The Pandemic, or How People Are Like Butterflies
June 13, 2020
When did I become more interested in reading about the plague than daily dealings with it? The internet mediates all information. The telephone is part of every conversation. I have not seen a friend face-to-face in so long I can’t remember what it’s like. I am sick and tired of my hot and germ-infested blue-green surgical mask, dangling from one ear when I’m not wearing it, and the pervasive smell of hand sanitizer. Please God, when I die, let me not smell like hand sanitizer.
It’s early June in the year 2020 on the northern shores of Lake Michigan. The stores are starting to open again, but there will be no National Cherry Festival in Traverse City in July, no Blissfest in Cross Village this August, and no Leelanau Uncaged in September. The entire world is in the midst of a plague. Over 100,000 people have died in America and almost four times that world-wide, with more predicted. My daughter is an end-of-life care nurse in Connecticut with coronavirus patients. She has had the virus and survived and is back at work in her hospital, her businessman husband working from home to take care of their children. These are the ordinary people, the unsung heroes; like the factory workers in Pennsylvania working around the clock, sleeping on the floor of the factory, to make protective gear for first responders; like the “far-flung collaboration of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs” cited in The New York Times, who figured out almost overnight how to make and mass-produce ventilators.
It’s early June 2020, but in my mind, it’s late summer, mid-August 2019 out on South Fox Island. I’m lying on my back in the lacey shade of towering maples. Dunes range up the hill behind my head, as soft-looking as caramel-sweetened whipped cream. Every island is a tiny earth, and South Fox Island, lapped by the rhythmic turquoise-and-indigo waters of Lake Michigan, may be one of the tiniest.
Around me, volunteers work to restore the 1867 lighthouse. There’s the retired pharmacologist, Phil von Voightlander, who that morning had explained to me the curvature of the earth. Right now, he’s cleaning the boathouse. A retired oral surgeon, Joerg Rothenberger, an inventor and polymath from Switzerland, is measuring the depth of the water in the shoals around the island with high-tech equipment. A graphic artist, Cathy Allchin, is helping Andy Thomas, an accomplished craftsman, install a giant door, twice the size of both of them. There’s a Smithsonian bee scientist, David Russell, off in the bushes somewhere exploring the island’s insect population.
South Fox Island isn’t easy to get to. For years there was no boat. People borrowed a boat from Andy Thomas. Then they found an old commercial fishing boat and restored it, a work in progress, and started to restore the lighthouse, also a work in progress. The South Fox Island Lighthouse was necessary when the shoals around the island were not something one could check out with a depth finder. Many lives were saved by lighthouse keepers and their crews, and the restoration of the lighthouse is being done to honor that work and the lives saved.
My eyes are half-closed because all around me is the little-flashing-mirrors lake light. I’m looking at some orange leaves on the maple trees, vaguely thinking fall has come early. The blurry orange leaves, seen through my eyelash veil, are fluttering slightly in a soft breeze. It’s not until I see a piece of orange and black glide down on an air current, that I know it’s not a leaf but a butterfly.
I sit up slowly. I’m surrounded by butterflies. They are in the trees. They are in the air. They are on the low-lying bushes and wild asters. Monarch Butterflies. They are migrating, a million little delicate fluttering pieces of life, resting before heading out over the lake to the mainland.
Monarchs migrate 3,000 miles at about three miles an hour, about the pace of a jogger. They don’t all survive. There are high winds, rain, snow, pesticides, helicopter propellers. Some go to the mountains of Michoacan, to ancient majestic forests northwest of Mexico City, where two scientists were recently murdered, presumably by people taking out the trees. The flight of the butterflies was miraculous forever, and now, like the evolution and existence of human beings, too, it’s becoming more and more fraught with difficulties.
What does the future hold? It holds us. The spirit of helping and caring for one’s community, alive on South Fox Island, exists in us. We are the people, and we will not quit. Like the Monarch Butterflies journeying thousands of miles through possible storms, to a place that may have no trees for them to rest in, we are not quitting. We are the people, and we will do as much as we can for as long as we can, whether making ventilators, sleeping on the factory floor to make protective gear, creating street festivals to share joy, or restoring lighthouses to honor the past. We are here, and we are not going away, not anytime soon.
Kathleen Stocking, called a "seer" by The New York Times in 1991 for her first book of essays about nature and people on the Leelanau Peninsula, has taught writing in California homeless shelters and in El Salvador, served two tours in the Peace Corps, and now lives in Traverse City.