Oaxaca Journal V.6

By Dart Admin    Tuesday March 6, 2007

Before the idea of becoming an artist was even a scribble in my mind, I was determined to become an entomologist, or "bugger", as I declared to a friend of my parents, who worked at the Museum of Natural History. The study of insects, especially butterflies, was my first love. Almost as soon as I became enthralled, I heard about a seemingly mythical place where Monarch butterflies migrated annually. To get there the fragile Monarchs travel over two thousand miles from Canada across the United States to reach a remote forest in the mountains of the Mexican state of Michoacan.

A visit to this hallowed ground had been buried on my "must do" list for so long I'd forgotten I'd made myself the promise.

monarchface.jpgFast-forward forty years and here I am in living in Oaxaca, Mexico, within driving distance from the Monarch's habitat. Better still, my ten-year-old daughter has inherited the "bugger" gene and is studying the Monarch's life cycle for a class project. As part of her project, we collected the butterfly's eggs from a local patch of milkweed, got a terrarium and watched as larvae hatched, fed, transformed and within a few short weeks, emerged in their orange splendor. To complete her project, we planned a visit to Michoacan, a 12-hour drive from Oaxaca. Though it's a long trip and we had to negotiate pot-holed roads, unmarked obstructions and a snare of Mexico City traffic, it was nothing compared to the trek the Monarchs endure each year to reach their mating ground. Illustration, left: A tourist visits the Monarch sanctuary.

So why do these butterflies punish themselves this way to reach this particular forest for sex with a stranger who will promptly die? Or a better question might be: how on earth does the next generation know exactly where to fly to find this unique mountain forest thousands of miles from where they hatch? The answer is quite simple, as the lepidopterists that have studied the Monarchs patterns for decades can attest. They have no f-ing idea! It could be some internal compass, it could actually be the smell of their fallen brothers and sisters, or it could be guidance from UFO's! Whatever it is that draws them to these particular forests, it works like a magnet and the sight of millions, literally MILLIONS of them is beyond comprehension.

Almost any description will sound like a cliché, but let me give it a whirl.

There are several different sanctuaries that have been more or less preserved for the butterfly's annual arrival. The biggest, El Rosario, is our first stop. It has been made easily accessible with a cement staircase leading up through the forest, but it is still a struggle because the altitude is high enough to leave you short of breath as you ascend.

From the moment you park, you notice butterflies flitting about. But further along, the trickle becomes a stream and then rather suddenly, a flurry of flapping orange wings. What at first appears to be autumn leaves filling the Oyamel pines reveals itself to be huge clusters of Monarchs hanging from trees in such numbers as to make the branches sag. monarchsign.jpgPeriodically they will flutter off the trees and rise through the air like sparks from a fire. Moving in and out of the sunlight, their wings flash and dance like light reflected on the ocean. They fill every gap of blue sky between pines, and when you look down at the ground, their shadows race past your feet as though you were standing in a raging river. The photos I took could not compare to the experience either. They froze the dense activity without a sense of scale, and the rush of color was reduced to orange specks, like dirt on my lens, so I took the opportunity to sketch the endless procession of beauty as fast as my colored pencils would move. Illustration, left: Sanctuary sign: "Do Not Touch the Butterflies"

On the second day we visited the Sierra Chincua forest, a much more natural setting, with a much more arduous hike in. There was so much activity that you could hear the flap of wings that regularly brushed past your face. Admittedly, had this been anything other than butterflies-say locust or flying monkeys-we would have run screaming in all directions!

After hours of hiking and drop-jawed staring, we headed back up the rocky path. Happily, some entrepreneurial locals awaited exhausted tourists and for $7.50 we galumphed our way to our car on horseback. Delirious from the experience and from countless hours of driving, we returned home to Oaxaca. Illustration, below: My vain attempt to capture the scene... All illustrations © Peter Kuper 2007, courtesy of the artist.


This is the sixth installment of a regular communiqué from Peter Kuper, a cartoonist and illustrator whose work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines.

Peter's coming-of- middle-age graphic novel, Stop Forgetting To Remember will be published by Crown Books this July and in the fall, Watson-Guptill will publish a collection of his first decade of Spy vs Spy strips for Mad.