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The man who cried at El Rosario

I’ve been off in rural Mexico experiencing one of my Bucket List items — seeing where virtually all of the migrating eastern monarch butterflies go to overwinter each year.

I am in Angangueo, a small town at 8,000 feet in the center of the El Rosario Monarch Preserve in the state of Michoacan, Mexico.

After our hike from the entrance of El Rosario to the quiet slopes of Oyamel pine trees, the guide stopped us along a path barred with twine to see one of two monarch populations in this preserve. After about a half hour, I noticed a man next to me who had his binoculars up to his eyes, and I heard him gasp or catch his breath a couple of times. And when he lowered his binoculars, he wiped his eyes with the dusty sleeve of his jacket, and I knew he was crying.

I said to him, "Oh, you are crying because they are so beautiful, right?"

"No, that's not why," he said.

"Oh, then I think it's because you have waited so long to see such a sight, right?"

"Nope," he replied.

"Then what made you cry?" I asked.

"Do you remember when we first got here in the cold, gray, forested morning, and nothing stirred in this silent wood; not a leaf, not a single folded wing? If the guides had not shown us the way, we would never have found this small place of such immensity — 150 feet in any other direction, and we would have passed it by."

That oddly thick "moss" covering one tree trunk from top to bottom was 60,000 monarchs. Those huge clusters that looked like dozens of brown burlap bags pulling the misshapen branches halfway down were layer upon layer of them. In the shadowy, green and brown stillness, we could not see what was there. It's like in a fantasy movie where people are looking for a big dinosaur or something, and they are looking everywhere in the forest, and they can't find it. Then somebody senses something strange about a tree next to them, and they realize it is the leg of the dinosaur and they see that it is right there, all around them, over them, and has been there quietly all the time.

But it's not like that because a dinosaur is, well ... a dinosaur. But this is the most beautiful organism in the world. And then, when the sun broke through the clouds and sunlight streamed through the hanging forest, first the wings of the outside layer opened, like a million tiny, neon-orange solar panels all facing the sunrays. We watched them open, hardly moving at all. And then, magic. The mossy baskets and tree trunks began to shimmer, like fairy dust catching the sun as a million wings began to test the air and warmth.

But not all of them; only the ones in the sun. The rest of the organism remained still, strong and steadfast down in the shady hollows. One part holding and protecting, the other part gleaning energy. And then, some began to take flight. Not many, perhaps 5,000 or so. Flying slowly through the canopy, testing wings, wheeling in the sky overhead, moving to a new spot.

The man who cried gently collected a weary male monarch that was trembling in the mossy duff next to my backpack and placed it upslope out of harm's way amongst a litter of other tattered wings where he would soon contribute his own.

They were like a collective mass with its own life. A magnificent cathedral made of shade and sun and the strength of the forest canopy. Built by these traveling strangers who came together. Then the clouds closed the sunlit curtain and all went slowly quiet again.

These solitary creatures are resting here hidden in the mountains, respiring and testing the world around them all winter long until March when they will spread away. I realized I was looking at the fragile yet powerful future of every single monarch that people will see next year in Quebec, Ontario, New York, Iowa, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Virginia and Texas. All here, breathing silently, waiting to shimmer, and flutter, and rise, in the quietest, mightiest force one can imagine.

That is why this "other man" cried — and I wiped away another tear.

— Robert Coffan lives in Medford.

A man at El Rosario Monarch Preserve in Michoacan, Mexico, admires one of the butterflies. [Photo by Robert Coffan]