The Many Layers of Highland’s Butterfly Garden
There’s more to Highland’s new monarch butterfly garden than a lovely display of native plants and flitting butterflies. Intended in both design and execution as an essential way station for migrating monarch butterflies struggling to find food, the garden is the culmination of months of work by Lower School students, faculty, and parents. But it doesn’t just meet the needs of the insects – it meets the needs and interests of the students and teachers as well.
“Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” - Nathaniel Hawthorne, American Novelist
For centuries, the mysterious butterfly has appeared throughout literature, world culture and religion, and has been falsely viewed as fragile and fleeting. In reality, the monarch butterfly is pretty tough and has endured despite threats to its environment and only food source…until now. Things are changing; the regal monarch’s future is in jeopardy.
Last year's first-graders took butterflies under their wings
When Highland’s first graders learned that the monarchs’ numbers were historically low, they decided they must help the plight of these magical creatures, who do more than pollinate flowers and flit around looking breathtakingly beautiful. The students became enamored. Even though butterflies live from merely weeks to a few months, their lives are fascinating and packed full of activity. Fourth generation monarchs overwinter in Mexico and that’s a long way to fly for individuals who undergo their transformation in Virginia! No wonder our curious students were propelled into action.
From pupae to release, butterflies inspire questions
For the past ten years, the Lower School’s Mary Chrisinger has shared milkweed laden with monarch caterpillars with students. Early last fall, Mrs. Solms’ students watched monarch pupae metamorphose into butterflies, prompting many questions about their insect friends’ lives, safety and migration. A trip to the Lower School library to see Mrs. Banse answered many of their questions about the life cycle and migration of the seemingly fragile souls, but prompted more queries. Realization set in and the children quickly made a list of what they needed to do to help save this species.
Preoccupation with butterflies is not unusual
Preoccupation with the butterfly is not unusual. Butterfly lore indicates many cultures throughout the world regard the amazing insect to be a symbol for the human soul and have thought that way since ancient times. Aristotle referred to the butterfly as ‘psyche’ and many writings have them conveying spiritual messages, as well as in artwork where souls frequently are painted with butterfly wings. It is the butterfly’s metamorphosis that symbolizes spiritual transformation in many faiths—from egg to caterpillar, to pupa, to rebirth as a delicate-looking winged being. The monarch, or Mariposa as it is called in Spanish, has been termed the “Symbol of Hope” and of healing, as well as the “Magic of Believing.” The image is often portrayed in medical literature.
How can we help?
The unwavering belief of the students that they could help these innocent beings was contagious and spread like western wildfires through Highland. Teachers reached out to experts. Dr. Marie Majorov, a photographer and monarch butterfly expert, visited to share her photographs and expertise with the Lower School. She helped the young ones understand the life cycle of the monarch, how critical their situation was, and how the students could help. Their immediate solution: build a garden to supply the monarchs with what they needed most—organic milkweed!
Highland parents generously offered their labor and expertise to the project. First grade father and farmer, Sid Rodgers, arrived on a brilliant May morning with an excavator and dug the garden. He taught the children how to lay and care for the sod around the edges. Landscape architect and Highland mom, Katherine Ellsworth, helped the children see the importance of garden design, creating paths and plantings to form the shape of a butterfly. Ms. Ellsworth rolled up her sleeves and helped the children plant the milkweed and nectar-providing perennials that the butterflies require.
Garden designated as official monarch way station
The garden, located at the front of the Lower School, is now recognized as an official Monarch Way station by Monarch Watch for migrating monarchs who pass through the area. It’s likened to a bed and breakfast, but for the monarch set that flies hundreds of miles to Mexico for the winter.
Students throughout the Lower School returned to campus this September to find hatching caterpillars metamorphosing into adults, storing up body fat from nectar as they prepared for their migration journey. The children studied the caterpillars, collected and reported data on the numbers they observed, and they tagged and released more than 80 monarchs, in hopes of tracking them to Mexico and watching the cycle begin again next year.
"Watching the soar into the sky"
One Pre-K 4/5 student remarked, “We hope they make it to Mexico!” A Kindergartner’s favorite part of the program was “watching them soar into the sky” upon release in the garden.
Monarch mania spread with Lower School classrooms and offices displaying the miraculous tales of these amazing creatures. The monarch curriculum connects students with the animal world, thus allowing teachers to take a cross curricular approach to the subject and to the natural world. The program reflects the school’s philosophy on experiential learning and has provided countless “teachable moments.”
Young advocates write letters to local officials
First graders applied their knowledge of the monarch to something greater than their classroom. They participated in a letter-writing campaign to encourage local public places to let native milkweed grow for the butterflies, instead of mowing it or spraying it with deadly herbicides, thus destroying the main food source for the winged creatures. The children hatched an idea, created a plan, carried the plan through and effected change.
The magic that comes with the butterfly is believed throughout the world and is summed up by the old Irish blessing:
“May the wings of the butterfly kiss the sun, and find your shoulder to light on To bring you luck, happiness and riches today, tomorrow and beyond.”
Thanks to Lora Mackie for writing this article, which originally appeared in the fall issue of Highland Magazine. Check out the complete issue here.
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