When Real and Fictional Monarchs Meet

Last week I had one of those weird book moments, where it feels like the author was writing just for you.

No, it wasn’t Judy Blume teaching me about growing up or Shakespeare wrapping me in romance. It was Barbara Kingsolver, and she stuck to science.

I’m halfway through Kingsolver’s latest book, Flight Behavior, about a woman who discovers monarch butterflies wintering in Appalachia instead of Mexico. A friend handed it to me days before I overheard that naturalists at Crossroads at Big Creek had seen just four monarch butterflies this year instead of hundreds.

Flight Behavior is set in a small town in Appalachia that becomes home to a scientific anomaly when a woman discovers clusters of monarchs covering trees on her family’s property. Soon scientists, reporters and curious onlookers show up on her front door hoping to see what’s going on, and what’s considered a miracle to people in town is an environmental disaster to outside scientists.

The author, Barbara Kingsolver, teaches the readers about the threats to monarch butterflies throughout the story – she uses fiction to teach fact. The insects are losing habitat to deforestation along their migration routes, have to search farther for milkweed (the only plant on which females lay their eggs) because herbicide use kills the plant, and are relocating because of a warming climate.

Those are exactly the reasons Julie Hein-Frank pointed to when telling me about the extremely low monarch population that made it to Door County this year.

There’s an even more direct connection between the two stories. Dr. Ovid Byron, the fictional ecologist in Flight Behavior, is modeled after the true-life scientist Dr. Lincoln Brower, a regular speaker at Newport State Park and Crossroads at Big Creek.

“Barbara spent tons of time with Lincoln and his wife at their lab,” Hein-Frank said. “Now when you get the [book] you’ll get the whole perspective. In her book she’s saying the monarch migration, due to climate change primarily, is shifted to Appalachia. Which, you think ‘oh, ha, ha.’ Well, maybe not.”

While using her characters to break down the science behind monarch migration and climate change, Kingsolver also takes some jabs at climate deniers, environmental activists and reporters (ouch).

I’ve still got some pages to go, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the monarchs fare in Flight Behavior and in Door County.

Click here to read Canary in a Cornfield; Monarch Populations at Record Low>>