In the Service of Beauty

"We've all got our own little clovers with worlds on them!"
                                           ~ Heather, from Horton Hears a Who

The butterflies waking up 


Winter is here, our midwest Methuselah monarch butterflies are tucked in the oyamel firs of Mexico, and I'm reflecting on the first season of my wonder chasing. I met and interviewed such a diverse mix of folks-- artists, advocates, runners, teachers, retirees. Each on his or her own wonder chase everywhere from Canada's lake shores to the Rio Grande River Valley.I found people living lives of passion, in the service of beauty. Not only that of words and colors, parks and gardens, but the Grand Beauty of the planet. This big blue marble we inhabit is adorned with billions of amazing people making extraordinary efforts to protect, preserve, and celebrate it. 

In this post I want to introduce you to a few of the people whose commitment, creativity, and generosity inspire me. Some of these folks weren't even necessarily monarch advocates, but whose own passions intersected with mine along the way, such as Amy Buchs and Ellyse Frazier. One or two had monarch encounters alight upon them, as in Jessica Eperlding's and Jerry Younce's experiences.In my adventures of chasing wonder I’m finding so many lovely humans creating pollinator gardens and monarch waystations and are part of the whole of us watching out for all the tiny beautiful creatures in the world. That knowledge gives me joy.As Wendell Berry said, “The earth is what we all have in common.”

Retired teacher and talented muralist Amy Buchs and drafting teacher Dave Schlemmer are the artists painting the city of Auburn, Indiana’s mural project, which includes an amazing two-story monarch life cycle scene. Amy chatted with me on a sunny afternoon, as neighbors and friends stopped by to gaze up at the beautiful jade chrysalis she’d just finished.She and Dave are a good team, working quickly and changing things up easily as they talked through ideas. They had the mural completed by the time I came back from chasing wonder in Texas, and while I was taking pictures several people stopped to admire the beautiful work. 
The completed mural is stunning
Recently I took a friend to see the mural and again there were others posing for pictures between the wings of the human-sized monarch. I smiled to myself, wondering if Amy knows how many people are finding joy in this mural. I hope she does. Check out the mural and the entire project here: 

Artist Ellyse Frazier heard about the Monarch Ultra at the local farmers market where she sells her pen and ink and watercolor pieces. On a whim she decided to design a poster to help draw attention to the event. She presented copies of it to the runners at the Little Rock welcome event and the ultra team posted pictures of it on Facebook. It’s a beautiful poster and I wanted it. 
Photo of Carlotta James and Ellyse Frazier
from Monarch Ultra FB page
I reached out to her and before long I had my own copy, signed and now framed hanging where I see it every day. It reminds me of the big adventures I had with the Monarch Ultra team, and how a passion for natural beauty brought us all together. Ellyse’s talents are on display at

Heather Fyfe – A Facebook buddy in a monarch group, Heather posted a sweet hand painted sign in her butterfly canoe back in August. I sent a message to ask her the story behind it and she wrote back that her childhood was full of beautiful colorful birds and butterflies and she developed a fascination for nature. Over the years she noticed birds disappearing from the landscape and the river near her became polluted. By 2014 she assumed she’d seen her last monarch. But when she and her husband moved to a smaller property and began growing native flowers and milkweed the birds, butterflies, and bugs returned. 

Heather's canoe garden

“I ungarden, which basically means letting goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace run rampant.  The monarchs and birds thrive here.”Her intuitive garden style and welcoming signage attract lots of pollinators, including a caterpillar so inspired by her art that it climbed the sign and made its chrysalis just under the butterfly wing.
Art and nature teaming up in wonder

Krista Schlyer, author of Continental Divide and Almost Anywhere, came to Fort Wayne for the showing of her documentary Ay, Mariposa. The movie looks at the lives being affected by the border wall in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, including the National Butterfly Center and its inhabitants.In the discussion afterward Krista talked about the number of animals and insects that become displaced when physical borders are constructed, and she mentioned the red deer study done in the Czech Republic after the Berlin Wall came down. A biologist tagged and tracked deer for seven years during which time they continued to reroute through the woods rather than cross where the wall and electric fencing had been. The deer passed down a collective memory built as protection from electrocution. 

