Danaus plexippus and Asclepias speciosa
Two beings are woven together in a relationship that cannot be untied. We think of plants and animals as belonging to individual species, but what are the boundaries of a single species when their lives are inextricably linked to other organisms and ecosystems?
A Vanishing Icon
The monarch butterfly is emblematic of my home. I grew up next to a eucalyptus grove (a non-native California species with an interesting history and present subject of debate) which was overwintering habitat for monarchs in the 1980s and 1990s. As a child, I attended an elementary school called Monarch Grove. A new housing development was built on a neighboring property and it was given the same name. It features a short trail which leads through a eucalyptus grove toward an open area covered in native dune scrub habitat.
A human hand is tied to the asclepias by a thread of energy and action: it is a human hand which has been deciding whether to help the milkweed to flourish or to disappear, taking the monarch along with it into the realm of memories.
By the time I graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 2008, the monarchs had mostly disappeared from these groves, and from many others up and down the coast of California. What happened?
Monarchs & Milkweed: Lives Linked Together
The key idea in my work as an artist is the concept that organisms are not separate from one another. The lives of all animals and plants on this planet are woven out of the lives of other plants and animals, and sculpted by the abiotic forces of the Earth: the weather patterns, the geology, the topography.
Monarchs and asclepias (milkweed) plants are one example of this fundamental symbiosis seen all throughout our diverse ecosystems. Monarchs are linked to asclepias in a very deep way. This toxic herb is the only food which monarch larvae eat. As the caterpillars sustain themselves and grow by eating the milkweed, the plants transfer their toxins to the insects, helping to protect the larvae from predators. By the time the caterpillars undergo metamorphosis and become adult butterflies, they are so toxic that nearly all birds will avoid eating them.
Vulnerability is Strength
Genetic research has revealed that monarchs have a special mutation which makes them immune to the effects of the poison (called a cardenolide) in the asclepias plant.
About cardenolide poison
Cardenolides are a type of steroid which occur naturally in some plant families. This type of poison is damaging to the heart, and can even cause the heart to stop beating through overwork. Cardenolides do not damage the heart directly; instead they affect the membrane of the body's cells.
In all animal cell membranes, there is a protein mechanism called a sodium-potassium pump. The job of this pump is to exchange sodium and potassium ions to maintain the electrical balance between the inside and the outside of the cell. This allows fluid transfers into and out of the cell to happen correctly – a critical body function. If this pump isn't working correctly, fluid transfer becomes much more difficult, like clogged plumbing. The heart has to beat much harder to compensate for the blockage.
Cardenolides block the action of the sodium-potassium pump. They bind to the molecule, in essence "clogging the plumbing" of all of the body's cells. This can lead to heart failure: cardiac arrest, if the dose is large enough.
Scientific American published a 2019 article going into detail about how Monarchs co-evolved with the toxic asclepias plant.
This unique adaptation allows the monarch to take advantage of a food source which no other herbivores want to eat, and it also offers them protection against predators.
Because current agricultural and development methods tend to view asclepias as a weed (imagine how it got its common name, milkweed), the plant has often been removed from places where it once grew abundantly. In particular, agriculture fields which apply commercial herbicides such as glyphosate (sold as "Roundup") create vast amount of habitat loss.
About habitat loss
Habitat loss is a scientific term describing the conversion of a landscape from an ecologically-balanced or healthy state of community to a different state which is no longer productive for life. This most often happens when humans make changes to the landscape by "developing" it for human use: agricultural fields, rangelands, roadways, housing developments, and parking lots are a few examples of habitat loss driven by human land use.
Humans have tended to alter the landscape. Because of the way we've done this, the delicately woven relationship between the monarch and the asclepias has been changed from a source of ecological resilience, protection, and balance to an achilles' heel: a weak point which puts the butterfly in a unique position of danger.
Human-made changes to the landscape are not the problem in and of themselves. Rather, the way we have changed the land – without consideration for effects on other species besides ourselves – is the issue. It is our lack of understanding, sensitivity, and attention in our land management policies which has so deeply affected this important and iconic insect.
Visions of the Invisible
My work is about paying respect to the animals and plants who inhabit our shared environment. Not only do these organisms make life more beautiful and pleasant, they in fact make us who we are and sustain our lives in a literal sense.
My artistic process is about understanding these invisible connections between organisms, organizing these hidden connections into visually-interesting symbols, and sculpting them into compositions which tell a story of relationship.
This painting was created as a submission for an exhibition, titled "Through the Eyes of a Monarch". The exhibition is co-hosted by and benefitting Central Coast State Parks Association (CCSPA), a local nonprofit who, through merchandise sales and public fundraising events, help to channel funding to educational projects in the local State Parks.
