Life, if you stop to reflect, is dotted with magical moments that always stay with you. There are big moments like weddings, the birth of children, or achieving a dream job that are certainly magical. But I’m thinking today of smaller moments, the kind that are tucked away in the corners of your mind. They don’t come to the surface in the busyness of life, usually. They need us to stop moving, stop worrying, stop looking at our phone or TV. Be quiet. Listen.
I’ve had my fair share of magical moments, thankfully. I’ve learned to give myself a chance to be still and breathe deeply, to think about something wonderfully calming, like the waves rolling in to the shore of my favorite beach. When I do, happy memories have room to float to the surface.
Honestly, living in Northwest Florida gives one many opportunities to observe the magic that exists in a sunset, or in watching children laugh and play at the beach. Watching a pod of dolphins swimming and leaping from the water makes me feel that sense of magic, as does seeing pelicans fly over the gulf, diving occasionally to catch a fish for dinner. Nature provides so much of that magic! That includes a moment that has stayed with me for four decades: the day that Granddaddy took me to see the monarchs at the state park.
Monarch butterflies are beautiful creatures, with their orange and black wings dotted with white spots around the perimeter. They flit around looking for milkweed, their preferred source of energy and protection, and other nectar-producing plants. These amazing butterflies lay their eggs on the leaves of milkweed plants, allowing the soon-to-be-hatched caterpillars to feast of the leaves, which is where they get the majority of their energy stores for the future. The milkweed also makes them taste disgusting, apparently, so that once a predator eats one, it is guaranteed to never eat another, thus protecting the others in the population.
My magical monarch moment occurred one day in the 1970s. My grandfather, Joe Hardin, was a nature lover through and through, evidenced by his love of gardening, bird watching, and so forth. One day, he and Grammy loaded mom, my sister and me, along with a picnic lunch, into his car and drove us out to T.H. Stone Memorial State Park. He said we were going to look at monarch butterflies.
I remember being underwhelmed by that. I had seen butterflies before. What was so special about the butterflies at the Cape?
We arrived at the state park and walked up a wooden scenic overlook that felt, to a little girl, as if we were atop a skyscraper amidst the sand dunes. I remember when we got to the top, I looked to our left, and there, covering everything in sight and filling the air, were thousands of monarch butterflies. I caught my breath in amazement. Granddaddy said the butterflies were migrating, and that they wouldn’t be here long. How in the world did he know they would be there that day? I didn’t know, but I was so glad he did. I will never forget how beautiful those butterflies were, so light and delicate, but strong enough to fly across the country, headed, I believe, to Mexico for the winter. They flew around us, landing on us, and making me giggle as they did. It felt like a scene from a Disney movie, when the woodland creatures and songbirds flitted around Snow White or Cinderella. Unforgettable.
I don’t know whether the monarchs still migrate through the cape area. I don’t believe that there exist nearly as many monarchs now as there were then. As I read about them recently, I learned that because many people consider milkweed, the main source of nutrition for the butterflies, a nuisance plant, they have sprayed weed killer over it, killing off the monarchs’ food source. Pesticides are also killing the butterflies themselves, experts say, which is causing the population to dwindle.
How can we bring back the magic?
Milkweed seeds and plants are now being sold online as a native plant that is gaining in popularity. I encourage you to find a bare spot in your yard somewhere to plant some, and then put up some kind of border to keep it from spreading further than you want it to. The milkweeds that are recommended for planting in Florida are aquatic milkweed, white milkweed, butterfly milkweed, according to monarchwatch.org. They encourage Floridians to plant these types of milkweed plants, along with other nectar-producing plants, so that monarchs and other butterflies, too, can get the energy they need to continue their existence. Right now is the perfect time for you to plant some, because the migration begins in mid-to-late August, according to the website. Get them planted now and you can be a part of helping the beautiful butterflies create more magical moments for yourself, your children and grandchildren and future generations to enjoy!
If you decide to head to the state park on the cape or another favorite spot, you need a good picnic lunch to take along, as we did back in the day with granddaddy. Here’s a recipe I highly recommend for picnic baskets. Keep it cool on an ice pack, and enjoy when hunger strikes! It’s great alongside grilled hot dogs, burgers or chicken, so get that fire started and cook up a meal you’ll remember for a long time.
Fresh farmers market salad with corn, tomatoes and basil
2 cups corn cut off the cob, or frozen (not cooked)
2 cups chopped tomatoes
1/3 to 1/2 cup minced sweet onion, like Noonday or Vidalia
1/2 cup chopped bell pepper (I used sweet orange bell pepper)
1/2 cup Gorgonzola cheese. If you prefer, use another cheese like blue, feta, or Parmesan
1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper, or to taste
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil (or 1/2 teaspoon of dried basil) or your favorite herb, like oregano or parsley
1/4 cup bottled ranch salad dressing
Combine all ingredients except ranch dressing in a salad bowl. Toss to combine, then drizzle with the dressing, and toss gently again. Serve chilled. Enjoy!
Other sources of information about helping to save the monarchs:
FWS.gov’s Monarch Milkweed Initiative
www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu ’s article “Florida monarch butterfly populations have dropped 80 percent since 2005”
floridastateparks.org’s article “Monarch Migration”
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is "Mama Steph.” She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three sons who have provided her many magical moments. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com