Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

Butterfly lessons for a climate-changed world

August 16, 2023

At my church’s annual outdoor summer worship service, a member approached me and my 2.5-year-old with a wondrous gift—two monarch chrysalises. We welcomed them in their mesh enclosure and found them a safe spot on our porch. For almost a week we checked in on these two jade-green gems flecked with gold. Then one day, having become transparent and so darkened to the color of their wings, sometime in between our early morning check-in and when coffee was ready, the first monarch opened and stretched its wings. A few hours later, after self-inflating to full form, our winged friend started to fly in quick flits and stops. Could it be time, we wondered, after we identified this one as female, to usher her on her way? She crawled out onto my spouse’s wrist, then onto our toddler’s forearm, then onto the back of my hand. “Send her to nature,” our little one said with gleeful and sure confidence in the workings of life. And off she went, up to the top of the tallest tree near us, a cottonwood. A couple of stops at other perches, and then she was off, on her way to find her first meal, and then head north, in search of mate and milkweed. That she was perhaps the third in a generations-long, yearly migratory event, starting from the mountains in central Mexico, is one of the ever-astounding journeys of life, evocative of the German concept of Zugunruhe—the impulse to migratory restlessness that sets life on the go.

The next monarch underwent its transfiguration a few days later. By then, a dense plume of smoke from the estimated 880 wildfires burning this summer in Canada had settled over Wisconsin and much of the Upper Midwest. With my spouse and child away at church camp, I had long-standing plans to take my first solo camping trip in years. After seeing the second monarch off, I was packing the car when I started to cough and my eyes started to burn. I checked my weather app—the air quality alert had been increased to unhealthy levels. Perhaps it was just this bad in the city, I thought, as I finished packing. As I started on my way, I noticed that my neighbors walking their dogs were all wearing masks. It wasn’t until I got on the highway with a more expansive view of the landscape that the reality of the situation started to hit me—darkened smoke-filled skies spread in every direction, casting an ominous pall over the usually bright and clean capital city of Madison. I had a stop planned at an outdoor shop to pick up some last-minute camping supplies. As I got out of the car I too reached for a mask, which I took off once inside, unsettled by the apocalyptic irony of how after years of the COVID-19 pandemic and being anxious about indoor air, I now found myself more anxious about breathing the air outside than inside.

Inside the shop I looked at a map of how far this smoke extended. The air quality alert had been extended for the next four days, and included the area where I was planning on camping. I called the park office to see if the air could be as bad there as it was in the city. It was, and they recommended that I not camp—that is, live outside there—for the next few days. Until this summer, I could never have imagined this scenario—that camping and fishing next to a favorite cold-water trout stream would prove more hazardous to my health and well-being than spending the week huddled inside an air-filtered, air-conditioned house in the city. With this summer’s record heat, flooding, and wildfire smoke, it’s as undeniable as it’s ever been: the climate crisis that we have been sleeping on for the last half-century is here and is in our face, as close to us as the air we breathe.

Like the monarch butterflies, themselves facing the stresses and challenges of a changing world, we as a species need to embrace the radical art of transformation and migration that butterflies teach, because there’s a truth and a challenge that’s now as close as the air we breathe: in our climate-changed world, we cannot be done with our changes.

The smoke started to make my thinking feel panicked. I couldn’t stay where I was, I thought, and I couldn’t go where I had planned to. From the smoke map, the air seemed a bit better further north near Lake Superior. Determined to salvage the camping trip and to seek clearer skies than where I was, I booked the last open tent spot at the Brule River State Forest. I put my mask on and got back in my car. With mask still on I put in new directions and headed north, feeling like I was fleeing from a civilization that was lighting itself on fire. A quote from philosopher and ethicist Hans Jonas that I had long admired from afar now felt close and real. “It was once religion which threatened us with a last judgment at the end of days,” he wrote in 1993. “It is now our tortured planet which predicts the arrival of such a day without any heavenly intervention.”[i]

As I got closer to camp, the skies finally opened and the blue that we so regularly take for granted seemed like the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I got out of the car and with a deep breath of cedar and fern scented air, I exhaled a sigh of relief, an un-celebratory but still welcomed and uplifting little hallelujah. I could breathe the air, and I could see the sky, and nothing seemed like it could be a greater gift than that. On the edge of my campsite, in the one unshaded spot, there was a patch of orange milkweed, known as butterfly weed, and among the flowers I spotted one, and then another—two monarchs, my Zugunruhe evolutionary journey-mates who had also, for this moment, made it on our migrations to this same spot of nourishment and safety on life’s restless, precarious, adventurous way.

In her book Nomad Century, environmental journalist Gaia Vince advances the provocative hypothesis that human migration and immigration is not one of the greatest geopolitical problems of our time, but is instead the solution that we need to embrace as we enter our climate-changed world. Our migratory restlessness, she argues, is and always has been one of our greatest strengths as a species. To meet this moment, we need to lean into our deep evolutionary impulse to wander and explore, and we need to be willing to change course—to pack up our things, to make new choices, and to literally move and migrate towards clearer skies and more hospitable temperatures.

It was once our Biblical imagination that gave us stories and archetypes of human wandering—Abraham and Sarah called away from their homeland into a new land that God would show them; Moses led on an epic forty years of wilderness wandering; Noah adrift on the seas not knowing where the winds would take him; Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem to give birth and then escaping to Egypt to save their child; Jesus always on the go from town to town, mountain to mountain, lake to lake. It is now the climate-changed earth that is beginning to show us where we can and can no longer flourish, and is beginning to summon some people and groups of people to make the hard choice to move in order to survive. Like the monarchs, themselves facing the stresses and challenges of a changing world, we as a species need to embrace the radical art of transformation and migration that butterflies teach, because there’s a truth and a challenge that’s now as close as the air we breathe: in our climate-changed world, we cannot be done with our changes.

Rev. Daniel Cooperrider is a writer, teacher, and pastor in the United Church of Christ (UCC). He was Pastor of the Weybridge Congregational Church (VT) and has served as Pastoral Resident at the Wellesley Village Church (MA). Daniel is the author of Speak with the Earth and It Will Teach You, and a study on the book of Job. Daniel lives on the edge of the driftless region in Madison, WI on ancestral Ho-Chunk land.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Wiese, Christian. The Life and Thought of Hans Jonas: Jewish Dimensions. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2007, p. 103.

Previous article

Cruel summer

Next article

Keeping Sabbath

Don't Miss What's Next

Get early access to the newest stories from Christian Citizen writers, receive contextual stories which support Christian Citizen content from the world's top publications and join a community sharing the latest in justice, mercy and faith.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This