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Monarchs rising from the ash

I recently went to Orchard Hills Elementary school to tag and release a couple of wild monarch butterflies. I do this often.

It’s always rewarding, and a lot of fun to interact with a class full of wiggling, giggling first-graders who just can’t wait to raise their hands and answer a question that you have not even asked yet. “Passing the baton” and all that.

But this was a day like no other.

Hunter, 7, and his big sister Ellie, 10, arrived with their mom, and they proudly showed me the two monarchs that had emerged from their chrysalises the day before. They explained how their Grampa and Gramma had introduced them to the wonderful magic of the monarch butterfly. And two wonderful teachers were there, Miss Ashley and Miss Jamie. The caterpillars had been found a week or two before, munching away on milkweed in Phoenix — before The Fire.

But where were the other children? Where were Hunter’s little classmates? The school hallways were empty. The boisterous laughter of 50 exuberant 6- and 7-year-olds was masked away at the other end of smartphones and laptop monitors. They could only see and hear through the laptop screen and tinny microphone as they sat alone in their own chrysalises — not because of the Almeda fire, but because of another kind of fire sweeping through the lands. Three of the children I saw in the small rectangular boxes on the faded computer screen were not calling from their homes; they were calling from a motel room. Their homes are gone now.

And so, we all did our best to share the “Aha! moment” of releasing a monarch back into the wild; into the sooty, crumpled, ghostly apocalypse. And I thought, these two lone monarchs I hold in my hands have been blissfully unaware. They were safely tucked into their chrysalises just a day before fiery mayhem struck. Ellie and Hunter would not evacuate without them! Protected, they did not feel the burn of horizontal flames screaming with the winds across the streets. They could not hear the explosions of propane tanks as the fires flew through the nearby businesses, and the buildings quickly writhed into groaning rubble.

They were unaware of the incredible hospitality of the business owner in Ruch who came out into the parking lot at 10 o’clock at night to tell the 100-plus evacuees who had fled the flames and had to sleep in their cars that she and her staff would continue to serve food until it was gone and leave the tiny restaurant open all night for use. They left behind the choking smoke and the flashing strobes as our emergency heroes went house to house to evacuate in the darkness.

And they could not see it when Hunter and Ellie’s grandparents’ home in Talent burned to the ground.

Yet, here they were in this quiet ghostly aftermath; these two magnificent creatures who started their “caterpillary” lives just days before the mayhem and are now ready to rise as adults and take flight into the blue clarity above. I would like to think that a part of Hunter and Ellie are with them, rising from the ashes like a Phoenix, aware of what happened, and moving on with renewed strength and resolution.

The kiddos named them Isabella and Dusty. One is a boy and one is a girl. Their research tag numbers are E1836 and E1837, respectively. Please watch for them. Please make way for them.

And when the electronic screen to the children went blank, and the tinny microphone was turned off, and the thank-yous and goodbyes were over, and I was alone, I let my tears run free at last and mix into the ash at my feet.

Our western monarchs will survive. They are wild. They are resilient. And they are tougher than we think. The people of Phoenix and Talent in Southern Oregon will survive. We are resilient. We are tougher than you think.

Robert Coffan lives in Medford.

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