Inspired by my friend Nina’s beautiful altar that she and her family and friends create every year for the feast of St. Joseph, for the past seven years or so we have been celebrating Día de Muertos with an ofrenda that we set up on our front porch. Placing the ofrenda on the porch over Halloween makes for a wonderful hybrid bridge between American Halloween and the Mexican tradition of honoring the souls of lost loved ones. On Halloween night our porch has become a gathering place where we so very much look forward to seeing our neighborhood friends each year.
Cemetery Macheros, Mexico
The Mexican festivities of Día de Muertos typically begins the night of October 31st, with families sitting vigil at grave sites. Mexican tradition holds that on November 1st and 2nd, the dead awaken to reconnect and celebrate with their living family and friends; on the 1st to honor the souls of children and on the 2nd, to honor adults. The ofrenda, or “offering to the dead,” is a sacred Mexican tradition where those who have passed away are honored by the living.
In late October millions of Monarchs begin to arrive to the magnificent oyamel fir and pine tree forests of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, located in the heart of Mexico in the eastern regions of Michoacán and western edge of Estado de México. Their return coincides with the annual celebration of Día de Muertos. In Mexican folklore, butterflies represent the souls of departed loved ones, returning to Earth to be remembered by their ancestors. An even older tradition connects the Monarchs with the corn harvest, as their return signified that the corn was ripe. In the language of the native Purpécha Indians, the name for the Monarch is “harvester.”
Oyamel fir tree (Abies religiosa) with Monarchs Cerro Pelon, Mexico
The Day of the Dead finds its roots in the native people of central and southern Mexico. The Aztecs recognized many gods, including a goddess of death and the underworld named Mictecacihuatl.
Mictecacihuatl was linked to both death and resurrection. According to one myth, Mictecacihuatl and her husband collected bones so that they might be returned to the land of the living and restored by the gods. Just as did the ancient Egyptians, the Aztecs appeased the underworld gods by burying their dead with food and precious objects.
Día de Muertos is a celebration blending both indigenous people’s cultural beliefs and observances held by Spanish Catholics. The conquerors found it difficult to convince native peoples to give up their rituals honoring the goddess of death Mictecihuatl. The compromise was to move these indigenous festivities from late July to early November to correspond with the three-day Christian observance of All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
This year I have been thinking about Camille Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre, Op. 40, which is based on the French legend that Death packs a fiddle and comes to play at midnight on Halloween, causing the skeletons in the cemetery to crawl out of the ground for their annual graveyard dance party.
Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre comes from an even older concept, the medieval allegory of the all conquering and equalizing power of death, which was expressed in poetry, music, the visual arts, and drama in Western Europe in the late Middle Ages.
Marigold flowers (Tagetes erecta), known as cempazúchitl or flor de muerto are placed on graves and ofrendas. The cempazúchitl are believed to lure souls back from the dead with their vibrant colors and lovely citrus, musky fragrance
Marigolds (Tagetes tenuifolia) and Painted Lady butterfly
It is not easy to host a film festival during the pandemic. Without doubt, it takes enormous amounts of work and professionalism. Festival organizer Eric Bilodeau created a fantastic event, and managed to do all with grace and a wonderful sense of humor. I looked forward to Eric’s communications, for instance, when he requested stills from the film, I sent a batch of photos. He wrote back, did I have anything more colorful? I was taken aback at first before realizing he was kidding. And when he announced Beauty had won, writing -“the Monarch is King!” I think I will use that in the future 🙂
I was able to view many of the films and they were wonderfully interesting and inspiring. I am so proud Beauty on the Wing was a part of the Providence Children’s Film Festival! This was mentioned previously but two of my favorites were Microplastic Madness and The Last Lightkeepers. I hope you have a chance to see if you haven’t already done so.
Thank you so very much again for your kind support.
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that Monarchs are indeed threatened with extinction, but will not be added to the US list of Endangered and Threatened Species. The official designation is “warranted, but precluded,” which means they fall in line behind 161 other species considered more endangered.
Monarchs mating in a patch of Common Milkweed, Good Harbor Beach Gloucester
From USFWS –
What action did the Service take?
We have made a 12-month finding on a petition to list the monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Based on a thorough review of the monarch’s status, we determined that listing is warranted, but a proposal to list the monarch is precluded at this time while we work on higher-priority listing actions.
Is the monarch federally protected now?
