Letter From Ellen Sharp: The Solace of Butterflies

Reporting from: Macheros, Ejido El Capulin, State of Mexico


Published: 02/03/2021

Dear Butterfly People,

On his day off, Ranger Pato was checking on a plot of land his father-in-law owns in Macheros when he heard a commotion next door. “Please help, he’s really bad off,” a neighbor called to him. Half hidden by his panicked mother and grandmother, Pato could just make out the limp form of a 13-year-old boy. Pato’s heart lurched—he wanted to help, it’s what neighbors do. But he didn’t want to spend a half hour in his car driving people who might have Covid-19 to the nearest doctor. Just then, another neighbor rolled by in a pick-up truck, and the desperate family loaded themselves into its bed and sped away. 

Later Pato heard later that the boy was declared dead on arrival at the clinic down the road in San Juan Xoconusco. He thinks he was already dead when he saw him.

People say it wasn’t the virus that killed the boy, but rather a congenital heart defect. But I suspect that a Covid infection could have played a role in turning this preexisting condition deadly. His death occurred the same week that we heard about illness and death in El Rincon, a neighboring village, and when rumors of illness among other neighbors in Macheros reached our ears. The deceased youth’s family is now in quarantine.

Local authorities closed Cerro Pelón sanctuary this season to protect us from contagion from outsiders, but it has arrived anyway, brought in by community members themselves. People who thought that the pandemic was a hoax are finally taking it seriously, wearing masks and keeping their distance.

Because Pato has been filming videos with the Butterflies & Their People forest guardians for our virtual butterfly tour series, we’ve inadvertently documented this evolution in thinking. At the beginning of the season, the guardians continued to greet each other every morning with lingering handshakes. 

“Yikes, what are they doing!” I exclaimed as I reviewed the footage.

“I know, I know, I explained, but they just don’t understand,” Pato sighed.

Now the videos show the guardians and rangers greeting each other with fleeting fist bumps. Finally, they’re wearing their masks and standing back when strangers arrive to see the butterflies, as they still do despite the closure. At home, one of my sisters-in-law has started to tie up our free-roaming outdoor dogs, causing them to whine piteously, because she doesn’t want them hanging out in the street anymore. People are finally afraid.

At first, I’d been frustrated by the decision to close Cerro Pelón, because I thought outdoor activities were something we could have done safely. But now I feel immensely relieved not to be hosting during this time. People are continuing to travel to Mexico, where there are no travel restrictions, but I’d rather not host these folks who think that galivanting about the country with the fourth highest Covid death rate in the world is a good idea. 

Thank goodness we still have the solace of butterflies. Temperatures are finally warming on the mountain, and although they have not significantly relocated their roost above El Llano, as of January 30th they have started to fly out from it every day. They fill the ravine below El Llano like a river, rushing down to nectar on the fresh blooms that fill Cerro Pelon’s foothills. Seeing butterflies no longer requires a two-hour hike or an hour and a half on horseback up steep and rocky switchbacks. Instead, a 40-minute stroll along former railroad tracks takes you to the end of the ravine called La Cañada, where the butterflies sally forth, bright orange wings backlit by clear blue sky. 

There’s so much misunderstanding evident in the online chatter about the empty overwintering grounds in California this season—oh don’t worry, there are still monarchs in people’s gardens, the monarch butterfly won’t go extinct, commentators tell me. I try to explain that monarch butterflies as a species are not in danger of extinction, but their migratory behavior is. 

And then I want to explain why it matters, how we as a species need to stand in the middle of a flutter of thousands of butterflies, feeling the clap of their wings like a vibration that has the power to banish thoughts of dead children and poor to non-existent medical care and why are there no vaccines available in Mexico yet, as you give yourself over to something timeless and beautiful that transcends any and all difficulties, if just for a moment. 

Saludos desde Macheros,