Pesticides vs. Sweetness and Wings


Barbara Kingsolver gave eloquent fictional testimony to the plight of the monarch butterfly in her 2012 novel Flight Behavior, and now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is consider declaring it an endangered species. According to a recent blog in Scientific American,

Populations of the iconic and beloved monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus plexippus) have dropped an astonishing 96.5 percent over the past few decades, from an estimated 1 billion in the mid-1990s to just 35 million in early 2014. 

Apparently the major cause is the decline of milkweed, often brought about by the rise of herbicide-resistant crops. (These crops survive being sprayed with Monsanto’s Roundup but the milkweed dies.) Other pesticides are also to blame, as is logging and a killer storm in 2002 that killed 500 million monarchs.

Here’s a Scott Bates poem pointing out that we lose more than just butterflies with mass exterminations. We lose a source of spiritual regeneration.

Drawing on the erotic spirituality of Song of Solomon (a.k.a.,  Song of Songs), Bates imagines the butterfly gathering place as a sensual and nurturing womb. We don’t need to go to heaven to find solace for our existential despair. When we open ourselves to nature, we touch the divine:

The Underside of Heaven’s Gates

By Scott Bates

“Blessed is the man that heareth me, Sophia, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors.” –Proverbs 8:34 

“Open to me, my sister, my life.” –Song of Solomon 5:2 

Swarms of golden butterflies
pour into the secret gardens of Mexico.

Through the gates and
into the temples
of the Sierra Madre
to sleep like gods,

rocked by the quiet
breathing of the moon.

               I touch
               your wings

Since I’ve raised the issue of precious insects threatened by the irresponsible use of pesticides, this is a good place to mention a progressive action group demanding that Home Depot and Lowe’s remove neonicotinoid pesticides from their shelves. According to Credo Mobilize, last summer 60 thousand bees died when neonicotinoid pesticides were sprayed on linden trees in the Portland, Oregon suburbs. If you’re not worried about hive collapse, you’ve forgotten where your food comes from.

Mary Oliver imagines herself as a bee in her joyous poem “Happiness.” This too is a poem about the healing capacity of nature. Notice how she starts off depressed, thinking of herself as a lumbering bear and “a black block of gloom.” Once she encounters “the honey-house deep as heartwood,” however, she is transformed into “an enormous bee/all sweetness and wings.”

Hold these images in your mind next time you hear about Congress opposing environmental regulations.


By Mary Oliver

In the afternoon, I watched
the she bear; she was looking
for the secret bin of sweetness–
honey, that the bees store
in the trees’ soft caves.
Black block of gloom, she climbed down
tree after tree and shuffled on
through the woods.  And then
she found it!  The honey-house deep
as heartwood, and dipped into it
among the swarming bees–honey and comb
she lipped and tongued and scooped out
in her black nails, until

maybe she grew full, or sleepy, or maybe
a little drunk, and sticky
down the rugs of her arms,
and began to hum and sway.
I saw her let go of the branches,
I saw her lift her honeyed muzzle
into the leaves, and her thick arms,
as though she would fly–
an enormous bee
all sweetness and wings–
down into the meadows, the perfection
of honeysuckle and roses and clover–
to float and sleep in the sheer nets
swaying from flower to flower
day after shining day.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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