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. Still, 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, Mizuki 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:
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.
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...
When I saw another! Just down the hill the same way I'd come up. Again, far off, even with the telephoto lens.
Closer, but not better.
I took a few dozen wasted pictures as I tried to follow one, then two butterflies through the tree limbs. Finally:
Some color! Blurry, but now most definitely a monarch. Then I saw this:
A whole cluster of them!
Two clusters! Just 15 - 20 feet above me.
Then another flash of orange...
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.