Last Monday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, was so calm and clear that you could see trees on Santa Cruz Island 26 miles away across the channel, and even, it seemed to me, trees 30 or 130 years in Santa Barbara’s past. I walked with my kids and some friends through the eucalyptus groves and fields at Ellwood Mesa, seeing monarch butterflies alone or in chasing pairs floating on the warm air. Along a muddy drainage and up a hill more butterflies appeared, until we found the spot in a knot of shaggy trees where a small crowd of people stood staring upwards. Among the leaves, greyish in the slanted, yellow light, were clots of bright orange and black hanging from the branches, honeycombs of layered wings blinking with motion. Thousands of the insects were there, clinging to one another or drifting on the air between trees, occasionally falling in orange puffs when a clump got too heavy and lost its grip, like snow falling from an eave.

I brought my kids, ages 5 and 9, to experience something that moved me immensely as a child. When I was a 11 or 12, my family lived on Eucalyptus Hill in Santa Barbara, named for the probably 100-year-old blue gum eucalyptus grove that covers its south slope. I would play in the slatted shade of the giant trees, as in a dank cathedral, crunching over the heaped-up bark and leaves that blanketed the ground. Once I found a sheet of old plywood, wet and slimy on its under side, and made it into a forest surfboard: I nailed a 2 x 4 near the front to hold my foot in place, positioned the sheet at the top of the slope above an open slot through the tree trunks, then ran and jumped onto it, sliding down 20 or 30 yards before crashing in the leaf litter. One day in the dark center of the grove, I looked up and was astonished to see the branches and leaves alive, shimmering and undulating with thousands, or tens of thousands, of monarchs. I had never seen anything like it, never even heard of it. I stood still with arms held out, and a few monarchs slowly began to land on my head and arms. Interested in each other and indifferent to me, more landed, until a gob covered my hair and smaller gobs my arms, and, scrabbling to hold onto one another, butterflies began dribbling down my face. I remember the tickling of their tiny, sticky feet on my forehead.

Most North American monarchs travel, famously if not incredibly, up to 3,000 miles from summer territories as far north as northern Canada, all the way to overwintering groves in the mountains of central Mexico. But western populations, west of the Continental Divide, fly to the California coast to spend the winter — demonstrating the insects’ excellent judgment. From Northern Baja to Sonoma County, butterflies habitually hibernated and mated in sheltered groves of Monterrey pine and Monterrey cypress, and in stands of coastal sycamores. But most of these have fallen before the chainsaw to make room for us. Here in Goleta, the sycamores were cut down by men like Ellwood Cooper, who arrived from the East in 1870 and planted acres of walnuts and olives in their place, becoming the largest olive oil producer in the US before cheap Sicilian imports crowded him out. He replaced the olives with eucalyptus trees in the tens of thousands, believing these fast-growing, drought-tolerant Australian transplants would make him rich. Others followed, and before they realized the wood was nearly worthless, millions of eucalyptus trees had been planted up and down the coast.

 

In a happy congruence, the butterflies accepted the substitution, and now hundreds of blue gum groves shelter monarchs from November to February. Alas, the few butterfly-laden trees we marveled at are just a slim echo of the 25,000 seen in the same grove 15 years ago. The last decade or so has seen drops of 90% or more in some sites. Natural Bridges State Beach near Santa Cruz had 120,000 butterflies in 1997 and just 1,300 in 2009. No one knows exactly what is causing the declines: possibly loss of milkweed, the plant required by monarch caterpillars to develop, obliterated by development; likely the 10-year drought that has gripped much of the western US.The severe Midwestern drought of last year devastated the migration of monarchs through Texas to Mexico. Climatic stress spares few. And as trees are replaced by ever-more houses and asphalt, the butterflies’ outlook would seem grim.

Maybe these clusters in the Goleta blue gums are the last, and will be just memories to my children, something they will only be able to tell their own kids, not bring them to witness. But the butterflies are adaptable. They adopted new Australian trees in an evolutionary eyeblink, and somehow transplanted themselves all the way to Hawaii and the South Pacific in the 19th century, just as human migrants did and probably on the same ships, arriving in New Zealand and then Australia the year after Ellwood Cooper came to Goleta.