No. Our 12-month finding does not protect monarchs under the ESA at this time. We first must propose the monarch for listing as either an endangered or threatened species, gather and analyze public comments and any new information, and using the best available science, make a final decision and publish a final rule. That process is deferred while we work on higher-priority listing actions.
What is a 12-month finding?
Under the ESA, when we receive a petition to list a species, we first make a 90-day finding, in which we evaluate the information in the petition to see if it is substantial enough to begin a review of the species’ status. If it is a substantial finding, we then prioritize the species in our evaluation process, and at the appropriate time, we begin a status review. The culmination of that review is a 12-month finding on whether listing is warranted, not warranted, or warranted but precluded by higher-priority listing actions.
Who petitioned the Service to list the monarch?
The Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, Xerces Society and a private individual petitioned us in 2014 to list the monarch. We made a positive 90-day finding in December 2014 and launched the status review in 2016.
Read more questions and answers here on the USFWS website –
In case you missed previous posts and emails, if you would like to see my Monarch Butterfly film documentary, please consider watching Saturday, November 21st, from the comfort and safety of your own home, via the Boston International Kids Film Festival and WGBH. 100 percent of the ticket sales goes to support this outstanding festival! There will be a Q and A following the screening, with me in the role of director, and hosted by WGBH and Filmmakers Collaborative.
With beautiful music by Jesse Cook and filmed on Cape Ann, Cape May, Santa Barbara, and the butterfly sanctuaries at Cerro Pelon and Angangueo, Mexico. Please share with friends and click the link below to learn more.
Block #3 Beauty on the Wing: Life Story of the Monarch Butterfly
Thank you, thank you, thank you to Joann Mackenzie, Andrea Holbrook, and the Gloucester Times for the beautifully written story“Butterfly Film Takes Flight”.
Ten years in the making, Kim Smith’s butterfly film takes flight
Kim Smith’s monarch movie 10 years in the making
GLOUCESTER TIMES OCTOBER 28, 2020
By Joann Mackenzie Staff Writer
Every story has a back story, and Kim Smith’s back story began in her backyard.
In the mid 1990s, Smith — an award-winning landscape designer — filled her Gloucester garden with native and pollinator plantings that attract all manner of winged creatures. These, thanks to lots of milkweed, included lots of magnificent monarch butterflies. “I just loved them,” says Smith, “I wanted more and more of them.”
There began a tale that this year saw Smith complete a 10-year project, the making of the 56-minute documentary “Beauty on the Wing — Life Story of the Monarch Butterfly.” In a few short months, and despite the pandemic canceling its local premiere, the film has seen its way to six film festivals, all virtual, the latest of which — the Boston International Kids Film Festival — runs Nov. 20 to 22.
American Public TV Worldwide —the world’s largest distributor of educational television has just signed the documentary for global distribution.
Armed with a handheld digital camera, an artist’s eye, and a love of her subject, Smith has captured the life, work and world of what she calls “this charismatic little creature,” beginning with its metamorphosis from a tiny egg, to its amazing annual journey from the summer shores of its Gloucester habitats to its winter habitats in the Mexican mountains and forests of Michoacán, where the monarchs annual arrival has long been regarded as something of a miracle: the returning of the souls of the dead descending from the sky in fluttering orange clouds, to roost by the millions in the trees.
When she began the project in 2006, Smith knew nothing about filmmaking. Photographing the monarchs, first as “a record,” she was urged on by family and friends. One of them, Gloucester’s late historian Joe Garland, was particularly encouraging. “Oh, I thought, I have to learn to make a film,” she recalls, of her early days learning the basics with Andrew Love and Lisa Smith at Cape Ann TV (now Studio 1623).
Investing in a hand-held HD Canon video camera, Smith began shooting digital. “It was small and so easy to use that I could crouch down, or lie down to capture extreme close-ups,” she says. Supported by community fundraising that covered the $35,000 production budget, she shot “tons of footage over the years,” wrote and recorded the narrative script, and saved on post production costs by teaching herself to digitally edit her film.
Her goal, she says, was not just to celebrate the monarch, but to educate viewers about the plight of this creature that is loved around the world. Indigenous to North America, these light, bright orange butterflies have through the centuries been blown by wind and weather to other continents, including England, where, in the late 17th century, they were named in honor of King William III of England, also known as the Prince of Orange.
