The progression was steady. First it was just myself and a book and a gin and tonic to relax in the yard. Then a Monarch flew in from the north, paused and flew on. I’d already been out twice into the field. And I’d seen many Monarchs including two that lifted off the red leaves of a Black Gum at dawn so suddenly that they took my breath away with their unexpected flight. I thought for a moment they were animate leaves falling. They had broken into view suddenly while I scanned over some busy Nashville Warblers. The birds were working the trees for late summer caterpillars: the fuel that burns best for southbound birdwings.
So Klinkenberg speaks to me from the page about alfalfa and farmers and I wait for the sing of the gin to make the September sky talk to me about something I do not know, something I don’t expect. Small clouds waft north to south. I notice the Monarchs moving with the same south bound breeze. One here and there, then a few dropping out of the sky to fuel at my wife’s butterfly bush. It is the bush that has been a tremendous boon this year. It stands at over six feet tall with an irregular and orbicular diameter of eight or so feet. It is still pumping out purpled stalks of bee fuel, wasp fuel, high octane Monarch go juice. I point out to my wife that she is serving the world well today.
Then I start counting them, the Monarchs. Just for the interest of knowing how many are going by. I count, leaning back in my chair with the naked eye. And they are plowing by at an impressive rate. I am up to 40, 50, 60 quickly. Then I spot a distant bird among all the spiraling butterfly dots. And I have to move up to my binoculars; I have to run inside for the glasses. And I am amazed to find that the hawk is actually an Osprey that is also south bound. And there are Chimney Swifts out there in the deeper magnified sky. And the Monarchs are rolling by at distances I had not expected. I pass 100 and then 200 in my counting. The sky is a seven layer sift of Monarchs. It is a dervish of orange wings. And then another bird passes. This one locks my attention and I hold it from one end of the sky to the other (losing some Monarch numbers no doubt). I run to the end of the yard and avoid the trees. It is a Peregrine Falcon—a stunning yard bird.
I wheel the whole visible sky like a drunk after this. Monarchs dizzy my eight power eyes. I see Sharp-shinned Hawks and more swifts. A dragonfly goes over. It is a Black Saddlebags. And he is definitely going north to south. It is not just a chance flyby. He is up high and on his way. Without the binoculars I could not have seen him.
I stop counting Monarchs at 300. They move in masses I never knew about or expected. And this is just one yard in one city and I cannot guess at the millions rolling over everywhere else on this one day. It is, I believe, a good thing. My daughter looks through the glasses and laughs at all the floating dots and dots.
At six o’clock they seem to shut off like a curtain has fallen. The Monarchs must have all dropped to the earth on cue to rest somewhere north of me. I recall the ones that lifted from the gum tree this morning. It was there that they must have slept through the night. I stare at the sky. The birds are still there; another Sharp-shin comes by. And then soon even the raptors are finished with this one day of traveling. I peer into the blue. It is back to the stillness I had assumed before the Monarchs fell on my gin and reverie. It seems more empty than expected now. Darkness is not the end of the busy goings, surely, though it is the end of my awareness. The Monarchs sleep. You’d think it would have been some lesson to me about the September sky. And it was. But this, like in every year, was only the reminder of my forgetfulness. Passages passing me, they’ve passed me by before. Life is mostly stupor, the possibility of being stunned. Here’s to the necessary reawakenings from things like sudden butterflies.