University of Minnesota

Finding a Connection in Conservation

Posted on Thursday, June 8, 2017 at 9:17 am in Monarch Conservation Efforts

It is not uncommon to have spiritual experiences when in nature. A deep breath of fresh air has a certain healing effect and allows our brains to reset. For many people, having natural experiences offers the opportunity for great realizations. These realizations can be minor and puzzling at times, and at others, they answer the big questions that keep us up at night. They help us recognize how to truly make an impact when the odds are against us. While on a recent trip to Mexico to visit monarch overwintering sites, the University of Minnesota Monarch Lab’s Sarah Weaver, found a deeper understanding of her purpose working in conservation.

We often think of conservation solely as a means of protecting wildlife or natural resources, but seldom think of it as a service to humans. Beyond the biology, Weaver observed a connection with the communities and the strong relationships between people. The preservation of wildlife often corresponds with the preservation of tradition and culture. Monarchs are a symbol of immigration, as well as change and growth. Their complex biology and incredible migration are an inspiration to do what we can in the limited time we have.

Weaver gave a beautiful Earth Day sermon on April 23, 2017 at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in St. Paul, Minnesota about her experiences in Mexico. You can listen to the sermon here, or read the transcription provided below:

“Happy Earth Day.

My name is Sarah and I work for the Monarch Lab at the University of Minnesota. It’s a privilege and honor to be able to talk with all of you today about a recent experience that I had in Mexico seeing the monarch butterflies. I’ve been working with monarchs since 2003 professionally in some capacity, but seeing them in person somehow brought me to a new state of understanding conservation work, connectedness, and dignity amongst communities as well.

As I rode with biologists and colleagues on roads of the Mexican state of Michoacán, I thought I was there for one purpose: to see the monarch butterfly overwintering sites. It was an honor and a privilege to be guided across multiple colonies and see the magnificent monarchs in these mountains. We drove initially to this first site, I tried to soak in as much of the landscape and its very beauty which included pine trees, flowers, succulents, cornfields, and towns that were sprinkled over tightly packed mountains and valleys. We drove up narrow streets past people working and children going to school. The streets would become narrow as we increased in elevation and the nearby towns got smaller and smaller as we traveled.

Eventually we entered a forest on a dirt road that was surrounded by trees, [filled with] the beautiful soft light that happens when you’ve got a healthy forest and you’re traveling underneath. It [was] cool, we wore wool sweaters part of the time. We arrived finally at a series of small buildings. A family owns part of this area and they collect a little bit of money from people as they go to see some of the colonies. It took us some time to get to these places. We passed a retreat center as we had gone, but we were finally there. We were finally getting close!

We got out of the car and we started walking and traveling up the dirt path. Initially I was thinking in a very science way. In my brain I had all kinds of questions about this crazy bug and how far I’d had to travel - almost 2000 miles, to see them. Why did they choose these mountains and this habitat, [what’s] so different? The monarchs I was going to see are the same ones that emerged here in Minnesota. They’ve traveled this distance in a totally different place. Why is this? How did this come to be? This is a unique behavior. When did it start? What are the connections with climate change and the impacts of that? This was very much in my head at that point. And I found that I started to get excited as we got closer. It felt like meeting and greeting an old friend.

As we approached that first colony, the forest took on a really deep quiet. It was already settled. There weren’t many people around. I was with biologists who also instinctively got quieter at themselves. To see the fir tree boughs drooping with clumps and groups of monarchs, millions of monarchs, was just incredible. In the cool morning, they didn’t move very much. They almost look like dead leaves, but if you looked closely you could really see millions of them just hangin’ out.

And the odds are against each and every single one of those monarchs. There is no reason any of them should really make it. They have to survive from egg to adult usually somewhere up here in the north. They’ve got natural predators and then human made challenges, but still they have made it, and every single one of them is a success.

For me it encapsulated a sense that nature heals, that nature survives and pushes forward. I was so in awe to see them that I actually cried. I had emotions of humbleness and wonder and this deep respect for the natural world. And an underlying sense that rebirth and renewal and survival are all possible.

But I also had something else. A twinge of something else was pulling at me and I’m still working on figuring out exactly what that is and what it means, but I knew that as I stood there I felt there has to be something more that I can do. I felt compelled to find my call of service to somehow match up with this crazy bug that had travelled 2000 miles.

What I came to realize in the days that followed seeing that first colony was that it wasn’t with the biology, it wasn’t with the monarchs themselves. What I was needing [was] the connection [which] came from watching and learning from the people in Michoacán who work in these communities surrounding the overwintering sights. These are biologists, farmers, foresters, and ecologists, and educators, and researchers, and they do conservation work, but it looked much different than what I felt like conservation work looks like here in United States.

The conservation work that I witnessed and saw [in Mexico] matched up much better for me with a sense of service because the conservation work contains the desire and need to care for the human communities in these small towns. The conservation professionals that I get to see and work with in Mexico have brought with them the idea and notion that when they help make sure everyone has food, they’ve got clean water, they’re taken care of, they [the Conservation Professionals] have uplifted the community themselves and the people and the humanity that is right there. As a result, [people are] easier on the environment in the surrounding areas. So, the bulk of the energy and time was spent on relationship and wrapping their arms around the community. That for me, was incredibly profound as a conservation person. That connection felt actually very spiritual.

I got to watch these organizations interact and work with people in the community and I have a few examples of those. One of them, her name is Ana, and I asked her one time “why do you do this work?” and her first answer was “Because I love the people.” She didn’t pause, didn’t hesitate. Then she said “And I love the trees.” That was the second piece. We were walking through the Sierra Chincua Forest to see yet another colony. She stops and she hugs the tree. She’s well in to her 60s. She’s actually the second person who was well into her 60s that I saw hug a tree. But [she] really paused and really just embraced the tree and closed her eyes. But the people is what she said was the very first thing.

I asked that same question to others that I encountered and sometimes in very broken Spanish. But still the first answer out of the mouth of every conservation worker I encountered was because of the people, because of the community. When we lift up the community it helps everyone and it helps our environment. It wasn’t just this one organization that Ana worked for. I found that multiple conservation organizations in the region also have this very human centered approach. It’s not exceptional; it’s just the way they do it there.

So with that, I found that there are rich connections and a need for maintaining and building long term relationships. They invest a lot of time and energy in their communities. This work has been happening for decades, it’s not new. That to me was really, really exciting.

To see conservation and equity intertwined is a beautiful approach to improving our world and really spoke to how I might be able to help make this a better place. So as I needed to go there and see it in person, I also found there was joy and great delight in what I found. Not only in the magnificent nature and survival of those butterflies, but also in the very human centered connectedness and attention to the people in that area. It’s inspired and instilled a new drive to do even more for my own communities here as well as for the earth.

So, thank you very much.”


Header shows monarchs at overwintering site in 2010. Photo by Don Davis.

  • © 2018 Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.
  • The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer. Privacy