PART IV: A BRIEF HISTORY OF WHAT IS IN THE AIR // THE MONARCH BUTTERFLY

In the history of what is in the air the monarch butterfly has always been a relatively modest appearance. Upon first glance one sees the birds, bats, numerous insects, the sun, meteorites, stars and planet Earth itself balancing so delicately in the air. From the water as well, the atmosphere is penetrated by flying fishes, certain orka’s and flying stingray’s with their ability to jump five meters above the water without any clear function as far as we can know. Clouds, rain, lightning, rainbows, fogs and godly presences attract our attention after which inevitably the first rock enters the domain of the air. Arrows, cannon balls and flags will follow as well as music to accompany the battlefield, after which balloons appear with a sheep, a duck and a cock pioneering in it’s first flight. Zeppelins and all sort of ball games follow amongst which are golf, baseball, tennis, football, rugby, hurling and the like. And one should certainly not forget Mr. Lindbergh taking off in New York to land in Paris 33 hours afterwards, being greeted by what has been called the largest traffic jam in the history of France. A crowd of 150.000 people had driven to the airport to greet hem without any premonition of the aircrafts that would destroy the European cities within the decade. It did not take France more than 50 years to send a fitting answer in the form of Phillip Petit, the tightrope walker who connected the World Trade Center towers in New York and walked back and forth on the spot that nowadays is mere emptiness. Militairy objects appear in the air such as helicopters, bombers, balloons, zeppelins and drones. But this should not divert our attention from the fact that children have produced their soap bells from the 16th century onwards and have launched their kites since 400 BC.

After the second world war satellites were launched into space and a broad scala of animals were send. The first species in space is the fruitflie surviving an expensive expedition in 1947 after which mice, rats and primates follow. The first monkeys die in space and for half a century an enormous amount of animals is launched into the cosmos, the larger part dying during or shortly after the expeditions. We are talking about Albert the Second, Tzigan and Desy, Laika (killed), Gordo, Able and Baker (Able did not survive, Baker did). Marfusa, two anonymous frogs and twelve mice blown up during the launch, two dogs named Belka and Strelka together with a grey rabbit, 40 mice, two rats, fifteen bottles of fruit flies, plants, three black mice named Sally Amy and Moe, a dog named Chermushka, mice frogs, a nameless Guineapig, Hector the Rat, Felicette the cat who replaced Felix the Cat who fled just before the launch, the dogs Veterok and Ugolyok, Belisario the Rat, a Horschfield Turtle in 1967, Bonny the Macaque, Juan the Argentinian monkey, two spiders named Arabella and Anita together with three pocket mice, a fundulus heroclitus or the Gulf Killifish, 24 male albino rats, a zebrafish, salamanders, desert flies, tree frogs, carps, Japanese rice fish, a moth. The Colombia in 2003  carried silkworms, garden orb spiders, carpenter bees, harvester ants, and Japanese killifish (medaka) all of them were found in the debris following the disastrous explosion. Nadzeha the cockroach was the first living being to procreate in space producing 33 cosmic cockroaches wich were brought back back to the Earth. During every launch 700 ton of carbon dioxide was emitted into the atmosphere. This atmosphere consists for the larger part of nitrogen and oxygen, furthermore of argon carbon-dioxide, neon, helium, methane, krypton, bi-nitrogen oxide, hydrogen and xenon. The percentage of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been 0,03 for most of the time but is now inclining towards 0,04 causing the world wide climate issue. At the moment of writing it is still unclear whether current developments will lead to the catastrophes they are pointing towards or whether it will all be different whilst the people continue living their lives.

In this history the Monarch butterfly has generally led an unnoticed existence. The reason this orange creature is capable of traversing the Atlantic ocean is for example still unknown. We can only know that the Monarch appears in the taxonomy as of the 19th century onwards and is known as the Wanderer in Australia. The butterfly feeds on silk plants which causes it’s body to slowly become poisonous to most animals. It’s the only insect that migrates over large distances for example from Mexico to the United States where the silk plant is known to grow abundantly in summers. They can fly for up to 100 kilometers a day forming enormous orange swarms. As their lifespan is about a month the Monarch reproduces three times during the summer and it is a very mysterious fact that the fourth generation will find the forests their ancestors came from very accurately. Millions of Monarchs swarm to the South in October arriving around the 1st of November in Mexico to spend the winter there. The butterflies usually stay very close together but if a storm overtakes them it can happen that a smaller part drifts away and crosses the Atlantic by accident, resting upon passing ships along the way. During the winter the butterflies hibernate giving them the capacity to live longer than the other generations. Because they don’t eat the silkplant during this period they slowly lose their poisonous quality causing the larger part of them to be eaten as spring approaches.  

The living space of the Monarch in Mexico is diminishing by 50 % on a yearly base as the silk plant grows less being outcompeted by genetically modified crops popping up everywhere. But as I write millions of orange butterflies still enter Mexico every year around the day of the Death, causing the Mexicans to recognize their deceased friends and family members in the giant orange clouds of butterflies. This has traditionally been the most refined role of the Monarchs in worldly events untill 2009 when a spaceshuttle was sent to the ISS station carrying three monarch larves for the program Butterflies in Space. During this experiment, which coincided with the failed climate conference in Copenhagen, the whole population of larves died because of the extreme conditions on board of the shuttle going by the appropiate name Atlantis. At the time I was lying under a blanket in my basement after I had seen the news about the Monarchs that remained mostly unnoticed as the eyes of the world were fixed on Copenhagen. In a little corner I replayed the opening speech of the conference by Prince Charles on my phone again and again. He stated that the future of man kind depended on whether we would find a way to live as a part of nature instead of apart from it. I thought about the death of the Monarchs in the Atlantis and perceived it as a powerfull reply. By dying the Monarchs showed that on Earth people might or might not be capable of coming to agreements, Monarchs for one are not wiling to procreate outside of the Earth’s biosphere. In Nasa’s report about the mission it is stated that although monarchs are very well studied and their anatomy is well know, there is still much to be learned.

charles monarch

The consequences of a potential disappearance of the Monarch are very hard to estimate. Only a few species depend on the butterfly for food but it is clear the silk plant would grow rapidly were they to vanish. It is likely that not only for Mexicans, having developed tourism around the appearance of the Monarch, but also for the North-american White-throated Swift it would be a great disappointment. This bird spends it’s whole life in the air never landing for food, sleep nor sex. The Swift would never eat the Monarch because of it’s poisonousness but it still appears, according to the the Mexican ecologist Ernesto Christian Hoeffler, the two species have an agreement to meet each other in spring somewhere near the border of Mexico and the United States where humans have constructed a long fence that is rather high as well.

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