Silencio, our guide whispered.
Just then, we were ambushed by hundreds of orange bursts, swirling and darting in every direction, while thousands more blossomed in the pine branches overhead. The sound of their powder-thin wings fluttering so close to my ears tickled the back of my neck, like angel whispers. I raised my shoulders and giggled.
Adult Monarchs normally live three to four weeks, but the ones that migrate south are part of a special generation born towards the end of summer, called the Methuselah. They live seven or eight months—about nine times longer than the average lifetime.
Imagine living for 700 years.
The butterflies, like us, had started their 3,000-mile journey from the United States to Mexico four months prior. In my mind, we were an inter-species diaspora, escaping harsh conditions. Unlike us, however, the Monarchs would only stay until March when they and their progeny returned north, whereas Tree and I would continue onward in our van to Patagonia. We’d lost nearly everything in the Recession—my fancy sales job, Tree’s investment property, our ability to pay rent and stay solvent. Forced to live in our van to make ends meet, we decided to head south of the border where our dollars would go further, and there was less shame in being poor.
Standing in that storm of endangered butterflies ten years ago, Tree and I felt alone in our failures. But the truth is, we were legion; a whole generation in distress. And, now, I’ve read that researchers at Pew are already wondering whether the coronavirus pandemic will become to Gen Z—our daughter’s generation—what the Great Recession was to us, by which they mean a festering wound that hobbles their start in a ruthless race.
Yet, isn’t what’s coming so much more devastating than that?
On March 14th, we suddenly found ourselves locked-down with our seven-year old daughter in an apartment on Tenerife, a small Spanish island off the coast of Africa. Within days, she began experiencing night terrors—anxious manifestations from not being allowed outside.
“Mama! Mama!” she shrieked, night after night, thrashing wildly with her eyes open. I rushed into her room to help, to hold her, to tell her it was all going to be alright but, stuck in liminal consciousness, she couldn’t hear or see me. She kicked and screamed and choked, her voice strangled in the fight against an unseen monster.
Even now, on our walks through the city, the invisible boogieman hides on hard surfaces and floats in the air.
“Stop touching your mask,” I gently scold.
Unbeknownst to my daughter, the baby of Gen Z, a million people worldwide have already died of the virus while the U.N. warns that the number of people dying from hunger could double this year from the financial fallout of confinement. The boogeyman has presented grownups with a horrifying dilemma: keep the economy open at the risk of spreading disease or keep the economy closed at the risk of mass starvation.
Again, I’m reminded of the Monarchs.
Like the Methuselah who journey far to breed in the sanctuaries of the south, my husband and I are raising our daughter abroad where we can afford to give her a better start in life. Geographic arbitrage, it’s called. And, yet, the Monarch’s path has been overbuilt, sprayed with Roundup and stripped of milkweed, just as my daughter’s path has been paved with crisis. There is no escape; fancy terms be damned. In fact, if we could take the long-view of the biblical Methuselah who lived 969 years, we’d see that this current rupture of our “normal” lives is only a preamble for the Second Coming, Yeats' infamous “rough beast” slouching towards Bethlehem to be born: the global food shortages, the mass migrations, the devil that scientists under the current administration are forbidden to name. We talk of “flattening the curve” while the Keeling Curve, the graph that shows the ongoing change in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, continues to rise.
As the Earth gets hotter, conditions favor the spread of infectious disease and the start of new pandemics.
Imagine going extinct.
Over the past 20 years, there’s been an 80 percent total decline in the North American Monarch population. As they teeter on the edge of an extinction tipping point—in which numbers drop too low for the species to recover—scientists warn that habitat loss and human-caused climate change are to blame. In fact, as many as three-quarters of animal species could be extinct within several human lifetimes, imperiling the very systems that keep people alive.
Holding these thoughts fills me with dread. Like my child, I, too, wake terrorized in the middle of the night, strangled by an invisible monster. If this pandemic has laid bare one thing, it’s that we’ve yoked our survival to the survival of the economy—and this economy will kill us all. How will we Houdini our way out of this existential double-bind?
To anyone paying attention, the answer is obvious: we need systemic change. Super-size-me, carbon-based capitalism isn’t working. So, maybe what I mean to ask is, by what sorcery will we extricate ourselves from this corporate chokehold to do what’s necessary and right by our children before it’s too fucking late?
The curve is rising.
In the mornings, before we begin our new normal of homeschool and Zoom calls, my daughter sits on her bedroom floor, surrounded by sticks, an empty wine box, and a hot glue gun. When lockdown began, she started mining our recycling bin daily to create something—a three-foot tall sled-dog, an extended family of dragons, a pregnant fairy with a peg leg (the obvious favorite)—from our waste. An alchemist in her underwear, she turns what was base and broken into gold.
“What are you making this time?” I ask.
“A birdhouse. I’m going to put it on the balcony so I can adopt a little bird but not put her inside a cage, because that makes me sad. Birds should be free,” she explains, without a hint of irony.
Imagine a sustainable future.