A swarm of Monarch butterflies. Photo: Adobe Stock

With America having become a great divide over just about everything, still virtually all of us are drawn to a special gift of nature: butterflies. And the most well-known butterfly species, the stately, colorful Monarch butterfly, is forecast to arrive in New York earlier than usual this year, and in surprisingly huge numbers.

And the Monarchs had a hero of their own, someone whose life story stands out at once as an inspiration and a tragedy.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Just last March, the government of Mexico, where Monarch butterflies migrate for the winter, reported that the number of Monarchs showing up at their winter resting grounds decreased by about 53%. The World Wildlife Fund assisted in the count.

They do this count by area rather than actual individuals, in the pine and fir forests west of Mexico’s capital. After migrating to Mexico every year from Canada and the Northeast U.S., these forests are where the Monarchs settle in dense clusters, so many thousands of them that the branches are weighed down such that the trees seem draped with orange leaves.

Others who monitored this most recent count included the Center for Biological Diversity. Tierra Curry, one of their senior scientists, according to AP, said that they were “expecting the count to be down slightly, but this level of decrease is heartbreaking.”

The worrisome signs didn’t stop there. Monarch migration between Mexico and the US West Coast has virtually stopped for the past several years. Weather conditions, more unstable of late, have affected their ability to reproduce. Add destructive pesticides, chiefly produced by the Bayer Company, that have had devastating effects on not only Monarchs, but also bees and other pollinators. (See my March 27, 2017 column on this subject here.)

As it turns out, the Monarch, as light as a feather but with unbounded energy, has stumped the experts, much to everyone’s delight. And 121 million of them are heading thousands of miles to New York State, giving our state, and hopefully Long Island — an astonishing 144% jump in the Monarch butterfly population.

Photo: Adobe Stock

This great news comes from the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Theirs is a website worth visiting. For Monarch fans — and who isn’t a Monarch fan — the news from Xerces is a thrill to read. As things have been going, well embrace any message for our beleaguered New York, struggling to recover from the misery of our status as America’s pandemic epicenter.

Is there a parallel in this? Consider the seemingly endless, discouraging information we Long Islanders have been fed everyday about a deadly virus, yet somehow we are climbing out of it. So too the alarming scientific data about their world spelled the Monarchs’ doom. But now we learn that they’re rebounding in droves. Time will tell shortly — the experts predict Monarch butterflies galore before the end of June. Are these Monarchs something akin to spiritual messengers? Some have believed exactly that for thousands of years.

Enter Homero Gomez, the straight-talking, charismatic manager of a unique butterfly sanctuary in El Rosario, in the western Mexican state of Michoacán. To this very place, half the world’s Monarchs come to rest, around the same day, the 2nd of November. The Purepecha, the indigenous people of this region, call this date “Dia de Muertos,” the day of the dead.

Homero Gomez grew up here, in a poor, Purepecha family of 10 children, living off the timber from the forest, mainly the oyamel pine, the Monarchs’ favorite winter roost. Even though the locals felled these trees every day, sold the timber and planted maize on the cleared land, which they could not own under Mexico’s century-old land “reforms,” still they revered the Monarchs, who are connected, as taught in their folklore, to the Purepechas’ ancestral spirits.

In the late 1990s, Gomez at first angrily opposed the Mexican government’s announced plan to make a sanctuary for the Monarchs from part of this forest. He had become a natural leader of the area, and demanded with popular backing that the people be compensated for each tree preserved. But as true leaders are prone to do, he began first to reflect, then to change his mind. He saw the harm of the widespread over-cutting, and before long became the champion of the preserve, even of its extension. His reverence for the Monarchs grew to be his life’s purpose.

He became the manager of the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary. He planted new trees far and wide, even on maize plots, and grew more trees in nurseries. At first his people thought him insane, but he skillfully persuaded them to join him, and they came to do so lovingly. Incredibly, the butterflies loved him as well, often alighting on his head, his chest, even his nose, right above his trademark, huge mustache. They were his “darlings” and his “angels.“

Gomez turned this Monarch preserve into Mexico’s (and thus the world’s) largest. He tweeted and posted videos with calls of “Gran espectaculo” that drew crowds over the four months of the Monarchs’ stay each year. Here is one of his promotional videos: though in Spanish, his spirited message is clear:

Up to 140,000 visitors responded with delight in the good years, paying 100 pesos for a guided tour on horseback, or 50 pesos by foot. They bought butterfly wings in the sanctuary shop, or had their wedding photos taken beneath the trees, with Monarchs joining in the pose. From every January till March, the villagers made good money.

Just as incredibly, the volunteers he recruited planted over 1 million trees. Politicians came around now and then to pose for pictures, doing little else, though the Monarchs didn’t seem to mind. Then the WWF began to give money and support, even colorful jackets for the tour guides. Gomez and his team continued in their humble lifestyle, but for the Monarchs, this was the good life.

Then the evil “narcotrafficantes” took notice. Like poison gas, armed bands of them began to seep into the preserve at night for illegal logging, also to make way for their brazen planting of profitable avocados. Gomez bravely swore to beat to a pulp any intruders he caught, and organized night patrols, undaunted by repeated death threats.

But then, as reported in the Washington Post on Jan. 29, he went missing on Jan. 13, as tens of thousands of environmental activists, journalists and uncooperative officials had before him. Two weeks later, his body, having suffered a blow to the head, was found floating in a well at the preserve. One of his trusted guides met the same fate a few days later. In a year’s time up till then, 1,600 murders had occurred in Michoacán, of 35,000 in all of horror-stricken Mexico, where thousands more remain missing.

Through all this, the brilliantly hued Monarch butterflies are beating the odds. Now we are told that they head in great, unexpected (“Gran espetaculo”) numbers to New York — more than we’ve seen in over 12 years — where a sign, any sign, of hope and renewal will raise our battered spirits. So let’s welcome the Monarchs, and celebrate in grateful memory their hero, Homer Gomez.

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg