Unions in Our Lives

I was a member of the teachers’ union, American Federation of Teachers, all the thirty-some years I worked at Niles Township High Schools, served a term as local president, and worked several years as grievance officer.  I know what the union did for members and for non-members who were required to pay a fair-share of union expenses, less political contributiions.  In all that time, no non-members ever made and issue of having to pay their “fair-share”.    rjn

As justices debate, remember the middle class,
Unions are to thank for shared prosperity

 Chicago Tribune  1.26.16

Ron Grossman

   I don’t belong to a union. I didn’t have to because my maternal grandfather was a member of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. His brother was, too, and their sister belonged to the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Another brother drove a taxi, a union button pinned to his cap.   They were part of a labor movement that was midwife to the American middle class.   Unions never enrolled a majority of workers. At their high point in the 1950s, they counted a third of American workers as members. But their impact was far greater.

Where unions are strong, nonunion workers benefit because employers offer competitive wages to keep their workforce from defecting.   That’s how I got to wear a white shirt and tie, the dress uniform of the middle class.

I was a child during the Great Depression, when my father sometimes drove a cab. Other times he was a furniture mover, and most often he was out of work. Then defense production for World War II kicked off an economic boom, and my father became a department store salesman.   There was no union, as many white-collar workers disdained the labor movement as beneath their newfound dignity. But salaries were decent, buoyed by the general rise in pay as unions got members a bigger slice of the pie. My father could afford for me to stay in school and go to college. So here I am. And not just me. Such was the experience of myriad families. 

  Think about that as the U.S. Supreme Court wrestles with the issues in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association.   Earlier this month the justices heard oral arguments in the case that turns on the so-called no-free-lunch provision of the union contract in a school district near Anaheim, Calif. It requires teachers to pay a portion of the union’s dues even if they choose not to join.

Several teachers sued, claiming that violates their First Amendment rights. Unions take political positions, the teachers noted, with which they might not agree.   By the union’s logic, all teachers benefit from the salary scale it negotiates. So shouldn’t all have to pay their share of the cost of negotiating a contract?

Can’t the free-speech issue  be addressed by giving nonmembers a discount — subtracting an amount proportional to what the union spends on political activities?   Some legal scholars say it’s hard to imagine a line cleanly separating politicking from collective bargaining. Fair enough, but should the justices agree, it will close a chapter of what, in the heady days of the 1960s, was proclaimed “People’s History.” The story of the little guy. The kind who carries a lunchbox and a thermos to work. 

  Before unions, he long got the short end of the stick. His work day was arduous — 10 and even 12 hours was the norm — and extra pay for overtime was unheard of. In the needle trades, when orders backed up, the boss’ mantra was: “If you don’t come in on Sunday, don’t bother to come in on Monday.” Unions were handicapped by courts declaring them a “conspiracy.” Even when unions got a toehold, progress was painfully slow.   My grandfather supplemented his sweatshop wages by working evenings at home. I can still see him sitting behind a sewing machine, occasionally joining the conversation between running a line of stitches. Yet even then, the union provided a benefit: an exhilarating sense that a worker wasn’t on his own. My grandmother complained that all her husband wanted to talk about was “shop, shop, union, union.”  

The benefits got more tangible in the postwar decades. Industries that had held union organizers at bay were organized. Assembly line workers got contracts, and the nation’s demography was radically altered.

Most societies look like a pyramid: a few rich people at the top, a lot of poor people at the bottom, and a small middle class in between. But America’s profile got a potbelly: the middle class grew until, by 1971, it was larger than the upper and lower classes combined.   Ordinary folks bought homes and, every few years, could trade in their car for a newer model. They proudly watched their kids go off to college.   But beginning in the 1970s, the process was reversed.

Decade after decade, the middle class declined and its clout was lost proportionally. Now a week doesn’t go by without the media or a blogger proclaiming that America’s middle class is getting squeezed out.   As the Great Recession eased, upper-income folks did nicely. Middle-class families went back to the short end of the stick. No voice insisted that they get a fair share of the pie — as the labor movement did at the end of the Great Depression. Union membership has declined to about 11 percent of the workforce. Organized labor’s remaining strength is in public-sector unions, and that is up for grabs — pending the Supreme Court’s ruling on the no-free-lunch issue.   Yet if its fate is sealed, it deserves a proper obituary. So let us remember the mothers and fathers of the middle class, brave souls who persuaded others to sign petitions asking for union representation. Who denied themselves a paycheck by voting to strike. Who walked picket lines. Who came home bubbling over with news of the shop and the union, the shop and the union.   rgrossman@tribpub.com


Short Answers to Hard Questions About Climate Change


Short Answers to Hard Questions About Climate Change

The issue can be overwhelming. The science is complicated. We get it. This is your cheat sheet.


