I think it's funny how often people use place as a metaphor for their state of being. "I'm not quite there yet." "I'm getting there." "I'm feeling unsettled." Everyone wants to get there and be there but even the most superficial survey of the animal world will tell you that there's no there there. Everyone is moving, everyone is busy going somewhere else; it's a world in movement, a decidedly unsettled world.
Migration and movement have long been themes of my writing, but never more so than since I moved to the South four years ago. This was an odd decision in some ways, given that Cape Cod had been the main subject of both my writing and life. Rather than buy a house, my wife and I decided to rent an apartment very close to the beach, the caveat being that it was a "winter rental" and we would be expelled each summer. That was okay with us in one way, since we would be heading back north to rent in Maine or on Cape Cod for the summer, and we have stuck with this arrangement ever since, putting our whole lives in storage in May and taking them back out in late August.
There are downsides to this migration, especially when you are carrying your four year old daughter along with you, but overall I have been quite happy with living in movement. In a recent book I followed the osprey migration from Cape Cod to South America, and I liked the fact that many of the birds stopped on the beaches near my new home, creating a line that connected old to new. In fact, migration creates a path, or line, that connects thousands of disparate places throughout the world.
It’s fall now, the time of movement toward winter homes. We have moved into our apartment again and I get down to the beach often to watch the birds heading south over the water, lines of them creating sentences that hump up and down against the horizon. Turtles too are heading back this way, some to lay their eggs on the island where I live. These were the same type of turtles, loggerheads and Kemp's ridleys, that I would sometimes find nearly lifeless on the beaches of Cape Cod in November and December. These hapless animals had made the mistake of starting their migration too late, fooled by the shallow warmth of Cape Cod Bay, then stunned by the cold of the Atlantic. The lucky ones were warmed back to life at our local Audubon center and then flown south, a lucky roll in a migratory game of Chutes and Ladders.
The other migration I'm watching these days is that of the monarchs. If bird migrations are miraculous, then butterfly migration borders on the preposterous. Little scraps of tissue paper trying to make it down to Mexico. If they are this far east it's unlikely they'll make it, and I have felt something clutch inside me while watching them blow out to sea. On a happier note we have a bush near our house, something in the aster family I think, that seems to be one of their regular stopping points in their journey. Every fall around this time it has bloomed orange-black, hundreds of monarchs filling its branches until its leaves seem to flutter. "The butterfly bush," my daughter calls it. Usually the butterflies rest in their bush for about a week until they push off for their next stopping point.
Unfortunately this has been a strange year, a too hot and humid fall, where locals were forced to keep their air conditioning on until the second-to-last week of October. "Something is off with the world," said a friend who has lived his whole life here in North Carolina. I hate to blame it on global warming, since these days that is the catch-all culprit for everything from ice caps melting to lost socks from the laundry. But this has been a fall where summer never ended. Finally, sometime in mid-October, it looked like fall had come. I broke out a flannel shirt, breathed a sigh of relief, and walked outside to find that, sure enough, the monarchs were back. For a day or so I enjoyed walking past the full and fluttering bush but then the weather reversed itself. Suddenly we were back in the stickiness of August. Which was when the strangest thing happened. The next time I walked by the butterfly bush the monarchs were gone. But the leaves were not lifeless. They buzzed electrically with noise and movement and when I stepped closer I saw they were filled with dozens of flies.
I hate to be an insect snob, but while the monarch sight had been uplifting, the sight of all those flies disturbed me. I’ll leave it for an entomologist to solve the mystery, but I will admit feeling unsettled as I walked away. It felt, as my friend said, like something was off with the world.
David Gessner is the author of six books of literary nonfiction, including Soaring with Fidel: An Osprey Odyssey from Cape Cod to Cuba and Beyond and The Prophet of Dry Hill: Lessons From a Life in Nature. He is the editor of Ecotone, the literary journal of place.