Day 16 – Monarch Central, Santa Cruz

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The Monarch Grove, Natural Bridges, San Diego.


 

Casa LatinaLeaving Berkeley on Tuesday we caught lunch at a great little Taqueria – Casa Latina on San Pablo Ave. Seems to me they’re all great once you get deep into California. This one was outfitted with a table for Day of the Dead remembrances: candles, bread loaves, and sugar skulls with names of the deceased spelled out in purple sequins. Dorothy asked if there was an ‘Otis’ on the table, but there wasn’t. We did later see his name on a street sign as we pulled into Santa Cruz. And that’s where we found one of the largest Monarch groves on the coast.monarch trail

If you grew up in Santa Cruz, maybe the thousands of overwintering monarchs wouldn’t seem so impressive. The Cases, however, were impressed. Monarchs come to Santa Cruz every October and stay over til spring. They’re generation 4, the special ones, built stronger and with greater life spans than generations 1 to 3 combined. This is all so they can travel from far northern territories to this tiny part of the earth they’ve never seen before. Here they will survive the winter, reach their postponed sexual maturity in spring, them push north again to bring on the next generation of migrants.

img_9299No parent ever communicates with the monarchs or guides them in their mission, at least in any way humans understand. We don’t know how their navigational intelligence works, but we believe it includes knowledge of the stars, the sun, and the earth’s magnetic fields. Whether genetic or mystic, there’s a driving command in the monarchs that endures beyond their lifetimes. Maybe that’s why native peoples see in them the spirits of their departed. Monarchs bear not only a consciousness that overcomes death, but an unmatched grace and boldness even in their frailty. In spite of my family knowing the butterflies’ link to the Day of the Dead, our arrival on that very date to their winter home at Natural Bridges was pure serendipity. We’ve made no reservations on this trip, planned few plans, and really just let the wind blow us south. We felt that something greater than us had worked to time our arrival. Inside the monarchs’ eucalyptus grove Sarah and I could only stare up in silence and watch them. She shed tears for Otis. I held her and thanked God for another moment of awe – never sufficient, but a little healing.

More Connections

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After lingering in the grove and absorbing what we could, we traveled outside of town a few miles to camp on some distant relatives’ rural property. Our host, Luke, whom I’d only met earlier this year at San Diego Comic Con, told us that my brother Quentyn had camped in our spot years ago. Like Otis, we lost Quent too soon a little over four years ago. He was 42. Before bed we lit a candle for Otis and Quent and thought of what it might be like if they were sharing some time together. I think they’d be well matched. Both handsome brown-eyed men, both lovers of machines. Otis might teach Quent to just embrace his sensitivity already, and Quent could teach Otis how to write – something he did well but never showed me during his life.

The truth is that even though I believe in God, I’m less and less sure about life beyond death. I don’t know anything about it and I don’t trust anyone who claims certainty. I do know, though, that there’s mystery beyond mystery, and reason behind what seems impossible. Monarchs navigate to places they’ve never seen or heard about with confounding confidence. If they can do it, I suppose I can keep my little faith for now, and hope that more will be revealed in time.

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Day 14 – Victory on Albany Hill

Albany Hill

Yesterday, in the eucalyptus trees on top of Albany Hill, I saw monarchs. This was in spite of my timing being early for their arrival in this particular part of the Bay. It was a definite high point in my journey to bring The Guidebook to life, and one of many small miracles I’ve encountered on our trip.

Until last night I’d only seen one monarch in the wild, this summer on top of Portland’s Mt. Tabor. I’d just finished the day’s work on my rough draft from my mobile hammock+notebook studio. At the moment I closed my notebook I looked up and saw it fluttering ten feet directly over my head like a little spirit come to say, “Yes, grown man. You may perform your work in the woods, in a hammock. Good idea.” I watched the monarch for two or three minutes before it shot west down the mountain. I chased its shadow through the leaf canopy for a few paces before it glided into a clearing, across a road, and out of sight.

Historically, I really try not to force meaning from these moments. I want to tell the truth as best I can, even through the complete fabrications that are my books. Then along comes this year with its tragedy upon tragedy and I find it just a little easier to embrace the big pile of schmaltz that’s inside me. If I have to find gratitude in impossibly awful scenarios (and I do have to), acknowledging the miraculous in very small moments becomes natural.

Last night, when I finally found migratory monarchs on Albany Hill, there was no clear message like that time on Mt. Tabor. mexico day of the deadStill, I have to claim a growing bond to these creatures and all the mysteries they embody. Butterflies are a symbol across world cultures for those who’ve died before their time: Soldiers in war, lovers, and lost children. Mexico’s Day of the Dead is rich with monarch iconography. Even Shigeru Mizuki, Japanese master of manga, recounted a spiritual experience with butterflies in his autobio and history of Japan, Showa. A vet of WWII, showaMizuki tells in one chapter of his return with war buddies to a South Pacific island and an old battlefield covered with decades-old bones from dozens of Japanese soldiers. After a restless sleep in the jungle, Mizuki and his friends share with each other that they all had the same nightmare: the bones rose to ask them why? Why did they return? How did they deserve to live? Shaken, the men decide to gather all the remains they can find, anoint them with sake, and hold a makeshift funeral. After praying over the bones for a time, they’re shocked to see butterflies pour out of the jungle from all directions, then descend to cover the bone pile in a blanket of living color. Were they just attracted to the sake? Were they the movement of spirits? Shigeru asserts the latter. I think I would too.


Photos from Albany Hill, ordered to give you an impression of my hunt:

albany hill cross

I don’t think it was the random giant metal cross that prompted it, but as soon as I reached the top of the hill, I prayed for a monarch. I’d spent a few minutes circling and climbing the park with no sign of any flying insects whatsoever, maybe thanks to the thriving robin population. But… robins don’t eat monarchs.

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This little one appeared moments later, maybe sixty feet above me. I thought this might be the best photo I’d get. I lost the butterfly in the trees, then spent about ten minutes circling the hilltop looking for more. I gave up, grateful for the brief sighting, and headed back down towards my car…

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When I saw another! Just down the hill the same way I’d come up. Again, far off, even with the telephoto lens.

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Closer, but not better.

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I took a few dozen wasted pictures as I tried to follow one, then two butterflies through the tree limbs. Finally:

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Some color! Blurry, but now most definitely a monarch. Then I saw this:

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A whole cluster of them!

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Two clusters! Just 15 – 20 feet above me.

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Then another flash of orange…

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Then a slow fanning of wings. A gift.

With night about to fall, I celebrated this victory with a Japanese dinner accompanied by a giant Sapporo beer. Just me, Shigeru Mizuki, and the memory of two dozen little miracles.