The end of the year was especially remarkable in the United States, with virtually every state east of the Mississippi River having a record warm December, often accompanied by heavy rains.

A warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapor, and an intensification of rainstorms was one of the fundamental predictions made by climate scientists decades ago as a consequence of human emissions. That prediction has come to pass, with the rains growing more intense across every region of the United States, but especially so in the East.

 The term global warming is generally taken to refer to the temperature trend at the surface of the planet, and those are the figures reported by the agencies on Wednesday.
Some additional measurements, of shorter duration, are available for the ocean depths and the atmosphere above the surface, both generally showing an inexorable long-term warming trend.

Most satellite measurements of the lower and middle layers of the atmosphere show 2015 to have been the third- or fourth-warmest year in a 37-year record, and scientists said it was slightly surprising that the huge El Niño had not produced a greater warming there. They added that this could yet happen in 2016.

When temperatures are averaged at a global scale, the differences between years are usually measured in fractions of a degree. In the NOAA data set, 2015 was 0.29 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than 2014, the largest jump ever over a previous record. NASA calculated a slightly smaller figure, but still described it as an unusual one-year increase.

The intense warmth of 2015 contributed to a heat wave in India last spring that turns out to have been the second-worst in that country’s history, killing an estimated 2,500 people. The long-term global warming trend has exacted a severe toll from extreme heat, with eight of the world’s 10 deadliest heat waves occurring since 1997.

Only rough estimates of heat deaths are available, but according to figures from the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, in Brussels, the toll over the past two decades is approaching 140,000 people, with most of those deaths occurring during a European heat wave in 2003 and a Russian heat wave in 2010.

The strong El Niño has continued into 2016, raising the possibility that this year will, yet again, set a global temperature record. The El Niño pattern is also disturbing the circulation of the atmosphere, contributing to worldwide weather extremes that include a drought in southern Africa, threatening the food supply of millions.



2015 Was Hottest Year in Historical Record, Scientists Say
By JUSTIN GILLISJAN. 20, 2016  New York Times  SOURCE

Clockwise from top left: A family sleeping on the roof of a house in New Delhi last May; people navigating a flooded street in a canoe in Arnold, Mo., on Dec. 31; tourists in a haze-shrouded Singapore last September; the drought-stricken Molatedi Dam in South Africa in November. Credit Clockwise from top left; Tsering Topgyal/Associated Press, Jeff Roberson/Associated Press, Edgar Su/Reuters, Stuart Graham/Associated Press2015 Likely to Be Hottest Year Ever RecordedOCT. 21, 2015

Scientists reported Wednesday that 2015 was the hottest year in the historical record by far, breaking a mark set only the year before — a burst of heat that has continued into the new year and is roiling weather patterns all over the world.

In the contiguous United States, the year was the second-warmest on record, punctuated by a December that was both the hottest and the wettest since record-keeping began. One result has been a wave of unusual winter floods coursing down the Mississippi River watershed.

Scientists started predicting a global temperature record months ago, in part because an El Niño weather pattern, one of the largest in a century, is releasing an immense amount of heat from the Pacific Ocean into the atmosphere. But the bulk of the record-setting heat, they say, is a consequence of the long-term planetary warming caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases.

“The whole system is warming up, relentlessly,” said Gerald A. Meehl, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

It will take a few more years to know for certain, but the back-to-back records of 2014 and 2015 may have put the world back onto a trajectory of rapid global warming, after a period of relatively slow warming dating to the last powerful El Niño, in 1998.

Politicians attempting to claim that greenhouse gases are not a problem seized on that slow period to argue that “global warming stopped in 1998,” with these claims and similar statements reappearing recently on the Republican presidential campaign trail.

Statistical analysis suggested all along that the claims were false, and that the slowdown was, at most, a minor blip in an inexorable trend, perhaps caused by a temporary increase in the absorption of heat by the Pacific Ocean.

