Indigenous Lives and The Monarch Butterfly Migration in Mexico

In Richard Powers’s The Overstory, a character named Douglas Pavlicek – also identified as Douglas-Fir – discovers a logged area in a national forest near the city of Eugene, OR. The narrator describes Douglas’s impression of the wasteland: “a stumpy desolation” where “ground bleeds reddish slag mixed with sawdust and slash.”[1] In response, he decides to replant Douglas-firs in this disconsolate landscape. Although currently vulnerable and exposed, Douglas knows that his saplings will become wooden towers surpassing him in mass, height, and age. As the narrator remarks, “he rolls them out by the thousands, and he loves and trusts them as he would dearly love to trust his fellow men.”[2] Love and trust, two foundational values conventionally attributed exclusively to human comradery, are here redirected towards vegetal lives subjected to human destruction. These vegetal lives will, the novel implies, ultimately outsmart their destructors and remain standing long after humankind becomes extinct.

W. W. Norton & Company published The Overstory in 2018, the same year that Ben Crosbie and Tessa Moran released their documentary The Guardians. Filmed over three years at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve located in the Michoacán-Mexico state border, it focuses on one of the Indigenous communities within the reserve named Donaciano Ojeda. Specifically, it records the daily struggles that local members face as they sternly protect the sacred fir (Abies religiosa) from illegal logging. Known locally as the oyamel tree, this conifer also happens to be the monarch butterfly’s hibernation site. Every year, millions of monarch butterflies leave Canada and the United States around October and embark on a 3,000-mile journey to their overwintering grounds in Michoacán’s mountaintops.

Unlike birds, however, only the butterflies’ descendants will return to the northern hemisphere. In fact, it may take monarchs up to five generations to complete the migration cycle. Around spring, they leave Michoacán and head to milkweed grasslands in the US South, where they reproduce and die in a rapid cycle lasting only five to seven weeks. Their offspring, on the other hand, can mysteriously last an eight-month journey across the Northern hemisphere.

The film carefully depicts the conjoined lives of monarchs, sacred firs, and community members in a web of mutual resistance against environmental adversity. It does so by interviewing and following the daily activities of two men: avocado farmer Santos and tree planter Aristeo. Santos appears at the beginning of the film and underlines his staunch commitment to the protection of sacred firs and, by extension, future human generations. He explains: “Our lives depend on the forest. If there is no forest, there is no water. If there is no forest, there is no pure air. There are no animals. If the forest disappears, mankind will follow.” Aristeo soon follows by stressing the ethical necessity of leaving an ecological heritage: “We have already lived. If we don’t protect the forest, if we don’t reforest, don’t do the work, the next generation will have a desert.” Crosbie and Moran set their film in motion at the outset of these men’s intergenerational concerns.

As the documentary progresses, it reveals that virtually all the men in the community have taken the collective role of “guardians” who patrol the forest 24/7 to control illegal logging. Santos justifies this strict monitoring by showing the alternative: extinction. “In one night,” he narrates, “they were going to take forty trucks with smuggled wood. At midnight we had to guard so that they wouldn’t steal our wood. We had to face people determined to make us disappear.” Rather than being a phenomenon exclusive to the natural world and outside human sensitivity, both men comment on the biocultural consequences of extinction. They direct our attention to the fact that these ways of living and being in the world central to Donaciano Ojeda are on the brink of disappearance.

The fear and loss of extinction lingers in these men’s minds and spill onto other spheres of their lives. In a particularly captivating shot, the camera records Aristeo and Santos sitting on a bench with other community members as they watch their friends play soccer. Santos eventually comments from a reading that monarch butterflies are endangered. In response, Aristeo paints a disturbing picture: “Yes, there’s a lot of deaths. And the forest is damaged. Just ugly sticks standing there. And the monarchs sit there. Sticks that are about to fall, completely rotten.” The camera then pictures this desolate area. Like Douglas Pavlicek, Aristeo describes a ghastly image of forsaken land filled with deadwood, disintegrated sawdust, and open tracts strewn of rotten debris. His reforestation efforts continue, he implies, precisely to avoid leaving future descendants the agonizing landscape he has just witnessed.

At various intervals the camera provides a panoramic view of tree seedlings neatly organized in rows and awaiting being planted on the mountains. Towards the end, the film shows a group of men collectively passing each other these saplings as they load and unload them from the truck, laughing with each other along the way. We also see shots of milkweed in Kansas and people in Maryland releasing butterflies that will fly to Mexico. The documentary ends with both Aristeo and Santos providing their concluding thoughts on their conservation efforts for the growing children in the community. Aristeo finishes with the claim that “we are only here in passing through life, and who will be the owners of the forest? The youth.” Along those lines, Santos closes the film by answering Aristeo’s statement: “That’s why the sacrifice we make is worth it, and we’re going to continue, to leave them something.” Temporality, futurity, sacrifice, and legacy: these are the men’s main drives in the forest.

Lacking in the documentary, however, is an attention to women as central members of Donaciano Ojeda. Are women, for example, allowed to be guardians? What specific impacts does deforestation have on gender relations in the local community? Similarly, how do women influence environmentalist initiatives? But overall, Crosbie and Moran’s The Guardians offers an illuminating lens within the specific scenario of Indigenous conversation efforts where human lives, animals lives, and vegetal lives enter into precariously symbiotic zones of survival. The documentary’s cinematic techniques further increase the concrete thickness of interspecies relations. It is this dialectics of ethical responsibility and aesthetic perception that the film elaborates – and one that environmental studies urgently needs as it ponders the complex, far-reaching consequences of species vanishing from the Earth.

Note: Thank you to Javier Muñoz-Díaz for comments on previous drafts.

[1] Richard Powers, The Overstory (New York: W. W. Norton, 2018), 87. [2] Ibid., 90.

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