If We Build It, Will They Come?

A few summers ago, I signed up for a workshop offered by the Monarch Teacher Network of Canada. The registration fee was being subsidized by my school board, and I figured, why not? It ended up being one of my favourite professional development workshops and has had a profound impact on my teaching.

Since then, my students have delved deeply into inquiry projects about monarchs. We observe them, read about them, draw them, map them, tag them, plant habitats for them, make films about them — this year, I even called my class the “monarchs”! (It was a great non-gendered alternative to “boys and girls”, as well as a beautiful metaphor for the learning journeys students make each year, but that’s a post for another time.) In my application to become a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, I wrote and reflected upon how studying monarchs can build geographic literacy.

So with that in mind, you should know that I am a bit of a monarch butterfly nerd. When we’re driving, I point out patches of milkweed on the side of the road. If we’re in a park and someone says, “Hey, is that a monarch butterfly?”, I can happily answer them (and even annoyingly tell them, “No, that’s a painted lady/tiger swallowtail/red admiral/etc.”).

Knowing that the migration this year was likely to be late, I didn’t begin searching in earnest for #monarchwatch until school let out. I live in an urban neighbourhood full of people who must love monarchs, because we have quite a few milkweed patches along our street. Each time I walked to the subway station or the pool or the grocery store, you could see me peering under the leaves of the milkweed plants. My eyes were peeled for specks of orange against the sky. But despite my searching, all of the milkweed leaves I saw remained un-nibbled, and I quietly cursed all the fluttering painted ladies that caught my eye. I longed for summers past when my neighbourhood felt like a big monarch hotel.

Then this came across my social media feeds:

I was so relieved that I wasn’t the only one; I had been seriously doubting my monarch nerd skills! But of course, with that relief came more worry. If we weren’t seeing any evidence of a population increase after record lows, were our collective efforts at restoring breeding habitat all for naught?

At the same time, I was in the midst of reading Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem (a totally worthwhile book you should read or at least listen to). Mooallem writes about shifting baselines syndrome (also called environmental generational amnesia), a phenomenon in which each new generation considers the current level of biodiversity to be normal. It occurred to me that as I was teaching my students all about monarchs, the only world they knew was one in which the butterfly was a species at risk. They were planting a pollinator garden to “help the monarchs”, but no butterflies were coming to it. To them, record low populations were status quo, and they were participating in conservation work for a species that they may never see flourish without significant, sustained human intervention. Was teaching my students about monarchs helping them become young environmental stewards, or contributing towards their shifting baseline? Obviously, I was having my doubts.

With all of this in the back of my mind, I was whisked away from monarch country on a family vacation. Two weeks later I returned, jet lagged but rejuvenated.

The very next day I showed up to volunteer for the first time at a Monarch Teachers workshop, and what I saw restored my hope. The other volunteer teachers, most of whom don’t live in the city, had brought in what felt like a plethora of eggs, caterpillars, chrysalids, and butterflies (all while staying within the regulations of our Ministry of Natural Resources permit, I assure you). We watched the caterpillars do the pupa dance, and tagged and released more than 15 adult butterflies. I thought back to my workshop in 2013, when the same volunteers had only been able to find a few specimens for our workshop, and I realized how tangibly the population has grown since that low. Even if I’m not seeing it firsthand, it is rebounding, slowly but surely.

More than that, I met 13 other motivated educators who were eager to learn how to bring monarch education into their learning spaces, and were inspired by the work I’ve done with my students. I reconnected with other educators who also have inspiring stories about how monarchs have changed their teaching. I learned from two inspiring educators at the Toronto Zoo’s Turtle Island Conservation program, who taught us about how monarch teaching can connect with Indigenous education. These little insects are such a powerful and captivating teaching tool, I tell you.

It may be that with smaller overall populations, our part of the country may be seeing less and less of monarchs over time. This seems to be the case in Mexico, where overwintering sites are growing to help with preservation, but the butterflies are congregating in fewer of these sanctuaries. Interestingly, the Midwest seems to be having a relatively strong population year, which is precisely where a new butterfly highway will be growing to provide greater breeding habitat.

It remains to be seen whether pushes like #gotmilkweed will bring back the monarchs to Toronto or Ontario in ways that we hope; perhaps our local citizen science efforts won’t have much of an effect, and migration patterns will cluster more along the north-south route from Texas to Minnesota. (But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying, as having less geographically diverse habitats puts species at greater risk from events like droughts, storms, and disease.)

Whatever the end result, volunteering with the Monarch Teacher Network this weekend has reminded me to see both the forest and the trees. Yes, we still have much work to do to (hopefully) bring monarchs back to this region. Yes, there is reason for hope on a larger scale. And yes, I still think it is worthwhile to have students young and old learn about this amazing creature, participate in environmental activism projects, and learn that our efforts may not have an immediate effect but can still make a difference in the long term.

With renewed optimism, I did some gardening this week.

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