“Is there any evidence for a pause in the long-term global warming rate?” said Gavin A. Schmidt, head of NASA’s climate-science unit, the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in Manhattan. “The answer is no. That was true before last year, but it’s much more obvious now.”

Michael E. Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, calculated that if the global climate were not warming, the odds of setting two back-to-back record years would be remote, about one chance in every 1,500 pairs of years. Given the reality that the planet is warming, the odds become far higher, about one chance in 10, according to Dr. Mann’s calculations.

Two American government agencies — NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — compile separate analyses of the global temperature, based upon thousands of measurements from weather stations, ships and ocean buoys scattered around the world. Meteorological agencies in Britain and Japan do so, as well. The agencies follow slightly different methods to cope with problems in the data, but obtain similar results.

The American agencies released figures on Wednesday showing that 2015 was the warmest year in a global record that began, in their data, in 1880. British scientists released figures showing 2015 as the warmest in a record dating to 1850. The Japan Meteorological Agency had already released preliminary results showing 2015 as the warmest year in a record beginning in 1891.


On Jan. 7, NOAA reported that 2015 was the second-warmest year on record, after 2012, for the lower 48 United States. That land mass covers less than 2 percent of the surface of the Earth, so it is not unusual to have a slight divergence between United States temperatures and those of the planet as a whole.

The Mind of Jane Goodall


Friday January 15, 2016

Jane Goodall’s Hope

Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall (AP Photo/Jean-Marc Bouju)


In a lecture at the University of Winnipeg and in a follow-up conversation with Paul Kennedy, pioneering primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall discusses the evolving relationship between humans and animals, saving the planet and the role the next generation can play in both. **This episode originally aired October 7, 2015.
HIGHLIGHT CLIP: Paul Kennedy gets a lesson in how to speak chimpanzee

How to speak chimpanzee



Jane Goodall maybe the most famous primatologist in the world. Her landmark study of chimpanzees in Tanzania more than fifty years ago forced the scientific world to redefine its understanding of humans and animals.

Jane Goodall was the guest speaker at the Axworthy Distinguished Lecture Series on Social Justice and The Public Good at the University of Winnipeg. The title of her talk was Sowing the Seeds of Hope.

Octopus Uses Coconut Halves to Hide


It is said that a researcher nearly drowned when he saw this because it made him laugh underwater.

Uploaded on Dec 14, 2009

Veined Octopus, Amphioctopus marginatus, showing sophisticated tool use behaviour. Footage shot by Dr Julian Finn of Museum Victoria.

Finn, J.K., T. Tregenza and M.D. Norman. (2009) Defensive tool use in a coconut-carrying octopus, Current Biology, Volume 19, Issue 23, R1069-R1070, 15 December 2009

Pigeon Racing…for the brave


JIM COOPER/AP Racing pigeons stretch their wings at sunset.


By Jesse Granger Las Vegas Sun  

   A flock of pigeons descends on a small house in northeast Las Vegas. Their gray and white feathers flutter as the birds uniformly circle the residence then dive in for a landing.   Tony Sosa bursts through his back door just as the birds set anchor. He’s not there to shoo them away but greet them in celebration.   Pigeons – or as some call them, rats with wings — are seen by many as a nuisance. It’s illegal to feed them in some cities. But these are Sosa’s breadwinners.   The 58-year-old Cuban immigrant races the pigeons competitively.  

His yard is filled with coops and cages, and his house is filled with trophies. Sosa’s well-kept, athletic pigeons bear little resemblance to the ones chased off of park statues.   “I love this sport,” Sosa said. “It’s my hobby, and it’s my passion.”  

Pigeon racing has been around since the late 1800s. It involves releasing homing pigeons at various distances from their coop to see which make it home fastest. The birds wear tracking chips on their ankles that are read by a scanner when the pigeons enter their loft (the wood structure where racing homers are housed). Awards are given for fastest pigeon and fastest loft when all the pigeons’ times are averaged.  

Distances typically range from 100 to 600 miles, but races over 1,000 miles have been recorded. Sosa usually participates in 400-mile races, because he says longer ones are too hard on the pigeons in the Las Vegas heat.

Races sometimes are decided by milliseconds.   Homing pigeons can fly at altitudes of up to 6,000 feet and soar at an average speed of 50 miles per hour. The fastest pigeon speed recorded is 92.5 miles per hour.  

