[General Note: I've just returned from a trip to Mexico to photograph a wintering ground of the Monarch Butterfly. It was an incredible experience, this is truly one of the wonders of the natural world. I have to admit that photography really does not do justice to what I saw. It is a little like trying to show to someone all of the grains of sand on a beach with a single photo, no matter what angle you take you end up missing as much as you reveal.]

[Educator's Note: Last fall I sent photos of the Monarch Butterfly to several of you for use in the classroom. Please let me know if you would like free prints of the monarchs in their wintering grounds... in reality I don't think their life story can really be told without mentioning the migration to the wintering grounds.]

In September I followed and photographed a lone Monarch Butterfly. She stopped and fed on the last blooms of the year, clusters of goldenrod and the purple and gold flowers of New England Aster. Later that day as I drove I caught sight of more monarchs, their orange and black wings fluttering as they gained height and then the wings locking straight out as the butterflies glided on the wind. In February I stood on the ridge of a remote mountain in Mexico. In front of me, completely encasing the trunks of trees and flying through sun lit openings in the forest were millions upon millions of Monarch Butterflies.

In between the flight of that lone butterfly and the sight of millions of butterflies lies one of the most fantastic, miraculous stories in all of Nature. Each fall between 100 million and a billion Monarch Butterflies migrate from Canada and the northern reaches of the United States to a few select locations mostly in the state of Michoacan, Mexico. They spend the winter in tight clusters, surviving the chill through the collective heat generated by their tiny bodies.

The last generation of monarchs each summer postpones breeding and instead saves energy for the long journey ahead. With wings the thickness of paper, and bodies smaller than your pinkie it is incredible to realize that these "frail" animals can migrate for thousands of miles. The way they do this could serve as a lesson for many of us. They do not "muscle" their way down to Mexico, instead they go with the flow, gliding with the prevailing winds. They don't waste precious energy to get where they are going. Instead they let the energy of the world's winds guide them. Along the way they make a few course corrections, but most of the work is done for them as they passively tap into the energy of the world.

Along the journey something wonderful happens. The butterflies start out as totally independent entities, surviving on their own means and following their own path or destiny. And yet, as they each as individuals give in to the earth's energies, their destinies become linked as their paths converge. The winds start funneling more and more monarchs together from across our continent. When the days traveling is done they eat as individuals, but cluster together overnight. By the time they reach the wintering grounds in Mexico they are completely dependent on each other. During the winter the only way they will survive is as a community. By existing as a community they are able to use their collective energies to achieve what they can not as individuals.

Years ago I photographed the metamorphosis of the monarch. The transformation from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult was a powerful metaphor for me. In the growth and change of the Monarch Butterfly I recognized growth and change that I wanted for myself. After so many years I stood on that ridge in a Mexican forest and I realized that there were other transformations that the monarch went through and there was more that it had to teach. I realized that another powerful metaphor lay before me. As a cooperating community we can achieve what is impossible for us as individuals.

Charles St. Charles III

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