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“Moving For Monarchs” started with an email I received on the 20th of March. My inbox is flooded with emails, so many that I can’t answer them all (and to those of you that I haven’t gotten back to – I apologize). I make a special effort to try to get back to journalists in a timely manner and, when I received an email with the subject line “Hoping to speak with you”, I thought it might be from a journalist and I opened it. To my surprise, it was an offer to assist in publicizing the need for monarch conservation from a 21 year-old dancer, actor, and writer by the name of Gwynedd (pronounced Gwyneth) from New York City. I found the letter to be quite compelling, and Gwynedd and I arranged to talk one Sunday afternoon. The idea of using dance to communicate the importance of monarch conservation was intriguing, but I was skeptical. I didn’t have a clear vision of how this might work and, as with any creative process, Gwynedd needed time for her initial idea to develop and emerge. We spoke many times over the next few months, mostly when I was working in the lab on Sunday afternoons. These were good times to talk since were no interruptions and I did a lot of listening as Gwynedd explored various ideas and tried to bring together a team that could help her fulfill her vision. Late in the spring, the team began to come together, and we started planning how to arrange for Gwynedd and her production crew to come to Kansas to film her first monarch conservation video. I made arrangements with my neighbors Dan and Linda Haney to do some filming on their property and through Dr. John Briggs to conduct most of the shoot on the Konza Prairie just outside of Manhattan, Kansas.
Gwynedd and her Moving for Monarchs crew arrived in Lawrence for a photo shoot and interviews at Monarch Watch on the afternoon of the 21st of June. Late in the day, we drove to the Konza Prairie to view the shooting locations planned for the next two days. Flowering in the prairie was at its peak with literally thousands of butterfly weeds (Asclepias tuberosa) and other milkweeds in full bloom. The weather during the shoot was iffy with strong winds. Splashes of sunlight scattered over the landscape though gaps in rapidly moving multicolored clouds – some of which shed a tear or two on the prairie. We worked around the rains and the winds and completed the filming late on Sunday the 23rd of June. What followed the trip to Kansas is best told by Gwynedd. The process of post production was long and complex. Gwynedd and Gabriella (the Director of Photography) live in NYC and Washington D.C., respectively, so the process involved a number of bus and train rides as well as extensive online file sharing–tasks completed on a volunteer basis by the young artists. Throughout these stages, Gwynedd and team carried on – working on the project whenever they could while also developing the promotion for the Kickstarter project. I can’t wait for you all to see the film–it speaks to awakening the need to conserve the monarch migration.
Below is the letter that made me Move For Monarchs.
Date: Wed, 20 Mar 2013 22:34:04 -0400
Subject: Hoping to speak with you
From: Gwynedd Vetter-Drusch
Dear Professor Taylor,
I am writing to you after having read the article “Monarch Migration Plunges to Lowest Level in Decades” from the New York Times last week. I would like to take positive action to raise awareness and implement solutions, such as those you have proposed in your latest blog post (including the planting of large amounts of milkweed) in order to counteract the effects of loss of monarch habitat.
I am a 21 year-old dancer, actor, and writer living, studying, and working in New York City. However, I have not always lived in New York. I grew up, in fact, in the small town of Manson, Iowa. My family moved to Manson from Seattle, WA, when I was about nine years old. It was in Manson that I discovered monarchs.
As a child I roamed our family farm (my family has been farming in the area for four generations), including a seven acre pasture which has never been tilled. They say you can still see the stagecoach tracks where the stagecoach used to run through those seven acres. This pasture sat on the edge of town, just across from Rose Hill Cemetery.
During the hours I spent outside in the summertime, I noticed that dozens of monarchs would fly back and forth across the road from the pasture to the cemetery and back again. One day I followed them from the pasture, which was full of milkweed, to the cemetery.
There I saw one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. As I walked down a row of the largest old trees in the cemetery, I realized that the leaves on the branches were shifting and moving. When I came closer, I discovered that the leaves were actually butterflies, turning the branches a rusty orange. It was a large group of butterflies, I would say over a hundred monarchs at least (though to me the numbers seemed even greater), and they had situated themselves on the branches.
If you walked among them or moved a low-hanging branch, the world around you would explode in fluttering orange.
I cannot fully describe the effect that this and other experiences with monarchs have had on me. But those encounters have shaped my work as a performing artist, have been the subject of my poetry and a children’s book I am working on, and have had a profound impact on who I am as a person.
Throughout middle school and high school, I attended various science and environmental leadership camps through the University of Iowa and Northland College (in Ashland, WI). Biology was one of my favorite subjects, and Rachel Carson became one of my personal heroes. However, over time and through some surprising events, my focus shifted to the study of classical ballet, and that took me from Iowa to New York City at the age of 17.
Yet, I have always carried the memory of monarchs with me. Their delicate strength—their ability to migrate so far on seemingly paper-thin wings—has often been the source of personal inspiration when I encountered difficulties throughout my dance studies. In fact, the parallels between monarchs and ballet dancers are striking. Not least among these is the physical transformation of butterfly from earth-bound caterpillar to flying creature, which is like the transformation of dance student to full-fledged dancer, capable of performing amazing physical feats—including hanging for a moment in suspension in the air: flight.
Perhaps this seems to romanticize a living organism, but in a way monarchs have a sort of mythological appeal. They are these incredibly beautiful, vulnerable creatures who go on a migration journey. I believe that this is one level that every person can relate to, and it is on this level that even those who do not understand the inherent worth of a species in its rightful function within a living system can begin to understand. And they can be inspired to take action.
I feel strongly compelled to take action myself, and as I lay awake in bed for several hours the night after reading the article, an idea came to mind, and I could not sleep until I had gotten out of bed and written down the details. I have been continuing to develop it since then.
I see a way to raise awareness of the problems facing monarchs and help Monarch Watch and other groups in their efforts to solve the problems. What I see combines the art forms of dance and photography (and perhaps film) and the power of the internet in a way that makes the issue highly visible.
I would be very interested in starting a conversation with you about this idea, either by phone or by email, whichever you prefer.
I can be reached at the following number, or at this email address.