Scientists believe the birds use magnetic and solar compasses to navigate. The earth’s surface has magnetic contours the birds can follow, and they know how to track the movement of the sun. Oxford University researchers found that pigeons also can track using landmarks such as rivers and roads.   The furthest homing pigeon flight ever recorded was 7,200 miles, from Arras, France, to Saigon, Vietnam. The journey took 24 days.   Not all pigeons are cut out for the sport. Unfit birds are weeded out in their youth.  


“This is a sport for the brave,” Sosa said. “The good birds come back home, and the bad ones don’t.”   Sosa says typically only young pigeons wander off or are spooked away by predators such as hawks. Even then, it is rare.   Sosa keeps 45 to 50 birds in his coop, but one stands out — a large pigeon named Dreamer with shiny turquoise feathers around its collar. Sosa paid $1,000 for her.   A large grin stretches across Sosa’s face as he holds Dreamer; he fans her wing out to show off the quality of her feathers.

Seconds later, he scolds the other birds in Spanglish as they fly past his head. Some might say he treats the pigeons as if they were his children.   The birds are housed in a sophisticated coop Sosa built. The roost stands more than 7 feet and has all the amenities the birds could dream of — a nesting area, a breeding center, feeding troughs and automated watering tanks. It took two weeks and about $3,000 to build.   “I spared no expense,” Sosa said. “Everything costs money, but we take extra good care of the birds so they can be healthy.”   Sosa says he spends over $2,500 every year on pigeon-related expenses, including a custom diet and special vitamins. He feeds the birds more oils and fats in winter and replaces proteins with carbohydrates and amino acids when race days approach.  

Sosa trains the pigeons twice a day, at sunrise and in the afternoon, driving the birds 30, 50 or 60 miles away from home, then timing their trip back.   In competition, Sosa has released his pigeons from as far away as 100 miles north of Salt Lake City, only to welcome them home in less than a day.   Sosa’s friends Carlos Lopez and Cesar Viamontes also participate in pigeon racing, and the three have friendly competitions regularly.   “We are all friends now, but once we release the birds into the air, we are enemies,” Sosa joked. “Then they land, and we celebrate with a barbecue and a couple beers.”  


There are high-stakes pigeon races around the world, including the Million Dollar Pigeon Race in South Africa, which features 4,300 birds from 25 countries competing for $1.3 million in prizes. But Sosa and his friends compete only for trophies, diplomas and pride.   “You get really nervous when the birds are flying and you know it’s close to the time of arrival,” said Lopez, 47, who has raced pigeons since 1989. “Every bird that you see come over the horizon sends your heart pounding.”   Few get more animated that Sosa. His nerves during competitions and over-the-top personality have earned him a nickname among Las Vegas pigeon racers — “El Gordo Del Wow!” for his bulbous physique and bombastic celebrations.   There’s no doubt Sosa is a good pigeon racer. His trophies abound, including one that stands almost as tall as him, earned during the 2009 Silver State Racing Pigeon Club Championship for average speed, champion bird and champion loft.   But Lopez and Viamontes say Sosa is an even better guy than he is pigeon trainer.   “When I came over here to America and found out who Tony was, I wanted to learn from him,” said Viamontes, 28, who recently migrated from Cuba. “Then I found out how nice of a guy he was. He took me into his house and treated me like family.”  

Whether Sosa starts to compete for big-money prizes or continues competing as a hobby, El Gordo Del Wow says he’ll never stop racing pigeons.   And if anyone questions the group’s dedication, just ask Viamontes’ ex-girlfriend.   “In Cuba, I had a pigeon in my backyard, and I paid so much attention to it that my girlfriend said I have to choose her or the bird,” Viamontes said. “And as you can see, I’m still racing pigeons.” +


Thinking, Feeling, Behaving

The Science of Compassion

“Compassion is contagious,” Professor Scott Plous says. “We talk about paying it forward; the idea that if you do something good for another person […] it sets off a kind of chain reaction.”  Hanna Barczyk for NPR

Kellie Gillespie is in her early 40s. She lives in London. And until a couple of years ago, she was basically an ordinary person.

That was before she took a psychology class with Scott Plous of Wesleyan University.

“My life changed after doing Professor Plous’ course,” Kellie says. “And now I’m studying to be a psychotherapist and counselor.”

