The more things change... - Keith Roulston editorial
While I was doing my exercises Saturday morning, an orange butterfly flitted by the kitchen window. By the time I could try to track it down, it had disappeared and it was too late to see if it was a monarch butterfly.
There was a time, just a few years ago, when seeing a monarch butterfly outside the window was so common that it would hardly have attracted my attention. Not anymore. In December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated up to an 80 per cent probability of population collapse for eastern monarchs within 50 years.
Farmers are often given a good deal of the blame for the decline of the monarch butterfly population because they regularly spray to rid their fields of the milkweed that the butterflies feed on. However, the other day I walked the wild eastern edge of our property where milkweed thrives in the unsprayed area between our lawn and the neighbour’s soybean field. Usually that milkweed would be home to dozens of caterpillars and their nests. I didn’t see a single caterpillar, nest or butterfly.
Monarch butterflies are famous for their annual 4,000-to-5,000-kilometre migration from southern Canada to their wintering
sites in the mountain forests of Mexico. Each year, lately, fewer of the beautiful butterflies make it.
The collapse of the monarch population is sadly not rare. Less well-known is the plight of bats, which are succumbing to white-nose syndrome that kills bats when they hibernate in winter. Since bats are active at night, and since most of us can’t resist a shiver when we encounter one, we don’t notice their increasing rarity. Still, their future is in danger.
A few years before I retired, I remember doing a story for The Rural Voice about the initial discovery of Emerald Ash Borer over near Bayfield. The trees were being cut and disposed of (not sawn for lumber with the resulting transportation that might spread the insect faster). Emerald Ash Borer had first been discovered in Ontario in June, 2002. The beetle likely crossed into Ontario at Windsor after establishing in the Detroit area, where it probably arrived from Asia in wood packaging or pallets.
Despite the efforts to halt its spread, I had the last of the ash trees along my lane cut last year after it died, the flow of its sap interrupted by the larvae of the beetles that spread the plague. The other day, as I drove to Brussels, I noticed a huge number of dead ash trees, killed off by the invader.
It reminded me, being an old man, of another invasion many years ago. Growing up on a farm near Lucknow, I remember that the most dominant tree on our landscape was the elm. We had two of them which identified our farm. Dutch Elm Disease came to North America in lumber infected with the fungus about 1930. The disease reached eastern Canada in the 1940s.
By the time we moved to our country property near Blyth in 1975, most of the damage from the disease had been done. I remember taking a photograph of an elm tree skeleton against a sunset soon after we settled in. We had a large elm in front of our house that strangely had stayed alive and we were just beginning to hope that somehow it was able to resist the fungus when it sickened and died.
And yet, on the same recent trip to Brussels where we saw so many dead ash trees, we also saw a few large, live elms. Perhaps they will eventually sicken, but perhaps, too, they are rare trees that resist the disease and begin to repopulate the landscape.
Nature is forever changing. Since we moved here, wild grape and Virginia creeper have invaded, and now their vines creep over everything and I battle to keep them in check.
Sometimes, too often, humans are to blame, as they were in importing Emerald Ash Borer and Dutch Elm Disease. I apologize to my neighbours for having introduced wild walnuts into our neighbourhood. Nearly 40 years ago, despairing that I’d ever be able to afford to retire, I gathered up some walnuts on my parents’ property on the edge of Lucknow, and planted them along our long lane.
It was a vain hope, of course, since even if walnut wood remained as valuable as it was then, the trees were unlikely to reach maturity as quickly as I did. Meanwhile, once they got old enough to produce nuts, squirrels collected them, buried them for their future dietary needs, then forgot where they hid them. Walnut seedlings sprung up in the nearby fields and became a constant pest for neighbours.
There’s a saying, attributed to Aristotle, that nature abhors a vacuum. What was the perfect life for a human in the 1950s is regarded as poverty today. Likewise, nature keeps changing – although often helped out by man.
Still, although we have more worldly goods today than ever before, I think we’ll all be poorer for fewer butterflies to appreciate.