The Western Monarch butterfly is an iconic symbol of the California coastline.
For as long as most Bay Area dwellers can remember, the butterfly’s vibrant orange and black wings, interspersed with flecks of white, have come and gone in a migration pattern synonymous with the changing of the seasons. But, as years have passed, so too have the butterfly’s days of splendorous plenty.
Two Bolinas locals, Ole Schell and Elizabeth Weber, are on a mission to bring back the Western Monarch by combining the forces of science and art and lending their voices to a shared cause: advocate for the Western Monarch and remove the threat of extinction for the already-endangered insect. This includes putting on an exhibition at Marin Art and Garden Center to present to the community at large: “Return of the Western Monarch.”
At the exhibition, Weber will showcase her black-and-white photography of monarchs and the native nectar plants they need to survive and thrive. These photos, printed on vellum and adorned with gold leaf, are designed to denote the fragility of the monarch and to draw attention to its absence by removing the colors of the inherently vivid insect. As an independent documentary photographer, Weber advocates for environmental activism and for the butterflies through the lens of her camera.
“I really want to integrate my art into solutions for the environment,” said Weber. “To show my work on the Western Monarch butterfly in Marin, and in coordination with those who are actively engaged in solution-oriented work, enhances the impact of my art.”
Schell and Weber have known each other since childhood, and both boast deep family roots in Bolinas. Schell grew up on his family ranch, and his father, Orville Schell, partnered with Bill Niman to start Niman/Schell Ranch (one of the first ranches to introduce the concept of free-range cattle). Weber shares a similar story; her parents being the founders of Star Route Farms (known as the oldest continuously-certified organic row crop farm in California).
From their shared childhood memories, both Schell and Weber recall a time when the Marin landscape was lush with Western Monarchs.
“I grew up in Bolinas in the ’70s and ’80s on Star Route Farm, which my parents started,” explained Weber. “My memories of the monarchs are from this time, back in their full abundance. This is what motivated me to pursue this project—as a photographer, I focus my photography on environmental issues and, because of those memories of the monarchs and my connection to them growing up in Bolinas, this issue is very close to my heart.”
While Weber uses her photography to tell the story of the endangered butterfly, Schell instead turned his energy toward founding the Western Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary on his family land in Bolinas. At the exhibit, Schell will show his short film on the monarch’s plight, sharing his reasoning and method behind turning his ranch into a sanctuary.
“I also grew up in Bolinas and was born in Bolinas,” said Schell. “When Lizzie and I were kids, the monarchs were really abundant, and in the 1980s there were millions in California. You could go to one of a dozen sites in Bolinas, shake a branch, and it would be dripping with butterflies.”
Schell moved away from Bolinas to pursue a career in making movies and films. But when he returned to the family ranch years later to begin a new chapter of his life, he realized the abundance of butterflies he remembered was gone. The monarchs of his childhood had all but vanished during his absence.
“So, Lizzie and I talked about the butterfly problem, did some research and found the parties involved in trying to help preserve the monarchs,” continued Schell. “Xerces Society suggested I plant 1,200 native nectar plants on my land, so I got some money together, built a big fence for deer and quickly planted native nectar plants, as well as food crops that were native nectar, such as blueberries, passionfruit, plums and apples.”
The Western Monarch migrates to the Bay Area during the coldest months of the year in order to take advantage of the warm coastal climate in a process called overwintering. To do this, the butterflies require incredibly specific conditions, inducing safe havens to gather (i.e., south-facing bowl-shaped nooks, often in eucalyptus trees, that are sunny and capable of shielding them from the wind). These safe havens have dwindled significantly in recent years and are essential to the monarch’s survival.
Western Monarchs also need native nectar plants in order to gain weight before traveling inland to mate. The most famous of these is milkweed, aka the plant that butterflies love and butterfly enthusiasts love to plant. But many well-intentioned butterfly lovers have inadvertently contributed toward the Monarch’s extinction by misusing milkweed.
The rules of milkweed are simple: do not plant milkweed unless it is four to five miles inland, and only plant native milkweed. This is because milkweed activates the mating cycle of the monarch and, if this occurs too close to the coast, the eggs die. As for non-native milkweed, though it flowers beautifully and monarchs love it, there is an important distinction: Native milkweed dies back, effectively killing the parasite all milkweed hosts (OE). As non-native milkweed continuously blooms, the parasite thrives and can cause debilitating damage to and eventually kill monarchs.
“People have vague ideas of the monarchs and often don’t even know what’s harmful and what’s helpful,” said Schell. “This exhibition is about community engagement, education, spreading the word, enjoying good art and giving people seeds to plant in their gardens.”
The “Return of the Western Monarch” exhibition is a collaborative effort between Marin Art and Garden Center, Audrey Fusco of the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network (SPAWN), Mia Monroe of Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, and, of course, Weber and Schell.
“This exhibition is an invitation for people to come and learn about what they can do, to join the movement and participate, because we need everyone involved,” said Weber. “People can make a huge difference.”
“Our town is steeped in memories of monarchs, and people need to step up and help the monarch because, if they don’t, then the monarch will disappear,” concluded Schell. “It’s not just that they need to be saved; they need to be restored to their former glory.”
Marin Art and Garden Center will present the ‘Return of the Western Monarch’ exhibition from March 17 to April 30. The center is located in Ross at 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd. Gallery hours are Fridays to Saturdays from 10am to 4pm and Sundays from noon to 4pm. For more information on protecting the Western Monarch, visit westmarinmonarchs.org and maringarden.org.
The Marin Art and Garden Center is in Ross, not Novato.