A landscape of runway and sleek aircraft aluminum, seen through a windowpane. Metal and concrete and glass. The same materials crushed and crumbled and torn where the World Trade Center had stood six days earlier.
We were waiting at our gate, at Boston’s Logan Airport, on the day after it reopened—six days after September 11th 2001. Our plane rolled up to the jetway, and we were grateful. On time, as scheduled. Golden late afternoon light.
And then a small dark erratic flutter caught my eye, darting toward the window, veering away, lifting over the cockpit bulge of the plane. Another, and another. The ragged stream kept coming, slowly, stately—ruffles and flourishes of tropical orange and midnight black incongruous in this stark landscape.
Suddenly, I realized what I was watching. My god, I thought, it’s the monarchs. The monarch butterflies, migrating along the Atlantic Coast on their 3,000-mile journey to winter refuge in Mexico.
Each monarch dancing past that window carried the delicate magic of life, a lilting splash of saffron and sable against the gray concrete and silver metal. Indian people in the Mexican mountains believe that the butterflies arriving to spend the winter are the returning spirits of dead children or the souls of lost warriors.
This time they carried the soul of my mother-in-law.
On Friday, the 8th day of September 2001, my wife’s mother died in Boston, suddenly and nearly painlessly, at 84. Our family gathered—from California, New England, New York, Florida, and Utah—to mourn. On Monday, the tenth, we buried Bea after a funeral in which the eulogies celebrated a single long and well-lived life—a ritual that brought us peace, as rituals can do.
We returned to Bea’s home in suburban Boston, inundated with family and friends as Jewish homes always are after funerals. And then we went to sleep, thinking that Tuesday would be the first day of healing, a time to begin the return from loss.
Instead, a cousin woke us with a telephone call. And our loss melted into communal loss.
Stranded, we lived inside the story for nearly a week. The two jets that hit the towers were filled with people from Boston. Family friends came to our house to say the prayers of the mourner’s Kaddish and then went on to other houses of mourning, to pray for friends lost in the crashes.
I had arrived in Boston full of private emotion, completely focused on the meaning of one life. A week later, when the van took us from the rental car lot into the airport, I found myself completely overcome. I was retracing the steps that led to terror and death.
I grew tenser and tenser as we approached, the knot in my stomach bigger and bigger. Nauseated, I looked out at what felt like a landscape of evil and threat. My vision clouded, my head grew light, I held tight to my wife and nearly fainted.
It wasn’t the eerie quiet, with no curbside parking or activity. It wasn’t the tight security or the long lines or even fear of flying. It was simply being there, passing through the airport as we had so many times before to begin our journey home, passing now into what had become the belly of the beast.
Inside the airport, I calmed down. We reached our gate without incident, and settled in to wait an hour, watching the monitors, desperate to go home, hoping that “On Time” would soon read “Now Boarding.”
And then those butterflies appeared.
The monarchs live by instinct, but the phenomenon of their migration can teach us about the astonishment of life and death, miracle and tragedy. In spring, they journey north to breed and lay eggs and die, generation after generation moving north with the summer. In fall, five generations out from Mexico, a wave of monarchs refrains from breeding and flies south instead, pumping and gliding on powdered wings from Canada toward their winter sanctuary.
I had visited those mountaintops in Mexico. When I saw the butterflies at Logan Airport, I knew where their ancestors had come from. I had felt the same tenderness toward the monarchs once before, as I had left Mexico.
Two years before that day in Logan Airport, my wife and I had visited the Michoacán butterfly sanctuaries. As we headed for the Mexico City airport, thinking we were done with the monarchs, a river of butterflies poured across the road on the forested slopes of Nevado de Toluca. Our driver, Salvador, assured us that this happened every sunny afternoon when the monarch colony at the small Los Saucos sanctuary flies down-canyon to water. But it was easy to imagine that the butterflies were leaving, beginning their long journey north.
The monarchs seemed especially mysterious as they coursed from the wall of forest into the clearing of roadway, a miraculous surprise. They seemed particularly fragile, their half-gram flying machinery weighed against groaning engines and the bulk of stake-bed trucks. Their directional flying flaunted their gift for adaptation, their stunning migratory accomplishment.
I walked along the road in the stream of butterflies and immersed myself in pure emotional response to their flight, imagining a sentience, a purposefulness, a tenacity, a bravery.
They grace three countries, but their Spanish name best captures their beauty. I reached out to wish them well as they began their quest northward and found myself talking to them, repeating that lovely word, “mariposas.”
“Buen viaje, mariposas,” good travels. Fly well, fly safely. Complete your half of this miracle, and somehow we humans will learn enough to accomplish ours.
That’s the miracle of the monarchs—living without boundaries, year after year, returning unerringly to a place they have never been. To see them gliding through Logan Airport on that solemn day, with their instinctive faith in the rightness of their journey, brought me back to a place where I could imagine hope. Their innocence made me feel protective and fierce.
The butterflies’ tragedies all come from human failure to preserve the possibility of their miracle. The monarchs’ fir forests are disappearing in Mexico, cut by their neighbors, poor country people who need fuel and money to feed their families. The monarchs’ host plant is disappearing in the United States, milkweed devalued nearly to oblivion under the blanket of corporate monoculture.
We save the forest, we save the campesinos, we save the roadsides and hollers and meadows for milkweed—and we save the monarchs.
We save ourselves.
I watched the butterflies move across that airport window, and I thought of my missing mother-in-law, Bea, and her death at the end of her long life. I thought of Bea’s little clan of friends—friends for life, for seventy years—and how dearly they would miss her. I thought of my wife, and how she would never again have a mother to turn to. I thought of the indigenous villagers of central Mexico, trying to feed their families, day by day, enmeshed in forces that sweep from their homes across the continent. I thought of a schoolgirl in Indiana, planting milkweed.
Turning to my family, then, to my fellow passengers, and back to the monarchs, all I could feel was love and hope.
Salt Lake City writer, photographer, and teacher Stephen Trimble has won significant awards for his non-fiction, his fiction, and his photography, including the Ansel Adams Award from The Sierra Club. His books focus on homeland, wildland, and Indian land, including: Bargaining for Eden: The Fight for the Last Open Spaces in America; The People: Indians of the American Southwest; and The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places (with Gary Nabhan). His mother-in-law, Beatrice Litvin Slotnik of Newton, Massachusetts, died September 8, 2001. Steve’s website is www.stephentrimble.net.