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Laurie Niles

April 10, 2004 at 4:08 AM

My children, ages three and six, are on spring break this week, so I’ve watched a bit more children’s television than usual. Don’t get me wrong, we haven’t been couch potatoes the entire time. For the first part of the week we explored theme parks with my in-laws, but my husband is the expert who can tell you about that.

By the time we came home on Wednesday, we were completely worn out. It was a good day to be a couch potato, so I joined Natalie and Brian in front of the T.V., where I was sucked into the PBS show, "Reading Rainbow." On this day, the show was about Monarch butterflies. At first, I thought they were just re-iterating the children’s story of the "Hungry Caterpillar," who eats and eats, spins itself a cocoon, then miraculously turns into a "beautiful butterfly!" This is quite an amazing phenomenon in itself.

But the story, or the miracle, didn't stop there. "At this point, the Monarch butterfly flies thousands of miles to a place it has never been to and never seen, in the mountains of Mexico." What an amazing idea!

I've seen these orange and black butterflies, fluttering clumsily southward across the windy Interstate 80 in Nebraska, narrowly escaping the bumper of my car. I've seen them in Colorado, flying over the grass prairie of the Bear Valley riverbed. I’ve seen them in Southern California, where they barely stand out against the exotic and colorful plants, creatures and human beings already here. Basically, I've seen them all over the western United States.

In the spring, they head north and scatter all around North America, all the way up to Canada. In the fall, about 100 million of them head for the same party, on Sierra Chincua mountain in Michoacan, Mexico, where they fill the sky like confetti or hang sleeping together like thousands of leaves on a tree... Why they winter there and nowhere else, no one really knows. Apparently they prefer the oyamel fir trees, and they have established quite a habit.

Yet no single one of them actually knows the way there from direct experience, as the butterflies live only for about six months and their migration happens every year. Somehow an internal clock directs them to this hill in central Michoacan, where they have been gathering annually for thousands of years. What a journey to make on faith!

All this made me rather philosophical. How on Earth do they know where to go? It made me think of the nature of destiny. I wonder if we humans, for all our rules, plans and artifice, can hear our little butterfly voices.

Where would we go if we listened?

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