Butterfly Zag

Monarch Butterfly, El Rosario Sanctuary, Michoacàn-Mèxico.

Monarchs are “tough and powerful, as butterflies go.” They fly over Lake Superior without resting; in fact, observers there have discovered a curious thing. Instead of flying directly south, the monarchs crossing high over the water take an inexplicable turn towards the east. Then when they reach an invisible point, they all veer south again. Each successive swarm repeats this mysterious dogleg movement, year after year. Entomologists actually think that the butterflies might be “remembering” the position of a long-gone, looming glacier. In another book I read that geologists think that Lake Superior marks the site of the highest mountain that ever existed on this continent. I don’t know. I’d like to see it. Or I’d like to be it, to feel when to turn. At night on land migrating monarchs slumber on certain trees, hung in festoons with wings folded together, thick on the trees and shaggy as bearskin. (Dillard, p. 258, 1974)

Before shelving Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, one of the small handful of books (at focus’s edge) I finished on this research leave, I flipped back to a couple of dog-ears to see if there were passages I wanted to keep, post, circulate, remember later. Remember when a blog was a good location to stash miscellaneous passages? In this one, mostly about monarchs and their migration, I must have taken as wonderful (i.e., wonderful enough to warrant folding the corner of the paper) the swarm’s seasonal navigation as it maybe? does it? draws on some faint memoria, a directional inheritance, passed along grid cells from every butterfly mother and every next one before her. Fascinating and strange to think of a group veer, much less over the open expanse of a great lake in summertime.

But of course reading the passage again–no same two ways through it twice–its emphasis on the veer, on turning, stand out. This, the sort of turn spotting that is more akin to following the turns taken by ancestors, those redirects inherited, a quietly encoded rule for monarchs next. So it’s a curious aside that extends turns–more than the multimodal turn, the archival turn, the digital turn, and so on–to that which is only remembered, ancient monuments, a mountain or a glacier. Turning, bending around figments; the butterflies know, but how would we regard such knowing? How would we judge it if we, too, were prone to such predictable and long-established path-following as this?