In the Midst of Monarchs: Mexico's Butterfly Oasis

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Speaking for the Trees

The monarch is choosy about its habitat. The oyamel firs have held their ground on these volcanic hillsides for eons, and Mexico-bound monarchs will spend the winter nowhere else.

Recently, deforestation brought on by logging has thinned the forests—and jeopardized the butterflies, despite their numerical strength. So the Mexican government in 1986 created the Monarch Butterfly Special Biosphere Reserve, which consists of five hilltops on which the monarchs remain for the winter. Three hills have been set aside completely as nature preserves.

Sierra Chincua is the newer of two sanctuaries, out of the five, that are open to the public. Jobs such as Gilberto's provide important sources of winter income for local people, many of them farmers who might otherwise venture into the U.S. to work as migrant farm laborers.

Gilberto has worked as a guide in Sierra Chincua for all seven years that it has been open to visitors, and the fee and tips that he earns gives him an incentive to see the monarchs' habitat preserved.

But logging, though now illegal in the reserve, persists. Hence Gilberto's concerned refrain about planting trees.

In halting Spanish, I asked him about the management of the forest. In reply, he pointed to trees that had been cut down after suffering damage from lightning, and to saplings that he and other guides had planted the previous rainy season, after the butterflies and tourists had left.

Stained Glass Menagerie

In the shade of the firs, dabs of floral color dotted the forest floor. Gilberto recited the names and properties of the flowers to me as we passed them: the little red mirtos, shaped like miniscule chili peppers; the brilliant trabanillos, in violet and yellow varieties; the orange-red lemoncillos, which produce drinkable nectar; and the anemone-like buds of the sanequa, which have medicinal properties.

But the colorful flora of the forest was only a prelude to its greater artistry, its stained glass.

Our trail suddenly joined a broader one, and we saw Marc's mother, his cousin, and three family friends up ahead. All had driven with us from Mexico City that day, but had elected to ride horses into the reserve by a different route than Marc, Gilberto, and I had taken.

On foot to minimize the amount of dust kicked up, our party approached the trail's end, where Gilberto told us the monarchs awaited. At first, a few could be seen here and there in the air. Then larger numbers—on bushes, trees. Up ahead, I realized, butterflies littered the ground like a carpet.

A few ginger steps onward, I found myself in the midst of a monarch mass. A dull orange throng clogged the forest's vertical pews.

A few butterflies flitted from one tree to the next, and late afternoon sun illuminated their orange wings. Had we arrived earlier in the afternoon, Gilberto said, the monarchs would have been more active. But since our drive from Mexico City had taken longer than we'd expected, I contented myself with watching them rest, like weary pilgrims at the end of a journey.

But as I tiptoed quietly back up the trail and away from the majestic monarchs, I couldn't help wondering whether I was perhaps more the pilgrim than they.

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