In recent weeks, metamorphosis has been on my mind. Just outside my office, a stand of narrow leaf milkweed is currently hosting all phases of Monarch butterflies: the striped caterpillars slowly moving and quickly growing, the bright orange adult butterflies dancing through the air, and the most mysterious phase, the verdant jewel of the chrysalis. It’s the physical embodiment of metamorphosis, the change from one form to the next.
What is on my mind even more so than the life cycle of the monarch or its exclusive relationship with milkweed (though both fascinating), is the metaphorical significance of the cycle. In particular, I’ve found myself thinking about and hoping for a metamorphosis of the public consciousness. Like an adult monarch emerging from its chrysalis, perhaps a new mainstream perspective can emerge. One which recalibrates restoring and maintaining the natural environment as a central focus of humanity. To truly make that change would be such a major reimagining of our society that the caterpillar to butterfly metaphor is fitting.
Here in Southern California, we have so much opportunity to make changes at the individual and collective scales. Choosing to plant native plants restores biodiversity, connecting us (and pollinators) to the wilderness that surrounds our cities, and bringing beautiful, vibrant, diverse life into the built environment. At the same time, it uses less water in our gardens, which leaves more water for other purposes, including supporting wild ecosystems in the Owens Valley and Colorado River. And with the proper planning and installation, native plant gardens require much less input of mechanical equipment, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. If this practice became the norm, the positive environmental ramifications would be huge.
If any moment in history is the time for a major change like this to occur, this is it. We’ve all read headline after sobering headline about the climate crisis, biodiversity declines, habitat loss and many other existential problems of our own making. If we don’t make some radical changes soon, we not only risk massive loss of the amazing biodiversity of our planet, but also the long-term survival of the human species. I suspect I’m preaching to the choir, so I can leave it there.
It’s not all doom and gloom. There are hopeful signs occurring right now. The landscape industry is booming, and interest in plants, gardening and ecological awareness are growing as well. People are more open and honest now than they’ve ever been about the destructive shortsightedness and deep inequity of the status quo. They’re ready for a new vision and a new era. The pandemic has already caused profound shifts in the way we live. As we emerge and settle into a post Covid-19 world, I hope that we don’t simply go back to business as usual, and relegate the environment to a background issue, more often than not at odds with our economic and political systems.
Unlike a caterpillar, which is destined to become a butterfly, there is nothing preordained for us. If our culture is to go through a metamorphosis of this type, there is no road map. We must forge that path ourselves. But I see the threads of what that could look like every day in the native plant community, and all of the wonderful people I have the honor of interacting with at Theodore Payne Foundation. It’s a community that places so much value on our local environment and generously puts their time, effort and resources into making it healthier. There may not be a road map for the change we all envision, but there are certainly signs pointing in the right direction.
The optimist in me sometimes thinks we are in the chrysalis phase right now, getting ready to emerge with new value systems, motivations and incentives. But wherever we are, I have hope that the future we are headed towards is one of healing and rebuilding. I can’t see it clearly yet, but I’m sure it’s out there. Let’s find it together.