It makes me think about the butterflies in Mission, Texas, just a few wing flaps from Mexico, and how they may have to learn new routes and build a new collective memory to travel to their winter roost. 

Krista’s writing is gorgeous. I didn’t know that until after I met her. I bought her book Almost Anywhere and took it for her to sign that evening, and when she asked if I’d read it, I told her truthfully, not yet.I read it last month and repeatedly chastised myself for not having read it before I met her. It’s such a beautifully honest and raw story and she deserves to have people show up and sing its praises. 

Brava, Krista. Extraordinary. Get your soul stirred by her work here:

Milo Workman - The Hope of our Future
Milo and me

Milo, aspiring lepidopterist, also attended the film showing that evening. Adorned with beautiful blue eyes and a thoughtful smile Milo has a shy manner, which works in his favor as one must lean in and really listen when he speaks.

I met him at the Monarch Festival in September at Eagle Marsh where he had a table of items for sale to raise money in support of the monarchs. He said his passion for monarchs started around age four, so at nine he’s been advocating for them at least half his life. His entire family helped him at his booth that day, including little sister Nixie perched on her mom’s lap taking money for the t-shirts they sold.

Milo told me he started his Monarch Rescue Task Force while monitoring the butterflies as part of the Little River Wetlands Project, where he learned to tag and raise monarchs. He had a GoFundMe page selling monarch shirts and magnets to support the project.He likes to teach others about them and the ways in which we can all help protect them. He’s amazed by the fact that monarchs travel thousands of miles to Mexico, and he hopes to see them there someday.

During the Q and A at the film screening one of the ultra team members made a statement about how important it is for us to work harder now to save the environment, and that it’s unfair to lay it all at the feet of our youth. Milo’s arm rose and he gave a thumb’s up. This young man should be able to enjoy nature instead of worry about it.Milo’s face is what I conjure when I get stuck in the mire of heartache about the environment. It serves him not at all for me to cry. He, and all who will inherit this earth need us to get it right.

Jerry points out the remaining
monarchs high in the branches
Jerry Younce owns a farm in Wabash, Indiana, where for the first time since he bought the place in 1978 had a roost of monarchs show up in early September. This year for the first time he planted buckwheat-- too late for anything else, he said-- and he thinks that what drew them. He didn't seem at all surprised to see a woman pulling up the long driveway at 7am, peering skyward. Not a monarch follower, he still noticed when his maple tree filled with little folded wings, and he told a few friends and neighbors. Word got out, and people stopped by during the three weeks the butterflies were in residence.
At one point he had so many they started roosting in his Bradford pears near the road. He was kind of tickled that so many people were interested enough to venture out into rural Wabash just to have a look at the monarchs hanging around.  

Ron Divelbiss - A Summer 65 Years in the Making
Keeping tabs on his tags

I met Ron at Metea Park in Leo, Indiana, where he was tagging and releasing monarchs. He's an easygoing gentleman who's been working with the monarchs at the park for years. Ron trains volunteers to help with the tagging and this year had 27 participants, which is a good thing since he raised a total of 516 eggs and caterpillars, tagging and releasing 225. He keeps detailed notes for Monarch Watch, and even more notes for himself. He shared a story with me that he wrote about being 14 years old spending time with his grandmother in their summer kitchen observing caterpillars and butterflies.

I could feel that kid-like wonder in his words. It’s passion he continues to share with elementary students, park volunteers, and the little winged wonders he's loved for 65 years.  

Pre-dawn roost rest

Jessica Eperlding - In the Shadow of Wonder
She's a quiet woman with a generous heart, which might be why the monarchs came to her. Jessica discovered a roost on her property when she was mowing one day in August. The mower startled the butterflies, flushing a flap of orange wings overhead. She saw the shadow, and thinking it was a large bird, looked up into a sky full of magic. 

