A Monarch Journey

By Sarah Sortum, Calamus Outfitters / Switzer Ranch and Nature Reserve

Monarch butterflies make an amazing migratory journey from northern U.S. states to Mexico. The sojourn these delicate creatures make through a variety of eco-regions, weather, and terrain is certainly a journey worth telling. However, this is not that story. This is a personal journey, led by monarchs.

monarchs2I wasn’t looking for…well, anything. Not even monarchs. But they found me. Riding back from moving cattle my father and I ambled into a rabble of them. Like any self-respecting American I immediately grabbed my smartphone to attempt a video. Disappointingly, the majority of the flutter didn’t show on my screen. However, I was inspired. I felt compelled to capture the beauty of these travelers.

The next day I armed myself with my best camera and a map of central Nebraska’s Butterfly Byway.  With over a dozen certified gardens on the map, I was confident of finding and securing the perfect monarch shot. I could almost see my name becoming synonymous with other great Nebraska nature photographers; Forsberg, Sartore….Sortum. Oh, the anticipation was sweet!
The gardens featured in the Butterfly Byway proved themselves by hosting kaleidoscopes of butterflies and other pollinators. Thrilled with my new-found talents as top-nature (pollinators in particular) photographer, I reveled in the uniqueness of the gardens that shared a common purpose — supporting pollinator populations. The gardens are both rural and urban (if you can call small-town Nebraska urban). They grace the front of court houses, shine in village parks, and welcome visitors to private homes and businesses. And yes, the monarchs were there. I was snapping shots with religious fervor while imagining my first pollinator-themed debut. monarchs3

I returned home and eagerly transferred the photos onto my computer. Oops, the first few photos seemed a bit wobbly (just warming up). Hmmm, the next seem slightly out of focus. Wait a minute, that one isn’t even a monarch (how did I miss that?). Ugh, they look so far away, so unimpressive, so under-photographed. The photos on my screen belied my entire day! I had seen beautiful gardens with magical monarchs and came away with, let’s face it, blurry bugs.

No matter, I can learn from my mistakes. I will not give up! A few days later I found my second chance at becoming a top pollinator photographer (I coined a new term for myself; polli-grapher, a superhero-esk truth seeking photographer of pollinators). My 9-year-old son accompanied me on my conquest. We found a line of cedars and began stealthily walking. The hunt was on.

monarchs4Soon the swarm reacted to our footsteps and I sprang into polli-grapher mode. The angles, shadows, and quick movements of my prey soon began to frustrate me. I MUST get the perfect shot! My manic concentration was interrupted by my son. “Mom, look.” “I am,” I curtly replied. “No, Mom. LOOK!!” I lowered my camera and looked up. Hundreds of monarchs were creating a brilliant stained glass window effect against the crystal clear sky all around us. We were both speechless, drinking it in. Silent beauties, they seemed to caress the slightest breeze with their delicate brilliance. It was a timeless moment, indescribable and unforgettable.

As we stood mesmerized, my other senses became aware. The deep, sweet earthy aromas, the comforting quiet, the crisp air all intertwined with the monarch display. I realized that this was my perfect shot. It would never be captured by a camera or words. Rather, it was captured in my son’s wide eyes and gaping mouth, in his unabashed amazement. As our eyes slowly met we both giggled with delight, playmates in this magical monarch land.

I gave up my dream of becoming Nebraska’s great polli-grapher, content to leave that to the true talents our state boasts. But I gained valuable lessons. The monarchs reminded me to slow down, share the moments and soak in the experience. Beauty is everywhere. Sometimes we just need the lens of a child, instead of a camera, to remind us.

Monarchs on cedar