Plous’ course was offered online, hosted by the educational platform Coursera. Kellie learned several psychological concepts in the class. One is the norm of reciprocity: if you’re nice to someone, or you open up to them, they’re likely to do the same with you. She also learned about the power of empathy: when you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, it profoundly changes the relationship you have with them.

Now, lots of people learn about ideas in psychology, but Kellie Gillespie did something unusual. She took what she had learned in the class, and applied it in her own life.

Kellie was spending a lot of time at the British Library, and she often noticed the same young man on the street nearby. She could tell he was homeless, but he was “always smiling,” she said, “He was always so pleasant.” It started simply, with Kellie giving the man whatever spare change she had. But after a couple of months, she wanted to do more.

She learned his name was Simon, and invited him for a cup of coffee. To make him feel comfortable, she told him a bit about her life, and slowly, he opened up about his.

“He kept mentioning how much he missed his mum,” Kellie says. This struck a chord for her — Kellie’s own mother had passed away a decade before. Kellie helped Simon get in touch with his mother, and ultimately, put him on a bus heading home.

“Doing the course with Professor Plous most definitely opened my eyes to the reasons why people don’t do something to help,” Kellie says. “It’s easy to say ‘I can’t make a difference,’ but everyone can make a difference.”

The Challenge

What would you do if you had to spend one day beaming compassion into the world? It could be something small, like acknowledging a stranger. It could be something big: changing the direction of another person’s life.

Please try it, and tell us what you found.

We’ll share some of the stories you send us on the podcast. Find us on Facebook or send an email to hiddenbrain@npr.org.


 Hidden Brain logo

The Hidden Brain is an entertaining, informative show that brings the results of scientific studies to understanding daily life behavior.

The Hidden Brain project helps curious people understand the world – and themselves. Using science and storytelling, Hidden Brain reveals the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, the biases that shape our choices, and the triggers that direct the course of our relationships.

Our audience takes uncommon pleasure in the world of ideas. Why do mild-mannered people turn into fearsome mama and papa bears? Does the way you park your car say something vital about you? Can hidden biases keep people from finding interesting jobs? Hidden Brain has the answers to those questions.

Gift of a Snowy Owl



TRANSPORTS QUEBEC   In a photo tweeted by Quebec transport minister Robert Poëti, an image of a snowy owl is captured by a traffic camera over Highway 40 in Montreal.

Snowy owl photo spreads calm when we most need it
Mary Schmich   Chicago Tribune 1.10.15

   We could talk here today about Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel and Donald Trump. We could argue over new-age militias, gun control and presidential tears.   We could trade insults and opinions and pretend to know a whole lot more about everything than we do.   Or we could take a moment to contemplate that snowy owl.   The owl has been everywhere on social media lately, seen soaring over Highway 40 in Montreal, a serene presence that’s all the more stunning because it roams through Facebook and Twitter in the midst of the grim daily news.   It’s not the typical animal meme either, nothing cute about it, nothing contrived. It’s not a dancing cat or a gun-toting dachshund in camouflage.   It’s just a bird floating high above the frozen ground, its black-flecked white wings spread, its little owly eyes beaming straight into the airborne traffic camera.   “Magnifique harfang des neiges capté par les caméras de surveillance du réseau routier sur l’A-40 dans l’ouest de MTL,” wrote the Canadian official whose tweet launched the zillion shares.   As a bonus, along with the photo, we get to learn that “harfang des neiges” is French for “snowy owl.”   I’ve never shared an animal photo on Facebook but I posted this one for the reason so many other people have: I’d never seen anything like it.   Once I saw it, I couldn’t stop looking at it. It was only an image, but it felt like an intimate encounter with a living, palpable creature. It made me feel I understood a little more about owls and the sky.   In the past few years, snowy owls have shown up routinely in Chicago, but to see one not only airborne but eye to eye is a rare experience. The photo makes you feel like you’re flying too.   Staring at the owl, I thought of Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Peace of Wild Things,” which begins:   When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,   I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.   That snowy owl seems to stir a similar sentiment in everyone who sees it. It lifts a viewer out of the daily agitation, offers a small dose of peace.   I have a friend who found a similar consolation last week in an episode of PBS’ “Nature” called “Animal Odd Couples.”   She’d had a hard day at work. She’d been to a funeral. Lying in front of the TV, she was comforted by the weird animal stories.   There was a goat who befriended a blind horse, leading it to pasture and back every day for years. There was a jaguar who befriended a dog instead of eating it. There was the tortoise who became friends with a goose, the cheetah who became buddies with a retriever.   “It was these little contained moments of joy, watching animals frolic,” she said as she extolled the show’s pleasures to me afterward. “It made you wish that all human beings could be that way too. It’s that hope: Can’t we all just get along?”   By the way, she’s not a sentimental woman, not the type to toss “joy” into casual conversation. She’s a news junkie. She’d be happy to argue over Obama and Trump and new-age militias.   But sometimes even the hard-news types want nothing more than a nice animal story. We all need to be reminded that the human kingdom, with all its jousting and preening, is just a tiny fraction of the world.   That’s why when I’m out for a walk, I often detour through the Lincoln Park Zoo. The monkeys make me laugh. The zebras make me stop and stare. The lion makes me feel how light my bones are.   Way back in a corner, there’s even a snowy owl or two, though not in the expansive glory of the owl in the photo.   If you haven’t already, take 15 seconds and study the photo. Feel your spirit rise, your blood pressure go down.   Then resume your favorite argument. mschmich@tribpub.com Twitter @MarySchmich



