Key West: What to Tell a Housebound Friend

First, it’s an island at the end of a chain of islands called the Florida Keys. Key stands for Cay, which I think is Spanish or Meso-American meaning small island.

Second, and here you can imagine me actually speaking to her by phone, though she’s not far away, only West St. Paul. I make my voice to be clear and encouraging. She spends her days fighting acute pain. Today, she’s “fallen off a cliff,” by which she means, a movement has created a surge of agony. She wants my voice to take her out of pain’s narrow confines. She wants description.

“I liked one place best,” I begin. “The butterfly garden. The warm, enclosed garden is full of plants butterflies love. I recognized mint and milkweed. The paths are full of huge blue Morphos, as wide as my hand, fluttering, iridescent blue. As if some hand had cut sky cloth into scintillating shapes. How long do they live? I asked the butterfly keeper. ‘Five days,’ he said, ‘and they don’t eat at all.’ That made me sad, but also amazed that there could be such die-off and yet so many here, fluttering against the glass, sipping water, even one briefly resting on my shoulder. But this is the Morpho’s time-tested way.

“I don’t see many Monarchs, I told the keeper. How come? We both knew almost without speaking how imperiled this once iconic North American and Mexican orange and black butterfly has become. ‘We’ve chosen not to bring them inside, but leave them where we hope they’ll flourish.’ I understand I tell him. Why less than fifteen years ago when I was driving down Highway 35 from northern Minnesota, such swarms of lazy flying Monarchs crossed in front of me, I had to slow down to keep from hitting them. Now I’m lucky if I see a few up north, and a few here in my St. Paul garden.

“‘Do everything you can to help,’ he said. ‘Here we’re working with farmers in Oklahoma and Texas to leave margins around their fields for wild flowers. That’s where the Monarchs find the milkweed where they lay their eggs. Oklahoma and Texas are the last stops before Mexico where they can start a new generation.'”

As I talk, I try to recollect the colors and shapes of the garden’s other winged beauties–some long and narrow with red in their centers, and black and white on the margins of their wings. Some broad and jagged with yellow and brown zig-zags, and the edges of their wings crisped. Some sedately black and white. Some entirely one color, like a North American bright orange, oblong butterfly, quite pretty against the green. I describe this to my friend, the wounded artist, who is practicing what it looks like in her imagination.

In this plethora of winged creatures, birds have a place too, but the biggest aren’t flying. They’re three-year-old, hot pink flamingos, “rescued” from a breeder in Ontario, Canada. Not named Rhet and Scarlett, but could be. They’re honking from their pool in the midst of all this fluttering and chirping. Scarlett tries to climb out, but slides back off the slippery rocks. I don’t want to come face-to-face with her on the path. Yes her beak curves downward in a most peculiar way, but her neck looks strong enough to deliver a blow. Stay put, you two, I telegraph as I pass, going around twice to enjoy the fluttering marvels again.

Several days later, flying home, I study a patchwork of fields, probably in Iowa or southern Minnesota. Trees fur areas around small lakes or along waterways, but all other fields go straight to the margins, none with a border of wild plants. Fifteen years ago when I was on the writers-in-the-schools circuit, I interviewed farmers in southern and northwestern Minnesota farming communities. The towns were experiencing a strange gasping for breath, as if all the red corpuscles were draining away.

Jobs were disappearing. Young people leaving for more populated areas. Smaller farms were being bought up by large operations, not necessarily owned by single or related families. The consolidation, I heard again and again, had everything to do with wanting to plant only one or two crops, soy beans and corn being the favorites. And using big machinery on these fields.

What had been a system of diverse farming–some cows, some pigs, fields of grain and beans, rotated to help enrich the soil–was being replaced by a “corporate” model. Profit ran the business, as much profit as possible. Plant every inch, out to the margins. Plant Genetically Modified seeds, which grow plants that will withstand herbicides and pesticides like “Round-Up” by Monsanto.

I was watching an ethic of responsible farming being replaced by a drive to take everything possible, the devil take the hindmost. Of course there were exceptions to this, but as you’ll find by watching the lively documentary “King Corn,” the results have been such enormous yields that granaries stuffed to capacity and overflow corn mountains are fueling another problematic practice, the fattening of beef in feed-lots. Not only does this create enormous pools of organic waste, but it puts fat on the beef which, of course, settles around our middles and in our arteries and organs.

Such excess not only kills the Monarchs, one of our summer beauties who in a series of brief generations sends its progeny to overwinter in swarms. But it ultimately damages bees, water, air, and us.

As Rachel Carson wrote in the 1962, a “silent spring” awaits us, though not this time through the action of DDT, but through a more complex combination of excess and poisoning which inexorably will damage our own health and the creatures who share this small planet with us.

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