Butterflies, Beauty and Truth
"Today seems like the perfect day to take you for your birthday lunch." Never mind that my friend's call came more than a week early, and never mind that pushing the numerical changeover grows less attractive as the scale tips from the perfectly balanced mid-forties to the uncomfortable upper reaches of that same decade. I was hungry, and lunch seemed the perfect idea. It was nearly three before we sat down to eat, a little after four when I suggested we take a walk on Dowses Beach in Osterville.

If it were summertime, I would have driven us to the very end, away from the crowds, but it was the second day of October. There were no crowds. Of people, that is.

My friend, who is spending the off-season on the outer Cape, is a musician, originally from Ireland. "Oh, now isn't it gorgeous," she said, a statement and a question at once, delivered in the lilting brogue she hasn't lost in twenty-one years of living stateside. She continued: "Will you look? A butterfly for your birthday. A lucky omen, to be sure."

I will confess right away that I am always looking for signs. And this has been a year when any bit of luck is welcome. It's been the sort of year that makes you eager to grow older, not because you hope for wisdom, but because you are so desperate to put behind you the string of disappointments, the endless not-quites, the feeling you've been trudging through ear-high mud—and moving backwards.

We walked in the direction of the monarch she'd spotted. Approaching the dunes, we saw a handful more, then two handfuls, before we realized, in the span of several heartbeats: We were in the company of literally hundreds, possibly thousands of monarch butterflies, their orange and black wings opening, closing as they clung to the goldenrod that grew amongst the sea grass and wild roses.

"They're migrating," I said, hearing the sense of wonder in my own voice. I've seen a monarch here or there in my twenty years on Cape Cod. I'd spotted one that very morning in my garden: orange perched on purple, lovely-but singular. Here on the beach, they were eight or ten or twelve on a single stalk, wings touching, flying up and then back down, arranging and rearranging themselves-sharing their dinner under the most intimate conditions.

"Would you ever?" my friend half-exclaimed.

"I never have," I answered. "I thought they traveled in September. They may be running late. I hope they'll be okay." I was feeling protective of the butterflies that were now filling up the air around us, moving west with the dipping sun.

The next day, my worst fears were confirmed. Not only were our butterflies running late, but according to a science piece in The New York Times, they were traveling the butterfly Trail of Tears. "If you end up on the coast, you're toast," a scientist at the University of Kansas declared, speaking presumably to the butterflies. Dr. Orley Taylor, who heads the Monarch Watch Project, believes the only sure way for a butterfly to journey safely to the mountains of Mexico is to follow the inland route.

Could such an abundance of beauty merely be the precursor to certain death? There is a definite downside to looking for signs in the natural world. My birthday omen now seemed dubious at best.

That afternoon found me back at Dowses with a camera and another friend. "I've never seen so many butterflies, or seen them up close like this," she marveled. "Look, they are striped and spotted."

There were dozens, not hundreds that day, and I was frankly relieved. It was another warm and sunny afternoon, perfect traveling weather. "Eat and fly," I told two butterflies holding fast as the wind picked up and blew their dinner around. "You have trials ahead."

We set up chairs and snacked on cheese and crackers, watching the monarchs rise up by secret signal, and begin their movement west. Some of them, I reasoned, are bound to make it to their destination. And in the meantime, there is the journey-challenging, unconventional, perhaps even unwise in butterfly terms. But these delicate and intrepid travelers have seen Cape Cod in the brilliant autumn light, sipped sweet nectar with an ocean view. As an omen, and in their fragile lives, they are nothing less than perfect.

Kate Whouley's memoir, Cottage for Sale, Must Be Moved, was published last year in paperback by Ballantine Books.

Reprinted from The Cape Cod Times, October 9, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Kate Whouley