Before this summer Jessica didn't know much about monarchs. She'd never seen a roost and wasn't aware some butterflies do that on their migration from Canada to Mexico. She connected with Kylee Baumle, a local writer and photographer, and that's how I got to see my first roost. I arrived just before dawn on an early September morning to see Kylee standing under a cedar tree pointing her camera skyward.  As I moved closer I could see patches of beige, gray, and orange dotting the branches. The monarchs were resting, waiting for the sun's warmth, wings folded together. We spent the next couple of hours, and in fact the next few weeks gazing upward into the maple and apple and pine trees that lined Jessica's property. 

Our little team grew to include Lisa Conrad (both Lisa and Kylee come up in my next post) with each of us bringing those who would love the experience as much as we did, grandkids, parents, friends.Jessica's generosity of spirit gave a handful of us a gift greater than she could imagine. 

On one of my visits I asked her how it feels to wake up and remember this rare surprise was just outside her back door. She said it was very special to have her coffee with thousands of sleeping monarchs overhead In her soft voice she mused that she might get a little depressed when they left for good, but when I followed up with her weeks later she said that after a month of the butterflies being there she had begun to worry they might get stuck here as Indiana’s fickle weather could turn on them, and was a bit relieved they finally moved on with their journey. 

She shared the experience with friends and butterfly folks who heard about the roost, welcoming all of us to witness the stunning work of the natural world in her backyard, including a school in Ohio that took a field trip to marvel at the monarchs. 

To stand among so many butterflies, to see them shiver off the night and rise up in a flurry of orange is unforgettable. They can make you fall in love in the flap of a wing, after all. It seems Jessica, like so many of us, fell under the spell of the winged wonders.

“What was once ordinary is now extraordinary with the trees exploding with butterflies and seeing it all come alive on a daily basis, you get spoiled.”

I will always remember the experience at Jessica’s and am forever grateful for her kindness.      


Western Monarch Summit
Up next: This week is the Western Monarch Summit in Carmel, California, and I’ll be attending with two new monarch friends, Kylee Baumle and Lisa Conrad. Stay tuned! 

A Thanksgiving Mini Blog ~ Extra Cookies

My friend told me about her grandparents day experience in a voice filled with happy love that reminded me of this reading of Goodnight Moon.
She and her husband went to surprise their grandson who didn't know they were driving into town to see him.
He was sitting with two other kids whose grandfolks couldn't make it to school.

The three of them,

three little bears sitting on chairs

off at a table of their own, while all the other kids where nestled in against grandmas and grandpas. In a separate community.

My friends made a beeline to the island of missing grandparents. They took seats among the kids, settling in tiny chairs between them so each had a grandparent to talk to, to eat cookies with, to show their drawings to.

a cow jumping over the moon

They complimented the kids on their work, on their sweaters, scrunched down eye to eye with these little humans, grinning, asking questions, nodding encouragement. Sharing giggles as extra cookies  sneaked from big hands to little. Just like the absent grandmothers would've done.

Kindness borne of love. A community that has no geographic boundaries or occupancy limits. A door always open, though one has to high-knee step over the dozens of shoes abandoned  in a hurry to get to the couch or the chili or the hug.

noises everywhere

I huffed about the injustice of isolating those kids, but her tone didn't change.


she said, have an extra cookie.

Good Humans - The Last Monarch Ultra Post

My time chasing the Monarch Ultra team sped by but left me changed. Or, rather, changing. In the hour-long stretches of waiting for runners I observed how the team of four navigates, learning their high and low tides. During the hectic periods when they needed to get set up at safe stopping areas and plan for the next runners they talked more about the big picture of this race: the effort to build awareness and compassion for monarchs and natural space.
Then there were times we sat under a tree, stayed up past midnight, or drove for miles and I felt the tide rolling out, giving them space to pick through their thoughts as if picking up seashells. In these moments the details of their lives came out, lifting into three-dimensional illustrations of passion and wonder.
In this last blog on the Monarch Ultra race and team I hope you get a sense of how grateful I am to have shared some time with all of these good humans.

  Guenther Schubert, the trip chef, grew up in a small town in southern Germany, among forests and meadows. His voice is soft, his demeanor quiet, forcing me to find stillness and listen. He's the enlightenment to my sturm and drang.  

A retired culinary professor from George Brown College in Ontario, he continues to educate people through his environmental work in the community. For ten years he’s organized cleanups that bring school buses of children out to help clean the roadsides and parks, where they discover, directed by his gentle guidance, they are the owners of the earth. He tells them this is their nature to take care of, to advocate for, and to enjoy.