In the last 20 years, however, the butterflies’ numbers have plummeted worldwide from a billion to 30 million, as the excessive use of herbicides has killed off much of their main food source —milkweed— while climate change has confused their flight patterns. And in Mexico, the logging of trees has sabotaged the delicate ecosystem of their annual return.
Smith’s film joins a growing body of environmental activism on behalf of the monarch butterfly. Gardeners across the nation have, like Smith, filled flower beds with milkweed to feed their numbers. The Obama administration, concerned by its alarming decline, allocated $3.2 million to protect it.
In making her documentary, Smith traveled to Mexico twice to film, and learned firsthand just how endangered the monarchs have become. Over time, she says, she came to see monarchs as “little gateway creatures that can open the way to for people to learn about other endangered creatures.”
At Good Harbor Beach, a favorite early morning photographic haunt, Smith began to turn her camera to another local endangered species, piping plovers. Like the monarchs, the little shore birds rely on a fragile ecosystem that Smith began to take an active role in protecting, while filming them. With her monarch documentary now in worldwide release, the piping plovers are on their way to star billing in a new documentary, now in production.
Meanwhile, the Boston International Kids Film Festival, a program of Filmmakers Collaborative, will screen Smith’s documentary as “one of best that the world of independent filmmaking has to offer.” Shown for one week to schoolchildren across the city, the festival, which describes her documentary as “illuminating how two regions, separated by thousands of miles, are ecologically interconnected,” will then host a Zoom author event in which the students can engage in a Q&A which Smith herself.
Smith, by the way, doesn’t just train her talents on winged creatures. In yet another ongoing film project, she captures the aerial antics of Gloucester’s falling Greasy Pole walkers. That documentary, which celebrates the spirit of the city’s annual St Peters Fiesta, is well underway.
Gloucester resident Kim Smith is a documentary filmmaker, environmental conservationist, photojournalist, author, illustrator and award-winning landscape designer.
Her documentary “Beauty on the Wing: Life Story of the Monarch Butterfly” was released in February. It has been chosen as an official selection at New Haven Documentary, Nature Without Borders International, Flickers’ Rhode Island International , Docs Without Borders , WRPN Women’s International, and Conservation Wildlife film festivals.
It next shows at the Boston International Kids Film Festival (https://bikff.org/schedule/) on Nov. 20 to 22; tickets start at $20. Links to view the film will be provided upon ticket purchase.
In March I had the tremendous joy of interviewing Ellen Sharp and Joel Moreno Rojas, founders of the nonprofit organization “The Butterflies and Their People Project.” We filmed the interview from the rooftop of their hotel, JM Butterfly B&B, which is located at the base of Cerro Pelon Monarch Butterfly Reserve in Macheros, Mexico. Cerro Pelon is the old volcanic mountain where the Monarchs wintering home was first located by Mexican citizen scientist Catalina Aguado Trail, on January 2, 1975. Trail was at the time working under the direction of zoologist Doctor Fred Urquhart of the University of Toronto.
Joel and Ellen are simply an amazing dynamic duo. They have built a beautiful and welcoming bed and breakfast at Cerro Pelon, the most pristine and least trafficked of Monarch sanctuaries. Largely through the conservation efforts of The Butterflies and Their People Project they have helped provide economic opportunities that have in turn dramatically reduced illegal logging and deforestation of the core protected areas of the forest.
The mission of The Butterflies and Their People Project is to “preserve the butterfly sanctuary by creating jobs for local people in forest and monarch butterfly conservation. The Butterflies & Their People Project is an Asociación Civil (non-profit organization) registered and located in the village of Macheros in the State of Mexico.”
I hope you’ll watch and will be equally as enamored of Joel and Ellen as were we. You’ll learn more about how The Butterflies and Their People Project came to be, the importance of protecting the existing Monarch Butterfly forest sanctuaries, and how jobs and economic growth go hand and hand with protecting the vitally important temperate forests of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. And a bit about how this extraordinary couple met and began their journey in Monarch conservation.
HERE’S TO A HAPPY NEW YEAR AND A HAPPY NEW DECADE!
In spending the afternoon reflecting on the past year’s wildlife stories and photos, I have been thinking about what an extraordinary place is Cape Ann. How fortunate we all are to see amazing and beautiful wildlife stories unfolding in our own backyards each and every day! I am planning a Cape Ann Wildlife 2019 Year in Pictures and hope to find the time to post that this week.
