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In the Mountains of Mexico, Where Souls of the Departed Gather

I met Tom Emmel while on vacation at a nature study center in Colorado. Tom was a world famous lepidopterist, a scientist who was the author of many books on butterflies. One day I took a hike with him and a group of butterfly lovers into the Colorado mountains, and I happened to mention my interest in Mexico. He told me that recently a great natural mystery had been solved there. Scientists had discovered where North American butterflies go when they migrate south. I’d often wondered about that myself, and I had seen with great interest National Geographic’s recent spectacular cover photo of the monarchs and the announcement of the discovery of their winter home in the Sierre Madre mountains. Monarchs travel 3,000 miles each fall to Michoacan, Mexico and spend the winter there before heading back North again in spring to lay their eggs and then die, never to make the journey a second time.

Tom said that soon he would be taking a group of scientists and butterfly enthusiasts to see the overwintering site of the monarchs in Mexico, and that I’d be welcome to come along. I could bring Doug, my 12-year-old son, along with me. He explained that though the scientists hadn’t known where the butterflies go for the winter, it was no secret for the locals. The people celebrated the butterflies’ arrival as the creatures passed like a rushing river through the streets of towns and above the houses and as they continued their journey south before arriving in the exact mountain spot in the forest where conditions are right for them. “The natives believe the butterflies are the souls of the dead who come back to visit, and this is their sacred pilgramage.“ This was the Mexico Molly had introduced me to, a land of legend and magic and mystery, though far from her jungle home.

It was 1986 when Doug and I arrived in Mexico City, which was recovering from a recent devastating earthquake. We met Tom and our group, and in the morning our bus took us from the Capital two hours into the mountains where it puffed to a stop and let us out onto a high hill, surrounded by towering fir trees. In the distance we could see a patch of orange and brown, maybe a mile or two square, as though autumn had come only there to that section of the forest when all else was green. We walked for an hour or so, approaching slowly down a path in the thin mountain air until we were in the thick of them. Butterflies were everywhere. It was so quiet I could hear their wings humming. In that protected place, where few people were permitted access, the monarchs clung to the tree trunks, huddled so closely together they looked like layers of thatched bark. As we walked the day warmed up and the butterflies fluttered slowly around us in semi-somnambulance, moving like lazy autumn-colored snowflakes falling upward. They landed on my shoulders and hair, and I moved ever so gently, hoping they’d ride along with me for awhile. I have never been in any church or synagogue that made me feel that I was in the presence of the Holy as I felt standing there. Tears of gratitude filled my eyes for the gift of that extraordinary moment, when the rest of the world fell away and there was only sky and trees and the whisper of wings.

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