Discovering Butterfly Mountain


The monarch migration came through our neighborhood in Glenview one year,    Astounding–the air was full of butterflies.  I felt that if I breathed too deeply I would get them in my throat.  A marvelous experience for us, for the tiny, beautiful creatures flying south, it was the start of the trip to just a few places in Mexico.  rjn


40 Years Ago the World ‘Discovered’ Mexico’s Monarch Habitat — Today Its Survival Is at Stake



Michael Sewell Visual Pursuit via Getty Images

MEXICO CITY — Forty years ago the winter habitat of the monarch butterfly in Mexico was supposedly discovered. After searching for decades, on January 9, 1975the Canadian scientist Fred A. Urquhart, an entomologist at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough College, received a phone call from an American living in Mexico City named Kenneth Brugger, married at the time to Mexican-born Cathy Aguado (known today as Catalina Trail), who told him that “We have located the colony. We have found them — millions of monarchs — in evergreens beside a mountain clearing.”

The “discovery” had taken place a week earlier in northern Michoacan, in an oyamel forest on Cerro Pelon, 10,000 feet up in the mountains of Mexico’s Transvolcanic Belt, and a few days later the Bruggers happened upon other monarch roosts at El Rosario and Chincua. The Bruggers were volunteer “research associates” in Urquhart’s longstanding monarch tagging program, in which tiny labels reading “Send to Zoology University Toronto Canada” were stuck onto thousands of southbound migrating butterflies.

But it was only a year after receiving the news that Urquhart and his wife visited the site, and a full 20 months after the find that a stunning photo of Cathy Brugger amidst thousands of monarch butterflies perched on trees and on her, and the headline “Discovered: The Monarch’s Mexican Haven” were emblazoned on the cover of the August 1976 issue of National Geographic.

In his article, Urquhart did not reveal the location of the monarch sites the Bruggers had told him about. When asked for details by Dr. Lincoln Brower, today the world’s foremost monarch butterfly expert, and colleague Dr. William Calvert, Urquhart steered them to a bay on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Brower, Calvert and photographer John Christian figured out the general area from some clues in Urquhart’s article and a paper he published in the Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society, and they located the sanctuaries on New Year’s Eve of 1976.

In his article, Urquhart affirmed that “Cathy Brugger and her husband Kenneth discovered the site where millions rendezvous.” This undisputed claim that has been widely repeated in the Canadian, U.S. and Mexican media would lead one to believe that the overwintering sites of the monarch butterfly in Mexico were unknown to Mexicans before the Bruggers made their call to Urquhart.

This January, as the 40th anniversary of the “discovery” is commemorated, isn’t it time to revise the telling of history? What date should we put on the discovery — that generations of Mexicans have made for themselves — of a phenomenon that has been taking place for thousands of years?

We local residents always knew where the monarchs settled at the end of October, but we had no idea where they had come from, nor where they went each spring. The Canadian and American lepidopterists knew that. Just as the discovery of America is a misnomer — because America had been discovered ever since it was inhabited by human beings, and what Columbus so momentously initiated was a meeting of two worlds — so we can say that what occurred in January 1975 was a mutual enlightenment for people at both ends of the fabulous 3,000-mile-long migration of the monarch butterfly.