His lifelong advocacy for the planet seems to have been the pull that brought Carlotta into his orbit. She and film director, Rodney Fuentes, presented the Monarch Ultra project at his Rotary Club meeting, and though he and his wife were planning a trip to Europe this fall, the project appealed to him so much that he suggested to the team they might need a chef. 

Fast forward several dozen meals and Guenther has developed a rhythm to his on-the-road food prep. He hums while he makes scrambled eggs  and it occurred to me that I was watching another version of passion in action. The meals he makes for the Monarch Ultra team are simple but elegant. Lunches of portobello mushrooms and goat cheese, pumpkin and cabbage, with thick slices of  dark, wheat bread. Another meal was red cabbage slaw with julienned pears, toasted pumpkin seeds, currents, cranberries, shredded carrot, dressed with lemon and oil. You can tell when a meal is prepared with love. It's a language of happiness, filling the team with joy.

One evening in Texas we returned from an event around 10p.m. and Guenther made a beeline to the kitchen to create a large, lovely platter of snacks which he laid out for the always- noshy team. When I observed that a late night feast prepared with such consideration seems very nurturing he said simply, “I’m a caterer.”

He talked about the parties he's catered and others he's hosted at his home for friends and I couldn't tell a difference in his tone of voice. He truly appears to love what he does, and he's definitely adored by this team of traveling warriors. He's also a renaissance man: when he's not cheering runners as they arrive, he’s a driver, plumber, and other-maintenance-as-regularly-required guy. It’s obvious through their ease with each other that this group has become family, and Guenther its steadying force. 

Guenther's usually first with the high five.

Rodney with a new friend

Rodney Fuentes and I spent several hours traveling together, and I had the pleasure of listening to his stories become more animated as we fell into a cadence of camaraderie. The trip’s documentary filmmaker, he’s not only charged with filming footage of the runners and supporters, but he also takes care to capture the beauty of his surroundings. 

In Indiana I watched as he set up shots of the morning mist on Majenica Marsh, the honey-gold swath of a bean field in Marion, and the expanse of native flowers at Eagle Marsh. Once in a while I’d see him standing at his tripod, ready to catch a runner come into view. These small moments of stillness when he gazed at Indiana’s landscape made me smile. Busy as his mind must be with the responsibility of recording this adventure, it was nice to see him absorbing the Indiana landscape.

He told me he doesn’t run much anymore, saying fatherhood caught up to him. But in the days I shared with the team he spent a lot of time chasing runners with his camera. He’s a body in motion, it turns out. Paddling, cycling, and climbing his way through his world. He is also a world-class birder, leading tours of photographers and birdwatchers on adventures in Canada and Panama.

He, too, appears to have turned his passion into a career, which is why we were able to spend several hours wandering through the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas, each of us taking separate trails, finding different wonders.

The (art) wall at the National Butterfly Center

When asked about his reasons for joining the Monarch Ultra team he told me that he didn’t see the trip as one about monarchs or running.
“It’s about communities, our place on earth, what we do in our own back yards to help. And a better world for my children.” 

He says there’s a fine line in conservation as to how much humans should intervene. “In nature sometimes we go too far. We tend to think we know better than nature does.”
Rodney believes everything’s a learning experience. He’s driven by curiosity, to see how a thing works or what’s on the other side. He said we have to have curiosity to even start thinking about how to make things better.

Rodney says he’s known for his passions. “The outdoors, music and birds. It’s present in my brain all the time.”

Yep, he’s a musician, too. When he’s not out on trails or water, or filming or guiding a tour, he plays in a band called the X Pollinators. In the video I watched he plays three separate instruments.

After seeing his music video and watching some of the films he’s made I was even more in awe of these four who’ve pressed the hold button on such a large chunk of their personal lives to trek across three countries on behalf of this earth, our home.  Each of them tells a variation of a love story between humans and nature. A love that sustains them across the long miles in a story far from over.
On his website Rodney has a film he made called Joy. It is exactly that.

