by Kathleen Stocking, 06/05/2020, Traverse City, MI
The Pandemic, or How People Are Like Butterflies
When did I become more interested in reading about the plague – in little bits and pieces, skim-reading, not really reading – than daily dealings with it? “Eek, a mouse,” became, somewhere along the way, not an eek or a mouse (or the plague), but reading about it. The Internet mediates all information. The telephone is part of every conversation. I have not seen a friend face-to-face in so long I can’t remember what it’s like. I am sick and tired of my hot and germ-infested blue-green surgical mask, dangling from one ear when I’m not wearing it, and the pervasive smell of hand sanitizer. Please God, when I die, let me not smell like hand sanitizer.
It’s early June in the year 2020 on the northern shores of Lake Michigan. The stores are starting to open again but there will be no Cherry Festival in Traverse City this summer in July, no Bliss Fest in Cross Village this August, and no Leelanau Uncaged in the streets of Northport at the end of September. The entire world is in the midst of a plague. Over 100,000 people have died in America and almost four times that world-wide and more predicted. My daughter is an end-of-life care nurse in Connecticut with corona virus patients. She has had the virus and survived and is back at work in her hospital, her businessman husband working from home to take care of their children. These are the ordinary people, the unsung heroes, like the factory workers in Pennsylvania working around the clock, sleeping on the floor of the factory, to make protective gear for first responders, like the “far-flung collaboration of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs” cited in the New York Times, who figured out almost overnight how to make and mass produce ventilators.
It’s early June 2020, but in my mind, it’s late summer, mid-August 2019 out on South Fox Island. I’m lying on my back in the lacey shade of towering maples. Dunes range up the hill behind my head, as soft-looking as caramel-sweetened whipped cream. Every island is a tiny earth and South Fox Island, lapped by the rhythmic turquoise-and-indigo waters of Lake Michigan, may be one of the tiniest.
Around me volunteers work to restore the 1867 lighthouse. There’s the retired pharmacologist, Phil von Voightlander, cleaning the boathouse who that morning on the way over had explained to me the curvature of the earth. A Swiss retired oral surgeon, Joerg Rothenberger, an inventor and polymath, is measuring the depth of the water in the shoals around the island with high tech equipment. A graphic artist, Cathy Allchin, is helping Andy Thomas install a giant door, twice the size of both of them, on the lighthouse; on the boat on the way over Cathy told me the story of how she’d arrived on the Leelanau Peninsula decades earlier, a single mom who fell in love with restoring an old farmhouse. Andy and his wife, Gloria Milliken, of Thomas and Milliken Millworks, started the world-famous fall street festival, like one in Andalusia, in Spain where Andy said he felt, “I want to be right here, right now,” and brought it home to Northport. There’s a Smithsonian bee scientist, David Russell, off in the bushes somewhere exploring the island’s insect population.
South Fox Island isn’t easy to get to. For years there was no boat. People borrowed a boat from Andy Thomas. Then they found an old commercial fishing boat and restored it, a work in progress, and started to restore the lighthouse, also a work in progress. The South Fox Island Lighthouse was necessary when the shoals around the island were not something one could check out with a depth finder. Many lives were saved by lighthouse keepers and their crews and the restoration of the lighthouse is being done to honor that work and the lives saved.
My eyes are half-closed because all around me is the little-flashing-mirrors lake light. I’m looking at some orange leaves on the maple trees, vaguely thinking fall has come early. The blurry orange leaves, seen through my eyelash veil, are fluttering slightly in a soft breeze. It’s not until I see a piece of orange and black glide down on an air current, that I know that it’s not a leaf but a butterfly.
I sit up slowly. I’m surrounded by butterflies. They are in the trees. They are in the air. They are on the low-lying bushes and wild asters. Monarch Butterflies. They are migrating, a million little delicate fluttering pieces of life, resting before heading out over the lake to the mainland. Joerg Rothenberger comes by and when I point out the butterflies, tells me that when he and his wife, writer Sandra Bradshaw, were courting, they camped overnight on the island and awoke to orange trees.
Monarchs migrate 3,000 miles at about three miles an hour, about the pace of a jogger. They don’t all survive. There are high winds, rain, snow, pesticides, helicopter propellers. Some go to the mountains of Michoacan, to ancient majestic forests northwest of Mexico City, where two scientists were recently murdered, presumably by people taking out the trees. The flight of the butterflies was miraculous forever, and now, like the evolution and existence of human beings, too, it’s becoming more and more fraught with difficulties.
What does the future hold? It holds us. The spirit of helping and caring for one’s community, alive on South Fox Island, exists in us, in the human genome. We are the people and we will not quit. Like the Monarch Butterflies journeying thousands of miles through possible storms, to a place that may have no trees for them to rest in, we are not quitting. We are the people and we will do as much as we can for as long as we can, whether with making ventilators, sleeping on the factory floor to make protective gear, creating street festivals to share joy, or restoring lighthouses to honor the past. We are here and we are not going away, not anytime soon.