I Saw a Really Amazing, Terrible Butterfly Documentary

A Monarch Butterfly

I’ve watched many a documentary on Netflix, and while I tend to be a sentimental person overall, I don’t particularly like total cheeseball films. That is, unless I’m laughing at them. But even in those moments, I just chuckle a bit, close our eyes, and make a different selection.

But I watched a total cheeseball film in its entirety. I cannot overstate how exceedingly goofy it was in its presentation, but I watched all of it because it told an incredible story about dedicated scientists and innumerable monarch butterflies.

Flight of the Butterflies documents the lives of Fred and Nora Urquhart who spent 38 years working to discover the full migration patterns of monarch butterflies. From 1937 to 1975, they combined small-scale, detailed tracking with a large-scale movement of their own creation. They used self-adhesive stickers to tag the wings of individual monarch butterflies and recruited hundreds of citizen scientists to tag and record their sightings also. The Urquharts wanted to learn where these butterflies traveled over time, and many people in the U.S. joined them in these efforts.

Collectively, they all discovered several distinct migration routes, and for a long while, the Urquharts assumed that the butterflies converged somewhere in Texas. They took trips to Texas where they searched to no avail. Eventually, they began to wonder if Mexico was the destination.

In 1975, that became clearer. Kenneth Brugger and Catalina Trail, associates of the Urquharts, hiked to the winter sanctuary of monarch butterflies. This sanctuary exists on a mountain in Michoacán, Mexico. Mexicans had known about this location for years, but they did not know how far the butterflies had traveled. Adding their knowledge together, the migration patterns became known.[1]

When Brugger and Trail arrived in this location, they were stunned at what they saw. Somewhere between 60 million and 1 billion butterflies. . . on one particular mountain. At any time, this would be an incredible sight to see. But this discovery was additionally long awaited; it was long-hoped and long-dreamed.

In the next year, the Uruqharts traveled to the mountaintop and saw this incredible sight with their own eyes. I can hardly imagine what a culmination experience that would be. Day by day on the small-scale, they worked for an unseen conclusion that was decades in the making. Now they were seeing this massive winter sanctuary with their own eyes, knowing that along with others, their work had helped to map the full migration patterns of these butterflies .

It makes me wonder, do we carry any large-scale hopes? Are we captivated so deeply by anything that we would live and work in its direction daily for decades, even if we never saw the end result? Are will willing to work collectively with others? Will our lives have greater meaning if there is an ultimate goal or purpose before them?

Renee Roederer

[1] Though Mexicans knew about this incredible location, they were dismissed in the reporting on these events. For forty years, people have used language to say that Brugger, Trail, and the Urquharts “discovered” where these butterflies go. They certainly went on a journey to learn for themselves, and I admire that journey. But they could not have done so without the local citizens.

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