Finding Aztec Gold: Four Minnesota women discover the message of the monarchs


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    The butterflies beckoned and we were ready. We had been anticipating this day for more than a year. The four of us, all "prime time" women from Minnesota, had each recently faced and survived a major setback in our lives, and we were eager to break free from our cocoons of crisis and begin our journey to Mexico in search of the migrating monarch butterflies.

    The Mariposa Monarca Butterfly Sanctuary, consisting of five separate areas, is nestled in the eastern region of Michoacan. As we drove to the sanctuary, our guide Manuel explained that monarch butterflies start their yearly cycle in the spring as a tiny fertilized egg laid on the underside of a leaf of a milkweed plant somewhere in the southern part of the United States. The resulting butterfly continues north, mating and laying more eggs on milkweed plants, and then dies. This cycle continues throughout the summer for three or four generations, reaching as far north as Canada. The final generation lives the longest. Before winter sets in, it has the difficult job of migrating all the way to Mexico, surviving over the winter and mating to once again start north in the spring. During the migration the amazing monarch butterfly travels through the United States, from Mexico to Canada, connecting cultures and connecting the continent.

    Once we reached Angangueo, we kept climbing through cobblestone streets that were so narrow we could almost touch the buildings on either side out the windows of our van. When we reached the sign for the entrance, we found there was actually no road at all, but a very well worn, rocky, rutted path through a field into the forest. We carefully advanced the van through the trees until we came to the base of the mountain.

    Now we could only continue on foot or on horseback. We picked out our horses, and were led up the mountain by an Indian on foot, like a child being led around a pony ring.

    When we reached a large clearing at the top, we left the horses and were then led an additional mile on foot down the other side of the mountain. The horses were left behind, because they create so much noise and dust that it is disturbing to the butterflies. Walking down the mountainside was easy enough, but we kept wondering when we would see the butterflies. We were carried along by our curiosity.

    Then we saw them. First, there were only one or two circling above our heads. As we walked further, more began to gather, until there were many groups of a dozen or more following us. Then suddenly, there they were, millions of monarchs. The sight was so much more than any of us had ever imagined. The quiet sound of millions of fluttering wings was surely God whispering to us.

    As we approached, we were asked to remain silent and keep still in respect to our soaring friends. The native Oyamel fir trees are home to the migrating monarchs with thousands clinging to each tree. Our lasting visual impression was of a forest in the fall with trees covered in colorful leaves, but here the "leaves" didn’t fall. When they are warmed enough by the sun, they flutter gracefully to the sky, forming an awesome golden orange cloud.

    We sat silently on fallen logs for over an hour in this natural cathedral. The butterflies playfully landed on our hair and clothing, and by landing on our cheeks and fluttering their fabulous wings, they covered each of us with many sweet butterfly kisses.

    We wanted to stay forever, but eventually it was time to move on. We took with us a new sense of inspiration, wisdom and respect for the struggles that these beautiful butterflies endured.

    The lesson of the monarchs was all around us, breathtakingly evident in the insect’s four stages of growth. The first stage is the egg (infancy), which quickly hatches into a tiny caterpillar (childhood). The caterpillar constantly eats and sheds its skin several times until it has doubled its size many times over, eventually turning into a cocoon or chrysalis (adulthood). This hardened case protects the developing butterfly. The metamorphosis is complete with the fourth stage, when the delicate butterfly breaks free from the hardened cocoon and soars into the world (wise elderhood).

    It is a very difficult job for the butterfly to break out of the cocoon, but if any help is given, it will die. The butterfly needs the struggle to fully develop. Humans also need struggle in their lives in order to grow. A life without struggle is like a muscle that is not exercised. The struggle is what makes us strong. Without the struggle, we are not growing and learning and are simply counting time until we die. Like the butterfly, as wise elders, we each need to break free to finally test our wings.

    The monarchs taught us that everyone on earth has a special God-given gift or purpose, a reason for being. Our years after 50 are God’s special gift of gold, our golden years, a time to pursue our true talents and passions – and give the result away.

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