture that allows the monarchs to survive a lazy winter and frantic spring mating before the females fly north in April to lay their eggs.
How insects weighing half a gram can make their way across the Great Lakes and thousands of miles to the same fir forests year after year remains one of nature's wondrous mysteries. Their trek is made more improbable by the fact the butterflies that return to these mountains are three or four generations descended -- the great, great grandkids -- of those that headed north the previous spring.
I’m here scuffing my boots over the forest floor at El Rosario because of an obituary. In November 1998, not long after the monarchs had made their return, Kenneth Brugger died at age 80. Brugger, a textile engineer, perfected unshrinkable underwear for Jockey in the 1960s. But it was the tale of his unlikely discovery of these forests that formed the core of his death notice in The New York Times and aimed me towards Mexico and the spectacle at El Rosario.
One day in 1973, Brugger noticed an advertisement in a Mexican newspaper placed by Fred A. Urquhart, a Toronto scientist seeking volunteers to track the migration of monarchs. For more than thirty years, Urquhart had been seeking the lepidopterists' Holy Grail -- the wintering hideout of the monarchs.
Reading the paper, Brugger recalled that that he had once driven through what seemed like a storm of monarchs in the Mexican mountains. He wrote Urquhart, who urged him to return. On January 2, 1975, Brugger and his wife Catalina hiked 10,000 feet into the transvolcanic mountains of central Mexico and came upon fir after fir leafed with monarchs, as many as four million an acre, according to later estimates. Ironically, the luminous butterflies appeared as fluttering gray flashes to Brugger. He was colorblind.
To locals like J. Maximliano Garcia Sr., my guide this day, Brugger didn't discover anything. Garcia, 73, remembers seeing the butterflies as far back as his youth when he herded cows in the high meadows nearby. The great mystery was where the butterflies went for the summer.
Garcia doesn't wheeze a bit during our high-altitude hike. He says his father lived to be 120. Maybe it's an exaggeration, but if he has anything approaching that kind of longevity, this seasonal spectacle may not survive him.
Plank by plank, the monarchs' off-season refuges in these mountains are being dismantled. The forest sites where the butterflies nest are owned by ejidos, communal farms that for decades have sold logging permits for these lands.
Garcia is a member of the ejido that owns the El Rosario sanctuary. Logging, he says, is forbidden here. He later points out a fir nursery that supplies seedlings to reforest the area. But only five of the 13 monarch sites encompassing about 60 square miles, including El Rosario, are protected from unregulated cutting by a governmental decree.
At the rest, the stands of firs, remnants of ancient forests that advanced south with the glaciers, get thinner and thinner each winter. A recent survey by scientists revealed that half the timber has been cut in the last 20 years. "In very short time, unless there is a very significant change in attitude, most of these forests will be gone," says O.R. "Chip" Taylor, an ecologist at the University of Kansas and the director of Monarch Watch, a nonprofit research and education group.
The dilemma is typical of similar standoffs throughout the world. To locals, the forests are a natural resource they need to exploit, not a unique habitat for a migratory insect. Carving a life out of the hillsides is hard enough. Michoacan, the Mexican state home to the butterflies, is one of the poorest in the country. Many people here earn less than $1,000 per year. And the decree creating the sanctuaries didn't compensate the landowners for essentially forbidding them from using the land they own.
"These people are under a great deal of economic pressure," Taylor says. "We need some sort of sustainable development program for the entire region that allows sustainable harvest of the resources, but maintains the integrity of the natural system."
Karen Oberhauser, a University of Minnesota researcher who has set up a Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary Foundation, has been working to educate locals to the advantages of saving the butterflies. But it's a difficult job. "One of the things we've learned is it's better to go slower," she says. "We're just spending a lot of time talking to other people who are trying to do similar work and looking at what kind of things would work."
While the debate over logging has been portrayed as a choice between the monarchs and the landowners, Taylor says cutting the forests ultimately would make it only harder to live in the area. "Those mountainsides are sources of water for these communities. They are aquifers for the region," he says. "If you take those trees away, you end up with massive erosion and periods of the year when no water is running off those hillsides."
Tourism has been a boon, but only for a select few near the sanctuaries open to the public. Most visitors to El Rosario pay to hop on local trucks in nearby Ocampo or Agangueo for the bouncy ride into the mountains. Once at the sanctuary, they stride up new concrete stairs through a gauntlet of trinket and food shacks that have sprung up uncontrolled in recent years. Ironically, some offer wooden toy logging trucks with a monarch logo.