Clay Williams and I are more opposite than alike, his analytical drive is the engine of the race, and he has many binders of maps and daily logs he notates. Meanwhile my artistic inner guide spends ten minutes trying to take a picture of a spider doing nothing. When I asked him if this adventure was about a passion for him, he thoughtfully replied that he wasn’t sure he knew what passion is.

Studying the next route

My free association brain puzzled over this. How does one not know what passion is? I called a friend and described how Clay meticulously created maps for this race, kept logs on each runner, and kept an eye on plans for the next stop, the next overnight, every next move. He organized and participates in races to fund services for those with mental health issues. How could all of this not be passion?

My friend didn’t hesitate to reply. “Maybe it is passion, just in a different language.”

I said as much to Clay and he agreed. We share a commitment to caring for nature which he exhibits through creating races and bringing people into that community. He also advocates for folks with mental health issues, to make sure they know they’re not alone.

He said he likes the idea of looking back in five years and saying he was part of this—this one international relay, this environmental protection project that happened across three countries. To be able to say, “That one time I did this, and it was amazing.”

Presenting in Pharr, Texas
The first time I interviewed Clay I asked him what he imagines the best result of this project will be. His answer was individual citizen action.
“To be voices in elections, in purchasing day to day, and even one person can plant milkweed. And lucky would be to be able to talk to legislative members to make real, local change.”
Now it seems that the Monarch Ultra team’s work is paying off. Earlier this month Carlotta and Rodney, along with other concerned citizens, presented to the San Antonio City Council in support of the proposed Climate Action and Adaptation Plan. The Council then voted to adopt the plan. Carlotta received an email from Mayor Ron Nirenberg who said the presentation had a big impact,and that in turn has motivated Carlotta to search out additional opportunities to speak at more council meetings to be a voice for the environment.

“Doing this now gives us the foresight and confidence to reach further in two years”, she said. “Media, school presentations, city or county meetings—policy change at the local level is crucial. The fire has just started.”

Soul sisters

Carlotta James is a kindred spirit of mine.  She’s comfortable, enthusiastic, adventurous, and will have a lively debate with me about the best way to pee outside if you're female. She’s a mom, like me, and on the day we met I took a picture of her seeing her son for the first time in a week. The blissful expressions they both had gave me joy.  She wakes up happy, hugs with abandon, and dwells in the same house of wonder and love as I do.

Throughout our conversations Carlotta’s reverence for nature was always present. She grew up in Central America and the jungles of Honduras were a second home for her. As an adult she co-founded an eco-landscaping enterprise focused on rewilding urban areas to support pollinators. 

This adventure is certainly a passion project for her, but over the course of time I recognized that she is embracing her character. The call to nature is inscribed on her soul, and this is an instinctive response, a natural urge to protect what she loves. She has a vision of a cross-continent Monarch Trail on which people can run, walk, bike, ski and horseback ride along the migration route from Canada to Mexico. When she describes it her voice itself is an act of faith. 

Reviewing her race path

Grounded in the sacredness of the earth and how humans connect with nature, Carlotta feels especially blessed to have had Dorothy Taylor, an Elder in the Anishinaabe First Nations, participate at the opening ceremony for the Monarch Ultra. The Anishinaabeg are a group of indigenous people throughout Canada and the United States whose values are deeply entrenched in nature and the protection of the earth. Dorothy said a prayer for the team, smudged them, and sang a song about the butterflies, all of which set the tone for the trip, Carlotta told me. Protection for the protectors.

One translation of Anishinaabe (Anishinaabeg) refers to the good humans, meaning those who are on the right road or path given to them by the Creator Gitche Manitou, or Great Spirit. The Monarch Ultra team, Carlotta, Clay, Rodney, and Guenther, welcomed me into their RV and their lives on this adventure. They shared this experience with hundreds of kids and adults, every day, with kindness and truth and love. On the path, on the road, up the mountain. Good humans, indeed.

Clay, Guenther, Carlotta, Holly, and Rodney

Here are some other examples of how this incredible team’s journey across three countries is connecting communities and nature:

Queen butterflies at the NBC

In the Service of Beauty

"We've all got our own little clovers with worlds on them!"                                        ...