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  • Mj Pettengill

Time to Set It Free


Monarch Butterfly, Mj Pettengill
Monarch Butterfly, Mj Pettengill

When it comes to wildness, I follow a specific code. Don’t interfere. It’s a simple, universal set of principles, nothing out of the ordinary. However, if you have been paying attention, we humans are hopeless meddlers. Of course, many actions that involve tampering with the environment come from a good place of authenticity and positive intentions.

I spend a great deal of time in the wild and have faced situations where I decide whether or not to intervene. It’s like watching a nature program and rooting for the rabbit fleeing from a bobcat. I secretly wish the filming crew would stop and bail out these creatures on the edge of disaster. We know it won’t happen, so we pull the blanket over our eyes and peek. Sometimes, there is a happy ending for the prey, but the predator is out of luck. Again, it is best to remain on the observer’s perch.

Last year, I was pleased when a pair of cardinals built a nest outside my window. It was in a lilac bush that offered a perfect view of the parents feeding their chick. I enjoyed witnessing the pair sharing responsibility for their baby and eventually taking it to the feeding station with them to learn the ways of the outer world. I am a forage feeder. I provide food for my neighbors on the ground, upon stumps, and in similar places so they can forage. It also deters the bears. I used to drag feeders indoors and return them outside daily to keep the bears from getting involved. That was my way of not going too far via temptation for the bears (and others), maintaining safety for us all. This does not come without challenges, as the bear chose to dig up the lawn in search of grubs. So, I was at the window watching the baby cardinal when a hawk dove into the lilac tree, squawking and flapping its wings right at the nest site. I rapped on the window and raced outside to shout at it. It flew to a tree branch beside my studio, looking down at me. There was a community of various birds sounding the alarm. In my stern mother voice, I said, leave the cardinal alone.


The hawk listened and then flew away. When my heartbeat returned to normal, I realized I had reacted, breaking the rules of nature’s etiquette. Yes, it can be rough. Had the hawk got the baby cardinal, I would have been upset. But it’s not about me. She was possibly going to bring dinner home to her hungry babies. The thoughts swirled and twirled about my head. Finally, I permitted myself to accept what I had done and carry on.


I have been concerned about the welfare of Monarch butterflies for a long time. I cultivate two large patches of milkweed, collect seeds to hand out to those who want them and monitor the action. I had the blues a few years ago because I did not see a single Monarch butterfly. As a wildcraft practitioner and organic farmer, this land is abundant with pollinator plants. It is an official way station. As far as the Monarchs, this was an exceptional year. I kept an eye on the many caterpillars that covered the milkweed. The next step was observing many chrysalises in the vicinity. I did little things like sprinkling coffee grounds around the base of the milkweed to deter ants, a common predator. However, for the most part, I did not interfere.


That changed a few weeks ago when I was apple-picking. It was a sunny Friday afternoon, and there were few people at the orchard. I cannot walk anywhere in the wild without scanning the earth for nature’s merries. I saw a great deal of milkweed scattered about in the orchard. I noticed a chrysalis dangling from a tall piece of grass in the middle of a footpath between rows of trees.


I admired this chrysalis—its golden jeweled specks—as it hung boldly in this place that would be busy with many gleeful apple pickers over the weekend. I imagined little feet running through the field, unknowingly trampling the chrysalis. I decided to act. I carefully broke the blade of grass at the base, gathered a few nearby sticks from the ground, and made a safe place for it. When I got home, I found a large glass jar. I created a secure and appropriate environment for it until its time of emergence. It has been sitting on the corner of my desk. A few days after this, the crew painting the house found a chrysalis that had to be removed. I carefully built another hanging place using sticks, stems, and dental floss.


I have been concerned about the colder temperatures, hoping that it is not an obstacle for them to get the nectar and energy necessary to make their journey. The clock is ticking as the thermometer drops.

This morning, the chrysalis that the painters gave me had emerged. It was so exciting to see it hanging there with its gorgeous colors. Butterflies are quite symbolic, going through their metamorphosis. We, too, have been in a chrysalis, returning to our safe places, awaiting the time when it is right to emerge beautifully into the world. This hope and faith will guide us through these complex times.


It’s about trust—self-trust. We must wait until the time is right, not too soon or too late, to break out of the chrysalis, take our time drying off our wings, and then fly away to where we are intended to be. Free.


I wish it were warmer and that these creatures were not in harm’s way, so I was not inclined to break the rules that I believe to be essential. I am aware that many raise cats and butterflies. That’s okay for them; I’m not the butterfly police. When my children were little, we raised Swallowtail chrysalises. It was easier because of the timing. Their cycles are earlier in the season, hence warmer temperatures.


I may have prolonged these Monarchs’ lives, or there may have been a way for them to survive in perilous conditions. They could have been food for another being. I will never know. I am grateful that one hatched, and I’m observing it. I will release it into a patch of Phlox and New England Asters when it flaps its wings consistently. I have added fresh blossoms to their holding place and will keep an eye on the other. There are lessons in everything if we choose to acknowledge them. At first, they might not be obvious, but don’t give up. This is amazing to witness for me, but if this happens again, I may move them to a better place outdoors and let nature take its course. Then again…time will tell.