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The Butterfly Effect

It's an early Fall morning, just around sunrise. Bella and I clomp through a grove of eucalyptus trees in a hilly Rancho Palos Verdes subdivision. We are on a marked trail and a few early-to-rise runners go by, followed by some dog walkers. We’re here to count butterflies for the Western Monarch butterfly count.

We sit on a tree stump at the side of the trail overlooking the ocean to the West and a golf course to the South. Cars stream down wide boulevards below getting noisier as the working day becomes a reality. I use binoculars to scout the tall eucalyptus trees all around us for butterflies, as my dog Bella is doing her own insect surveillance. I’m searching not only for monarch fliers but also for clusters, which are clumps of butterflies that band together during the cool fall nights for warmth and protection from predators.

Through my binoculars, I see hawks and crows and flocks of birds up in the branches, but the orange and black markings of Western monarchs are nowhere to be seen. I’m wondering if doing this here is going to work out. Like many other invertebrate species, monarchs have diminished significantly in numbers over the past few decades in the West. Human development, fires, droughts, a small shift in the average
temperature, tree trimming, insecticide spraying, and the introduction of invasive and non-native species of plants have all contributed to their decline. The monarch population's plight amplifies not only people’s role in a species' demise but also signals to us about how we can shift the impact of what we have done and now work to save diverse species. Mostly it's about habitat because monarchs, like other insects, rely on specific native plants to survive and can only make so many adaptations, unlike us humans.

Sitting in this beautiful grove brings me back to my first involvement in butterfly habitat restoration many decades ago. My sons who were high school students were into collecting bugs. They joined ‘a bug club’ and soon volunteered with a nonprofit that was restoring the dunes near LAX so the El Segundo Blue butterfly could thrive. Since I was their chauffeur I got dragged into the enterprise. The work was hard but wonderful. We tore out non-native plants and replaced them with the host plant of coastal buckwheat. Today those little blue butterflies made a big comeback and are doing well living in coastal areas from Palos Verde up to Malibu.

Working on the El Segundo dunes led us to create a butterfly garden in our own backyard. We scoured
nurseries for native plants. Since then, consciousness about the importance of nourishing the native ecology has grown locally, so many more nurseries are selling these plant species. Bees, butterflies, and
other insects feed on nectar-producing plants and as a by-product of their energy, distribute seeds through neighborhoods nearby, assuring that the plants thrive and survive. In turn, native plants have healing properties and enhance human life experience in so many ways, showing us that we are all interconnected.

Robin Wall Kimmerling notes in her book, Braided Sweetgrass, that trees and plants are sentient communities that nurture all life, and often indigenous practices were cognizant and supportive of nature. Likewise, in The Overstory, Richard Powers shows how humans often fail to see that the flora and fauna around them are a vast integrated system. Unfortunately, many people in their quest to have dominion over the earth, inadvertently destroy those very ecosystems. The butterfly effect suggests that doing small but important things can have life-altering consequences.

In this pristine eucalyptus grove, it is now getting late, and as we round a curve in the path heading back
to my car I see two monarchs flying above. A few more are sunning on a plant. There must be a cluster
nearby but I can’t find it and I know that as the sun rises higher in the sky, the cluster will deconstruct as
the butterflies go out to forage for food and mates, continuing a long process of species survival and
propagation. So, we’ll come back another day and find it. Those small things we encounter, connect
with, and act upon can make a big difference, as we are all interconnected. Saving a species from
extinction may sound like a dream, but it is part of what I can and must do to keep our world alive and
ensure its abundance.

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