A vigorous walk uphill is a small visitors center with a few posters about the monarchs life cycle and the entrance to a circular trail through the firs. Tickets are 15 pesos. To the side, Isaias Garcia has opened his own entrepreneurial venture -- he's sliced out a small piece of his farm that has a spring to create a watering area for the thirsty monarchs' afternoon visits and a sitting area for those tourists who can't make the hike further uphill. Entry fee is a single peso.
Ejido elders like Maximiliano Garcia who work as guides chat amiably nearby, waiting for visitors. Maximiliano still sows crops, mostly feed for animals, but he likes the regular pay -- and tips -- he earns as a guide during the butterfly season from November to March.
As the sun circles higher in the sky, the monarchs begin to arise from their slumber, more and more peeling from trunks and branches to take flight. Well along the trail, Garcia unhooks barbed wire and beckons us to a path leading to a high, sunny meadow where monarchs dance upon the air. This generation of butterflies is lucky. While monarchs born during the summer live three to five weeks, these live eight or nine months before mating. The males die and the females head north, laying their eggs on milkweed plants in northern Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma or Kansas. The eggs hatch, and the new monarchs head for the Great Lakes region. Later, the generation born around the Great Lakes flies to the East Coast, where they breed and die, according to research by Lincoln P. Brower, a professor at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. Their offspring then head south toward the Gulf Coast and on to Mexico, traveling as far as 90 miles per day and completing the great circle around half the continent.
Monarchs aren't in danger of extinction. What is threatened is this wondrous, baffling migratory phenomenon. What would happen if all -- or too much, whatever that is -- of the Oyamel fir forests fell to chainsaws? Scientists don't know, partly because they can only look back on a quarter century of studying these wintering sites. Could the monarchs survive elsewhere in Mexico?
Oberhauser says she doesn't want to find out. It's a real life experiment she hopes will never take place; the price for losing the gamble is just too high.
Taylor says some monarchs would continue to live along the North American coasts (a small percentage of Monarchs, those west of the Rockies, spend winters in California). But he believes their grand pilgrimage from Canada to Mexico would end and their winter palaces would disappear forever.
Taylor notes that it's not only the Monarchs' wintering sites that are threatened. While their breeding range is large, much of it centers on highly agricultural areas of Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio -- soybean and corn country. In those areas, roadside mowing and pesticides are wiping out populations of milkweed.
Monarch females each lay about 400 eggs on milkweed. The emerging caterpillars eat the plant, not only for nutrition, but also for its poison. Natural toxins in milkweed sap are poisonous to birds, frogs and lizards and they remain even after the larvae metamorphose into butterflies, making monarchs a very unappetizing meal.
For Taylor, the monarchs' migration is symbolic. "Here is a place where we could put a modest amount of resources and we could preserve a phenomenon. As stewards of the planet this is something of a microcosm of all of the larger issues we face," he adds. "If we fail on this relatively solvable problem, it does not bode well for the long-term prospects of how we're going to manage this planet."
Leaving the meadow behind, Maximiliano and I re-enter the forest and begin walking down. We come across a thick colony highlighted by a laser beam of sun. Suddenly it's as if a piñata has been struck. Hundreds of butterflies leap into the air, fluttering briefly, then zooming away.
Nearby, a couple from British Columbia sit on a bench, gawking like visitors to Venice viewing Titian's "Assumption of the Virgin" for the first time. "Unbelievable, unbelievable," the woman mutters.
As morning gives way to afternoon, rivers flashing orange and black flow up and down the mountain for water and nectar, sometimes filling open spaces of trail like snowflakes driven between buildings by strong winds. The butterflies are everywhere as schoolchildren begin to arrive. Some giggle as the drifts of color swarm over them. Others stoop at Isaias Garcia's watering hole to look closer at the blanket of drinking butterflies. In them, I see the innocent, boundless wonder of youthful discovery, something reborn in places like this.
Lose this irreplacable palace, I think, and we lose a little of that sense of amazement in all of us.
Jim Morrison's stories have appeared in Smithsonian, The New York Times, George, offspring, Utne Reader, Reader’s Digest, Family PC and This Old House, among others.
WHEN TO GO: The monarchs arrive in the sanctuaries in November and remain until late March or early April. As the winter progresses, the colonies leapfrog to lower elevations on the mountainsides seeking moisture. Mating begins in March, a time of the most activity. Weekends and afternoons are the most crowded times. It's worth getting up early to be there before the sun warms the colonies, then watch as they awaken. You can rent a car in Mexico City and drive about three hours to nearby Zitacuaro, which is 45 minutes from El Rosario, or go further into Angangueo, which is just 20 minutes down the mountain from the butterflies. Hitch a ride in Angangueo unless you've got insurance on the car and experience with rutted roads and the Pike's Peak hillclimb.