Letter From Ellen Sharp: A Reminder From the Butterflies

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


Published: 11/25/2020

Dear Butterfly People,

I don’t have any Thanksgiving plans and I’m having some pangs about it. Of course, where I live, the last Thursday of November is just a day that falls between the Mexican Revolution on November 20th and the Virgin of Guadalupe’s birthday on December 12th. No matter: ever since I’ve moved to rural Mexico, I’ve used Thanksgiving Day as an excuse to celebrate the reopening of the butterfly sanctuaries and our first influx of guests by hosting a free-range turkey feast simmered in my mother-in-law’s signature red mole sauce.

But this season there are no butterfly tourists, no gatherings, and no Thanksgiving at our place. Fortunately, the butterflies are here to remind me that we are still connected despite these disruptions.

On Friday, Butterflies & Their People forest guardian Francisco Moreno was checking in on Cerro Pelon’s second monarch colony above El Llano de Tres Gobernadores when he caught sight of a tiny white circle stuck to a bright green leaf in the forests’ understory. He’d just encountered the first monarch butterfly tag of the season in Mexico.

Monarch Watch sold the tag with serial number ABUL 048 to the Hormel Nature Center in Austin, Minnesota, where on August 28, a child in a monarch tagging class pressed this dot to the hindwing of a wild male monarch and released him onto a flower-filled prairie. In the intervening 85 days, this butterfly flew 2,016 miles south before shedding the sticker that would brighten Francisco’s work break.

Francisco has been working as a forest guardian for three years now, and these tags, which Monarch Watch conservation specialists buy back from their finders for 100 MXN each ($5 USD), are a nice supplement. Francisco says that in the past he’s used this cash to buy presents for his daughters and hay for his horse. He looked excited about the possibilities in a photo I took of him last March, which shows him beaming over a matchbook filled with a season’s worth of finds.

Apart from relishing this token of connection, I’ve been comforting myself this week by remembering what happened the last time I skipped celebrating this quintessentially American holiday. Nine years ago, I was slogging through a PhD when I took a break to join a friend who’s a food writer on a business trip to Mexico. She was off interviewing cookbook writer Diana Kennedy outside of Zitácuaro, and I was feeling restless hanging out by myself at our hotel. Although I knew absolutely nothing about the monarch migration, I booked a butterfly tour.

It turned out to be a fateful decision. I fell in love that day, both with the spectacle of millions of monarchs and with the man who took me to see them. A lot has happened since I joined forces with my former guide, Joel Moreno, including my relocation to live in his tiny hometown at the entry of the Cerro Pelon Sanctuary, the rapid-fire growth of our ecotourism business, JM Butterfly B&B, and the launching of the non-profit that now employs Francisco and five other members of Cerro Pelon communities in the full-time protection of the monarchs’ overwintering habitat. Add to this list our pivot to virtual butterfly experiences this season in order to support these projects…

While I’m thankful, I’m still feeling a bit wistful as we stand on the brink of this attenuated holiday season. And so I’d like to conclude with a virtual toast: To our invisible connections, like the line drawn from a kid playing on a prairie in Minnesota to a father at work in a boreal forest in Mexico. Here’s hoping that the creator of this connection, the butterfly formerly known as ABUL 048, has slipped away and joined the mass of monarch sociality that carries on, pandemic or no.

Saludos desde Macheros,


Ellen Sharp is the co-owner of JM Butterfly B&B, located at the Macheros entry of the Cerro Pelon Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary. She is also the co-founder of Butterflies & Their People, a forest conservation non-profit that employs six guardians in the Cerro Pelon Sanctuary. Sharp holds a PhD in cultural anthropology from UCLA. More of her writing is available at ellensharp.com