THE extraordinarily named protagonist of Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel, Flight Behaviour, is called Dellarobia Turnbow – a mountainy lass who has never wandered far from her Appalachian home in Tennessee, and when she sets out to climb a hill for a clandestine rendezvous she comes upon a startling sight.
There before her are shimmering orange appendages, like hornets' nests, hanging from the trees. Stopped in her tracks, she bolts back home to babble excitedly about these burning bushes which happen to be migrating monarch butterflies, normally heading for Mexico during winter months but now have ended up halfway down the US because of climate change.
The plot thickens, and there is a lot more to this novel than the unusual appearance of the butterflies and the media circus that soon follows. The insects are an offbeat spine on which to hang a work of fiction, but from Ms Kingsolver of The Poisonwood Bible fame, it is not entirely unexpected, perhaps.
Monarchs have wingspans of from three to four inches and are beautiful creatures. I am fortunate to have had a sighting or two thousands of miles from their usual paths of travel, in Mediterranean Europe, one in a floral border outside a hotel on a busy town street in the Algarve, another on a rocky cliff-top on a wild coast where Vasco da Gama set out to claim territories for the Portuguese.
These sightings would have been on days of great sun and heat probably following strong Atlantic winds when anything seems possible and welcome – except, of course, mosquitoes and ticks and fleas from the scrub undergrowth.
Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are Americans of legendary migrations, travelling from the northern states to central Mexico on one route and to Baja California on another. Their long journeys there and back embrace three to four generations of the species, mating and egg-laying, the mysteries of flight paths apparently inherited. They get their nourishment from milkweed, a plant of poisonous substances, cardenolide aglycones, which the insects absorb giving them an almost impregnable defence against hungry birds.
The butterfly has a lookalike, the viceroy, smaller with an extra black stripe, and a white morph has emerged in recent years mainly in Hawaii.
The orange and black-winged monarch regularly gets blown from its eastern passages to Bermuda, and then there is the rare landfall of the Azores, Madeira, the Canaries and the Algarve – even Cornwall. On the far side of the world, in Australia and New Zealand, it is known as the wanderer. What a traveller!
This past year I followed a fleeting glimpse in a peaceful park in the middle of a town in Portugal, but this one was a fast mover.
Monarchs of the past have left impressions of dark worm spines boldly raised on a pristine sheet, black-veined and black-fringed.
The Mexico sun-seekers hang out in clusters on fir and pine trees until spring when they rouse themselves and head north again, feasting on milkweed and depositing their eggs on the plant, expiring and so handing on the baton to the next generation which in turn will do likewise on the journey north in one of nature's most remarkable journeys.