The melting of the last of winter’s snow is a painful reminder of the awful truth, but it was clear last fall:
Uncle Al has single-handedly failed to save the Monarch butterfly.
It is a tale of vaguely noble intentions, inherent laziness and the unending struggle between Nature and . . . Nature.
Uncle Al has been reminded frequently by reports in various media that the Monarch is threatened both by a declining number of oyamel fir trees, which Monarchs apparently insist upon when they roost at the southern end of their migratory path in Mexico, and here in the north by vanishing supplies of milkweed, which apparently is the only thing the Monarch’s caterpillars will eat.
From the beginning, Uncle Al felt that his options in this matter were limited. He has very few contacts in the oyamel fir trade in Mexico, and he is assured that he shouldn’t put much effort into suggesting to Monarch caterpillars that they might enjoy Creeping Charlie if they just tried it. (How do they know they won’t like it if they won’t even try it?) So he was left with planting milkweed as the only thing he could do to solve the problem.
He was happy to learn, early last summer, that free packets of milkweed seeds were being offered by some garden centers. For Uncle Al, this was a no-brainer: Save money and the Monarch. What could be better?
And, unlike many of Uncle Al’s other undertakings, such as installing new light fixtures, there would be no return trips to the garden center to acquire milkweed-to-dirt adapters, and then adapters for the adapters, etc. The whole endeavor would consist of just two steps: Get the seeds and plant them. He was done in an hour, Monarchs saved, still time to have a Little Debbie Nutty Bar and watch a couple of episodes of the Rockford Files.
Indeed, several weeks passed before Uncle Al thought to check in on the potential butterfly garden surely thriving in its remote corner of his back yard. He should perhaps explain to those not familiar with what he likes to call his thought process, that the spot he chose was already supporting a large quantity of other weeds without any attention from him, so he figured that milkweed would surely flourish there on its own as well.
What he hadn’t considered was that some weeds might be, well, weedier than others. Although he could spot several stalks of what seemed to be fledgling milkweed, as well as here and there some of the weeds he had noted when he planted the milkweed, the area had since been completely taken over by Creeping Charlie.
Thus he found himself on his hands and knees, weeding his weeds.
Had he still been writing a weekly bit of observational journalism for the city’s primarily-cellulose-based news medium, Uncle Al probably would have tried to stretch that single revolting development into a full column. (He was often that desperate.) But as he now has the privilege of reporting on his long downhill slide only when he feels like it, he waited until he could pass along the entire story in one depressing lump – and then he waited even longer out of embarrassment.
Weeding weeds, he could have opined in that fragmentary column, might be termed metagardening, but on reflection he no longer thinks so. If he were to continue writing this column about writing a column, though, that would be kind of meta. (Uncle Al hopes he can be forgiven for his halting familiarity with such meta-analysis. He has only recently become aware of using meta as a prefix for anything other than mucil.)
Anyway, now that he had seen what a battle his weeds were having to wage just to survive, Uncle Al realized that he’d not only need to weed them again once in a while, he’d probably need to water them now and then too.
Had he known how much effort it would take to save the Monarch butterfly, he might not have started.
Little did he know.
On the occasion of that first weeding, he was able to distinguish for sure only four seedlings that were certainly milkweed, although there were several similar-looking little items scattered a bit outside the area that he would have said was absolutely where he had planted the milkweed.
When he checked in again a couple of weeks later, lots more “similar” weeds had appeared even farther from where the milkweed had been sown. And now that they had grown, it was clear that they weren’t all that similar.
So it was going to be four milkweed plants. Not quite what Uncle Al had hoped for, but so far that summer he had seen only one Monarch, so the result of his labors could mean the Monarch population would quadruple in the next generation — an accomplishment of which he felt he could be justifiably proud.
The next time he looked, there were only two plants: The other two had been bitten off. Uncle Al suspected that bunnies might have made lunch — or more probably a bedtime snack — of them. This was an educated guess, based on his encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world, and the fact that every time he let his dog, Gus, out in the yard, one or more rabbits popped out of nowhere, shot across the lawn and disappeared under the fence.
Now even more desperate to save the Monarch, even if now by only doubling the next-generation herd, Uncle Al purchased a product held to be the rabbit equivalent of Weed B Gon, except for two things: It lacked a catchy name, and it wasn’t particularly effective. Uncle Al would have called it Rabbit B At Most A Bit Discouraged.
The next time he looked, in mid-September, the last two milkweed plants were still there, but all the leaves had been nibbled off, so what Uncle Al had was two sticks. He tried to cling to hope that a bud or two might appear on just one of them, ultimately maybe saving one Monarch, but the frost took care of that possibility.
He has to wonder whether his efforts this year might be better directed.
How much krill might it take to save a whale?