Monarch butterflies are a hot topic these days; everyone is talking about them. They pop up in expected places like gatherings of environmentalists, but also casually among gardeners, teachers and school children. When a conversation gets going, it doesn’t take long for someone to mention Pat Miller. The long time monarch advocate frequently speaks around DuPage and recently appeared at the Children’s Monarch Fest sponsored by the Elmhurst Cool Cities Coalition. An impressive string of credentials follows her name, including Monarch Watch Conservation Specialist, Master Gardener, and Master Naturalist. She is the woman the Chicago Tribune dubbed “Queen of the Monarchs.”
It wasn’t always this way. A decade ago, monarchs were just pretty butterflies people remembered from their childhood or had once seen in their garden. The monarch movement came to DuPage in 2005 when Jane Foulser, a long time Sierra Club member and activist visited a friend in Lawrence Kansas, one of the epicenters for monarch research and conservation, where she met Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch. She learned of the threats facing the migrating butterflies and their dramatic decline. Taylor had just kicked off the Monarch Waystation program, a habitat replacement solution directed at gardeners. Foulser, an accomplished gardener, quickly saw how easily gardens could be modified into monarch friendly oases if gardeners knew what to do. Her experience as a Sierra Club activist had prepared her for taking this message to the community and she was eager to get started.
When Foulser returned to Elmhurst, she enlisted long time friend Pat Miller to join her in taking the message to the community. They began by modifying and registering their own gardens with Monarch Watch, the first in DuPage to be added to the registry, then the two monarch crusaders took to the speaking circuit with posters and power point in hand. They believed ten local waystations with milkweed and nectar plants, especially the fall blooming species like asters and goldenrods that supply fuel for migration could be registered in the first year. By 2006, nine more waystations had been added to the registry. The goal had been reached and Miller had found a calling.
Twelve years into the Monarch Waystation program, Miller’s garden beautifully exemplifies what her talks describe as the solution to the declining number of monarchs, which threatens its ability to bounce back from extreme weather events and exposure to insecticides. The front and back yards are a mix of milkweed and the more traditional flowers found in suburban gardens, harmoniously combined into several flowing perennial beds.
Becoming a monarch messenger was a natural for Miller. She grew up as an “outdoor kid” in central Illinois, directly experiencing nature and making discoveries on her own. Her fresh delivery and enthusiasm for talking about monarchs is fueled by a desire to pass along the wonder and joy of her childhood to a generation of kids spending less and less time outdoors. Butterflies are a safe and engaging ambassador for the insects children are encountering less frequently in parks, preserves and their own yards.
“Maybe the single most important thing we can do for conservation in general,” writes Anurag Agrawal, author of Monarchs and Milkweed: A Migrating Butterfly, A Poisonous Plant and Their Remarkable Story of Coevolution, “is to give people an appreciation of nature.” When Miller passes around monarch eggs, caterpillars and the iconic orange and black butterfly to her audience while telling the story of a life cycle that includes a 3000 mile migration, she is giving them a connection to the natural world. Suddenly they see their backyards as habitat and how their gardens fit into the bigger picture, as a trail of resting places dotting a long and arduous journey.
Her message is being heard. What began with two waystations in DuPage County grew to 241 by 2017.
Monarchs still need our help. Monarch Joint Venture has put out a call for an “all hands on deck” approach to creating the amount of habitat necessary for a population of butterflies large enough to weather normal annual variations. Miller is confident it can be done, one garden at a time.
“We make choices every day,” said Miller, “what we wear, what to eat for breakfast, whether or not to squish a bug. We have so much power in our everyday choices. Don’t ever forget how much power you have to change things.”