The fall equinox has just passed, but summer weather has finally arrived, and all that was impossible during a blustery summer I'm fitting in this week.
Caught in the autumn flurry of school and work, I'm enticed by migrating monarch butterflies into taking a Toronto Island mini-holiday. Sometimes a sharp-winged shadow on a city sidewalk alerts me, and I squint between it and the sun to find its source, a largish orange and black butterfly with an unusual gliding flight.
Recently, I looked up from my lap-top to see a tiny traveller passing my fourth-floor balcony, headed toward the lake. As it flew over the railway tracks toward the concrete-choked lakeshore, I hope it found plenty of goldenrod beside the unkempt train tracks. This brilliant autumn-blooming wildflower is an important source of nectar to help these migrants on their way.
Wandering up the road at Hanlan's Point during my little midweek escape, I head for Gibraltar Point, the southwesterly tip of the Toronto Islands, where monarchs following their migratory instinct suddenly find themselves over open water and beat it back to shore to think it over. It's always an amusing sight, and a great place to do a butterfly count.
Much has been heard of the perils of human-induced climate change at the monarch's Mexican destination, but freezing weather on the formerly sheltered mountainsides where Canadian monarchs spend the winter is only part of the problem. Until a few decades ago, the migration path was a continent-long cocktail bar of wildflowers. With the virtual desertification caused by urbanization, mono-cropping and rampant pesticide use, the monarch's journey may soon go the way of the bison's and the passenger pigeon's, those other historic mass migrations that once swept over this continent.
Mike McDonald, whose tiny artist's garden at Harbourfront attracted breeding monarchs this year, travels widely to create butterfly gardens at the request of art galleries and communities. With local collaborators, he may try to reintroduce the monarch in Canadian sites where they've disappeared since the Mexican blizzards. But they'll need help: from the weather and from humanity.
Thoughtful design and planting by parks departments, landowners and even individual balcony-dwellers and gardeners can make a great difference in the long run. And if you love living things, the harvest of joy is immediate.
Back at Hanlan's, the close-trimmed lawns by the Island Airport are silent except for yippees and yahoos drifting over from the clothing-optional beach. Then the disciplined lawn gives way to a savannah of long grasses beneath widely spaced trees. Bending under their heavy seed heads, the thigh-high grasses shine silver in the late-afternoon sun.
The savannah is singing. My feet veer from the asphalt path. As I wander between stately stands of goldenrod and massed miniature wildflowers of yellow, white and blue, grasshoppers race ahead of me like dolphins.
Each brilliant head of goldenrod hosts several species of insect: moths, cabbage white and common sulphur butterflies; beetles; flies and bees digging into the multiple blossoms for the tiny sips of nectar they hold. Wings shimmering, a pair of large turquoise dragonflies arcs by in a mating clasp. Little red darners circle me in pursuit of the few mosquitoes I attract.
I'm almost dizzy in this singing, silvery fairyland. Where I've dropped my writing book, infant crickets gather, attracted by its whiteness. Careful of so much life beneath me, I lower myself slowly to the ground as a monarch butterfly dips low and sudden over my head.