Click the button below to see some of my past collaborative work with CCSPA.
Like my other traditional-media paintings, this piece was completed using gouache paints on a birch panel. It began its life, however, as a digital composition, hand-painted on my iPad Pro using an Apple Pencil.
Stay tuned for an upcoming video showcasing the painting process on this piece!
After the composition is finalized on the iPad, I transfer it to a birch panel by using a projector and tracing the image in red gouache paint. This semi-transparent red underpainting is the first of many layers. It guides the rest of the painting as I use transparent washes and some areas of opaque outlining to build up the colors and shapes.
Changing Our Ways to Help Our Relatives
Monarchs are struggling to survive because of our actions, and we have the ability to make changes that can help them. By paying attention to how our land management policies affect nonhuman life, we can begin to include compassion into our policymaking. Humans are not an island on this Earth; we are directly connected to the lives of all other species. An act of caring for our relatives is an act of caring for ourselves and all other life.
Habitat restoration is the antidote to habitat loss. Where we have created monocrop agriculture fields which deplete the soil and drain the rivers dry, we can instead create permaculture food forests which serve as both habitat and sources of crops. Where we have created bland and monolithic suburban and urban developments, we can instead design housing which is integrated into the environment, making use of native plant species instead of lawns, using renewable local building materials instead of cheap imported lumber, and taking advantage of local energy and water sources instead of carbon intensive power grids.
Restoring habitat is not something that only happens in special parks or public lands or places that have been set aside "for nature". Nature exists everywhere, and we are a part of it. Habitat restoration begins at home, in the smallest ways: creating a bit of shelter and shade by planting native shrubs and trees, creating a bit of food for animals by growing native flowering plants, and creating seasonal resources like small ponds which help to attract animals and support the local food web.
Click below to view some of my other monarch-related art pieces.
This painting features the monarch butterfly in relationship with Asclepias speciosia, a species often called "showy milkweed". While there are many species of milkweed which help support monarchs, I chose this one for its beautiful inflorescence. The painting shows the insect and plant in relationship with the weather patterns of California: the sun, driving the meteorology of the ocean, which determines much of our mediterranean climate pattern. It shows a connection to the stars, which provided all of the raw material on our planet; all plants and animals are made of rearranged star-material.
Finally, this painting shows humans in relationship with all of these aforementioned organisms and natural forces. Ancestral humans are shown in petroglyph-style: two different ancestors side by side, making two different decisions about how to use their energy and connection to the life around them. A human hand is tied to the asclepias by a thread of energy and action: it is a human hand which has been deciding whether to help the milkweed to flourish or to disappear, taking the monarch along with it into the realm of memories.
This decision is in our hands, here and now.
This painting will be on display at The Bunker SLO for the month of September, 2023. It is available for purchase directly through the exhibition, marked at $990. A portion of the proceeds will go directly to CCSPA, to benefit their monarch conservation project, the Western Monarch Trail.
Click the button below to see details about this group exhibition, or to purchase tickets for the September 1st opening reception.
Resources for Monarchs
There are many amazing groups working to support monarch butterflies, and to support changes in our land management policies to benefit many nonhuman organisms. To learn more about monarchs, the current science on this issue, and how you can help, please check out the following organizations.
The Xerces Society
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation is an international nonprofit organization that protects the natural world through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitats.
Monarch Joint Venture
The Monarch Joint Venture (MJV) is a partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, businesses, and academic programs working together to protect the monarch migration across the United States.
Western Monarch Trail
The Western Monarch Trail is a multi-agency collaboration with representatives from federal and state agencies, non-profit organizations, and private entities taking a grassroots approach to educating, advocating, and driving change in support of the western monarch.
Every painting I work on is an opportunity for me to learn a little bit more about this world and how we are all connected to one another. I hope that each piece can be a way of sharing these stories of connection.
The monarch is not only an emblem, but an important entity unto itself, and in relationship with many beings around it, spanning across an entire continent. Their unique adaptations bring us greater scientific understanding of how we are all related, and help us to understand the story of how we all came to be here together on Earth. This silent, invisible storytelling inherent to the existence of a species is invaluable to us, and represents a rich inner reflection of the outward beauty we perceive in the monarch butterfly.
Thanks for spending a bit of your time with me. If you'd like to stay in touch, I'd love to send you occasional e-mail updates about my work. You can subscribe here.
Words & images by Derek Schultz, except where credit is given.
First salutations to the stars –
thanks to all relatives and ancestors –
may all beings be happy and free.