In celebration of the arrival every autumn of millions of monarchs to Altamirano Hill and the streets of Contepec, the village in Michoacan where I grew up, I wrote in the autobiographical El poeta niño (The Child Poet), published in 1971:

In Contepec that morning, thousands of monarch butterflies were crossing the village. The air, like a river, bore currents of butterflies through the streets, above the houses, between the trees and people as they made their way south.

I have said and written many times that the presence of the monarchs in my town is part of my childhood memories (I was born in 1940), and I have described the yearly pilgrimages made by Contepec’s residents to the Plain of the Mule on the summit of Altamirano to picnic and glory in the spectacle

“Blanketing a thousand trees, monarchs converge in November on a mountain slope at 9,000 feet,” wrote Urquhart 40 years ago. In La montaña de las mariposas(Butterfly Mountain), I marveled at the abundance of butterflies we observed during a school trip in the 1950s: “The monarchs were there, a million-strong colony in the sun-swept patches of the ancient crater.” I return to these memories as if to a lost world.

In 1996, the butterfly population in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve wasestimated at one billion, occupying 21 hectares of forest.

The 2013-2014 population plummeted to 33 million, covering 0.67 hectares, thelowest ever in the 20 years since measuring and counting began.

The main culprit for this precipitous decline is no longer logging in the reserve (although that still takes place) but the huge increase in land planted with genetically modified, herbicide resistant soybean and corn crops (93 percent of total soybean acreage and 85 percent of corn acreage in 2013) in the U.S. Corn Belt. Relentless spraying of glyphosate herbicides on the fields has destroyed the once abundant milkweed, the only plants that monarch caterpillars can eat. The monarch butterfly is literally being starved to death.

Before Christmas, I visited Sierra Chincua and learned that butterflies were on less than half a hectare of trees. On Dec. 29, on national television news, an official in charge of the Piedra Herrada sanctuary said that fewer than 30 trees had monarch clusters. Ejidatarios, the locals who own the land, told me the monarchs were sparse this year. In El Rosario, the butterflies were scattered, either very high up or in the ravines. Climate change is a threat throughout the monarchs’ migratory route, and an unusual number of cold fronts hitting the area this year is worrying. The day after the news report, the director of the reserve was quoted by AP as feeling “encouraged, because we’ve seen more.” Monarch enthusiasts are anxiously awaiting release by WWF Mexico and the reserve of this year’s winter colonies count to learn how things stand, and scientists are eager to have access to the hard data.

Meanwhile, in the wake of last year’s bad news, there has been an upsurge in home planting of milkweed in the United States, but unfortunately much of it has been tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), identified by Brower and scientists such as Dara Satterfield as a direct threat to the monarchs because it does not die back in the winter, allowing butterflies to halt their migration and breed all year round, thus making them more susceptible to the deadly protozoan parasite Ophryocystis elektroscirrha.

Native milkweed, specific to each part of the country, is what individuals should be planting, while we wait for action on a larger scale in the United States by the High Level Federal Monarch Working Group, which includes the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Federal Highway Administration, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and other agencies, as well as entomologists Karen Oberhauser and Scott Hoffman Black.

The challenge is no less than restoration of millions of acres of monarch habitat.

The survival of the monarch butterfly migration will depend on measures taken in Canada, the United States and Mexico. As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in its December 29, 2014 response to a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Food Safety, the Xerces Society and Lincoln Brower, “This journey has become more perilous for many monarchs because of threats along their migratory path and on their breeding and wintering grounds.

USFWS announced it will conduct a status review of the monarch butterfly to consider listing it as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

The three NAFTA leaders will meet in Canada later this year. At last year’s summit in Mexico, in reply to our letter from scientists, writers and artists from around the world, the so-called “Tres Amigos” agreed to cooperate “to ensure the conservation of the Monarch butterfly, a species that symbolizes our association.”

And I am left wondering if the monarch colonies will ever return to Altamirano Hill in Contepec, where they have been absent for years.

Homero Aridjis is a poet, novelist, environmentalist and former Mexican ambassador to UNESCO. He has just published “María la Monarca,” the first children’s story about monarch butterflies written in Spanish.



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