News this year of an increase in Monarchs at the butterfly’s overwintering sites in Mexico, as well as strong numbers during the summer breeding season and fall migration, gives me great hope for the future of this beautiful species, and for all wildlife that we take underwing.
Monarchs flying into Gloucester butterfly trees, forming an overnight roost.
Our community has taken under its wings a pair of Piping Plovers. The two began calling Good Harbor Beach home in 2016. Because the community came together and worked as a team, this year we were able to fledge three tiny, adorable marshmallow-sized fluff balls at Gloucester’s most well-loved and populous beach. Thank you Piping Plover friends and Community for all that you did to help these most vulnerable of shorebirds successfully reach flying age.
Another example of “underwing” – three nearly full grown PiPl chicks, all determined to nestle for warmth under Papa
Ribbons of orange and black butterflies are stopping to roost overnight all along the Gulf Coast of Florida’s Panhandle. These Monarchs are primarily members of the Atlantic Coast population. Because these Monarchs live for about seven to eight months, they are often referred to as a super generation of Monarchs, and are also known as the Methuselah Monarchs. They will continue along the Gulf Coast, soon joining the steady stream of Monarchs migrating through the central part of the US to cross the great Central Mexican Plateau (Altiplanicie Mexicana).
The Plateau is bordered by the Sierra Madre Occidental to the west and the Sierra Madre Oriental to the East. The Plateau ends where the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Mountains begin, forming a natural barrier, which prohibits further migration. The butterflies roost in the beautiful pine-oak forests of the Eje Volcanico Transversal.
The Atlantic Coast Super Generation of Monarchs, otherwise known as Methuselah Monarchs, Gloucester 2019
Monarch Butterfly overnight roost Gloucester 2019
The Monarchs are arriving to Mexico in ever increasing numbers. Colonies have yet to form, but that is not unusual for this time of year. Below are reports from Mexico from two of the butterfly sanctuaries where I filmed “Beauty on the Wing.” Ellen Sharp, along with her husband Joel Moreno Rojas, founded the nonprofit organization Butterflies and Their People, located at Cerro Pelón, Macheros. Estela Romero is Journey North’s program coordinator for Mexico and writes from her home in Angangueo, Michoacán.
From Macheros, MEX:
Ellen submitted this report: “From 1:08–1:24 pm on October 31, 2019 we spotted at least 54 determined little specks pumping their way across the sky. Meanwhile up on the Carditos side of, the Butterflies & Their People guardians sighted many more. Starting at 12:16 pm, Leonel and Francisco counted an average of eight per minute for the next ten minutes. Ever since that day, the skies have been filled with monarchs flying overhead until the afternoon rains arrive. We have yet to hear any news of colony formation on Cerro Pelon.” (10/31/2019)
Ellen and Joel, co-founders of Butterflies and Their People, also co-own JM Monarch Butterfly B and B, located in Macheros.
Gravesite Macheros, Mexico
From Angangueo, MEX
Here They Come!
Estela Romero writes:
Our dear friends,
Regardless of bad weather with rain, fog and dark clouds covering the sky for almost three weeks, Monarchs found no obstacle and poured down from the sky to attend to their ancestral encounter with incredible accuracy on the October 31st and November 1st.
“There they come”, “down to the bottom to town those go”, “up they just lifted flight”, “over there many more”, students, Emilio, Fernanda, Kevin and Diana, shouted. The monarchs were migrating through the valley. Monarchs do their triumphal entrance and last flying performance before they make their choice and split to their final destination at the unique Oyamel tree spots in the Sierra Madre mountains of “El Rosario” and “Sierra Chincua”, in Central México, two of the three main Sanctuaries at the region.
Monitoring map kept by students shows how the numbers of monarchs suddenly rose to hundreds!
Our legendary Mathusalen Generation of Monarchs, the Daughters of the Sun, have been, since ancestral times, the symbol of the after-life world of our ancestors and recently dead close relatives — the Miktlan dimension. Our indigenous groups show deep understanding of the relationship between life and death. Monarchs are the connection of this mystic relationship between life and death.
“At last their souls appear shaped as orange and black beautiful energetic butterflies coming to all of us families, after longing for their arrival all year long; our memories will always prevail upon their absence; they will always be among us; not invoking their lives and our time together would be really letting them die and forgotten, no, never”, murmur parents and grandpas as they hod their children and grandchildren by their hands in the streets of the town.
