It’s among Earth’s most evocative footfalls. Two rare, picturesque species of conifers roof its trails. Its impact points of ocean and human vision are incomparable. Then the monarch butterflies come and turn the depths of winter orange at Point Lobos, northern head of California’s Big Sur.
Closest Big Sur outpost to dense settlement, at Carmel, removed from the mountain aesthetics to the south, Point Lobos is civilized Big Sur, a technical boundary, but its scenery is counter-technical, theatrical.
I first visited this place with the less-than-lofty intention of using its acreage as a mushroom gathering ground. On the transforming interface of the Cypress Grove Trail, my footfalls landed on the soft plane of a vast mushroom cap topping a rock promontory stem. It was a crown of eloquent land, artistic land.
The trail returned me to childhood days. Footfalls were soft and obstruction-free. Here the ocean crashed behind wind-graced tree outlines; there it crashed again; there at a third commanding angle, again.
The light falls in shafts, as through the filtered pane of a grade school classroom. The scent of pencils comes from silent shadows: splintered pencils of fragrant Monterey Cypress logs stacked at trailside in this school terrarium. Don’t lose your pencils, your teacher’s voice warns, because the cypress grows in only this one locality on earth.
The word Monterey serves for County, Peninsula, Cypress and Pines. The field trip ascends beyond the cypress into Monterey Pine forest. The trees appear endless, but they occur in only three locations on this planet and demonstrate a misleading abundance.
We are going to a quiet and peaceful place to see pieces of orange stained glass and to watch them come to life as monarch butterfly wings. The stained glass wings move in a kind of flutter that advertises the occurrence of an event, a stationary performance rather than a flitting journey.
The wings multiply. The fluttering graces pine needles dangling with moss, the washed blue of Pacific sky as backdrop. This forest has hosted the flutter dance for thousands of years.
The character-filled topography of the Point Lobos coves features slopes sheltered from ocean wind where the still air remains mild. Point Lobos is the entry point for an indented Big Sur coastline that stretches for 85 miles and provides 7 flutter sites for wintering monarchs. Like the Monterey Pines, the monarchs lend an idyllic quality to the landscape. Again, the apparent abundance of the wings is a tragic illusion.
The social reality is that wherever the people of the Pacific coast migrate from, they tend to carry with them the exchange scheme of manicured lawn for monarch butterflies. The fragrant, uncouth jumble of milkweeds, essential to monarch reproduction, has disappeared from untold thousands of sites, cancelling out new butterfly generations.
This eloquent decline is addressed with an equation. Do we agree that the sacrifice of 10 square feet of manicured lawn or closely plowed farmland, multiplied by millions, equals a monarch flutter on this sea-sheltered hillside? Do we mow our life’s lawn with precisely identical strokes, vision absolutely level, or look upward for these memorable moments?