“We all gather around our Ofrendas at home and even in public open sites. Each ofrenda may have from 2 levels, which represent heaven and earth, up to 7 or even 9 levels, each one a different dimension that the soul of our dead ones (the Tonali) will go through before reaching the Miktlan dimension”, explained elementary school teacher, Margarita. The Ofrenda is a collection of objects placed on a ritual display during the annual and traditionally Mexican Día de Muertos celebration.
“Each Ofrenda shall contain all favorite meals, drinks, objects, garments, and tools or utensils symbolizing our ancestor’s lives, preferences, enjoyment and ordinary living”, Víctor, Pamela and Juan explained as they gave their finishing touches to their beautiful Ofrenda.
“The colorful papel picado is exclusively sold at this time of the year for the decoration of our Ofrendas; the Zempatzúchitl flower’s (Marygold) fragance shall guide the spirits of our ancestors to reach home; candle lights meaning light, hope and faith, shall also help them come home and then go back to their Miktlan world; our moms and grandma’s assisted by the rest of the family shall cook our dead ones’ favorite dishes in advance for this day; salt and water are main components of an Ofrenda, meaning relieve to thirst and hunger to the visiting spirits; all kinds of drinks, fruit and our delicious “Pan de Muerto“ shall be included too. Tortillas, tamales, atole, tequila,mezcal andcerveza are indispensable in any Ofrenda; finally, at the very top, the photo or photos of our dead relative(s) to whom honor the Ofrenda has been set”,explained Ceciia, a middle school student, wearing her beautiful Catrina costume.
The Alebrijes also symbolize the Day of the Dead. The Alebrijes are bright, colorful, fantasy cardboard cutouts of creatures which are mixtures two or more animal body. The Alebrijes is part of our Mexican culture which has hit the international screen in films like Coco. TheAlebrije’s role is to guide the spirits of our dead ones to earth and back to the Miktlan underworld once their two-day visit is over.
“Our ancestors spirits shall share with us a big, big fest while we sing their favorite songs, play their favorite music, tell unforgettable anecdotes and memories and fill our homes with colour, flavors and joy to know that they shall be always among us and never gone from home and from our families”, teacher, Nacho, explained as he described the Ofrenda to the dead miners in town. Nacho is featured in the photo and shows how our town, Angangueo, was historically a mining town with mining the main employment for most families many decades ago.
Walo, a teacher who dressed up as Catrín, and Catrina Magali showed two different Ofrendas to our Monarch butterflies, souls of our dead ones, as the main symbol of these unique festivities in our region and all over our country as the ever living spirits of our dead ones.
As the festivals and the celebratory meals are over and our cemetery is dressed up to greet the monarchs as our ancestors, lets turn down our voices and let us be still and silent as we wait to see at least one single Mathusalen Monarch arrive; let us all children and families from our three host countries, Canada, United States and México stand hand-in-hand while sharing our wonderful responsibility and our ancestral, unbreakable link among our three nations, while watching great-great-grandchildren Monarch pouring down as if from the heavens to our majestic mountains where they will see the exact Oyamel tree where their great-great-grand parents overwintered the season before — and without having been to México before this week!
The line on the map above isn’t rain, but from butterflies and dragonflies. We can surmise based on what has been happening along our shores that the species you see in this front are most likely a swirl of Monarchs, Painted Ladies, and Green Darner Dragonflies. The north easterly winds are carrying the insects south.
Below is a map showing autumn and spring migrations. The orange arrow is the fall migratory route of the Monarchs.Anything red represents rain. Blue indicates more unusual shapes, often biological in origin. Notice behind the “butterfly front” the large spattering of blue. That’s where the insects were. (GR2 Analyst)
My husband Tom and I returned from filming Monarchs in Mexico very late Monday night. The first day back was pasta making for Saint Joseph Day at the Groppos and spending time with our son Alex and granddaughter Charlotte. Yesterday and today I’ve been pouring through the footage to add to the film. I’ll write some posts about beautiful Mexico, the fantastic JM Butterfly B and B, and the magnificent Monarchs as soon as I have time to sort through the photos. It was an adventure of a lifetime!
I was most worried about torturing Tom and wasn’t entirely sure we would have uninterrupted internet access so he could work remotely, but he had the best time meeting new people, riding horses up the mountain, climbing Cerro Pelon, and practicing his Spanish!