Bridget A. Lyons/ Adam Lampton
Home on the Wing
When I blow out my birthday candles or find a fallen eyelash, I wish for a home. Some people in their forties may have outgrown this childhood superstition, but I feel like I need to hang on to anything that gives me hope—like the butterflies I’ve come to envy, who band together in clusters several thousand strong.
A boardwalk leads to their favorite gathering place. Unlike the more famous boardwalk in Santa Cruz, California, this one is quiet, shady, and secluded. It winds through a thick grove of trees where sunlight intermittently penetrates the foliage, allowing for the identification of a eucalyptus, a laurel, or a bay. Their greens are muted—dark sage, dusky olive, frosted pine—and the leaves themselves are thick and waxy, built to survive California’s dry summers. Frogs sing from their hiding spots in the swamp below, laying a melody over the irregular beat of footsteps on the wooden planks. And then there is the richly layered landscape of smell. It is a potpourri of the sweet and spicy eucalyptus magic that tickles the nose, a combination of the earthy odor of the swamp’s decomposing biomass and the pungent salt air that wafts in from the ocean, just a quarter of a mile away.
They are just around the corner, at the boardwalk’s end—thousands of them. Danaus plexippus, monarch butterflies. If it’s warm enough—fifty-five degrees and above—the air is thick with flight. Flashes of orange and black dash, dart, jerk, and jitterbug in every direction at every visible elevation. While the flying ones are most obvious, there are others, hovering as they drink from puddles between the tree trunks or wet patches on the planks. There are motionless ones too, resting on branches—right-side-up and upside-down, at every angle. And, unless the day is very warm, many of them are still clinging to one another, collectively hanging in clumps, resting in warmth and safety.
Once I located their winter hangout, visiting these migratory insects became part of my daily life. Their movements—flutters, dips, dives, and swoops—convinced me that insects must feel joy because joy is what I experienced while watching them. I also found myself admiring their community-oriented approach to survival; their clustering behavior protected the many at the expense of just a few.
Before my last move, I had made a list of what I wanted in a new hometown—access to open space, a good swimming pool, regular farmers’ markets, progressive values. Santa Cruz fit the bill. I tested the waters with a month-long sublet, and, when I didn’t want to leave, I signed a one-year lease for an apartment down the street. It was a two-room back portion of a 1911 house with a kitchenette tucked into a former bedroom closet and a stained-glass window embedded in the front door. I spent sizeable chunks of my days in there, editing documents and assembling newsletters for my clients, occasionally looking up from my computer to observe the pattern of daily life in my little neighborhood, Beach Hill.
I made a habit of walking every day, always starting under the neighbor’s ginkgo tree with its exotic-looking leaves—the ones carved in the shape of Ginsu knives. Just beyond it were a couple of bush-sized jade plants and a twenty-foot long rosemary hedge. I marveled at both of them, having grown up in New Jersey where jades live indoors in small plastic pots and rosemary is confined to glass bottles on the spice rack. At the end of the block, I’d turn and cut through the parking lot of the Art Deco motel, heading downhill past the bowling alley to the Boardwalk—the famous one, with the historic carousel and rickety wooden roller coaster. Eventually, I’d make my way out onto the beach, stopping at the water’s edge to look for sea lions or otters.
When I walked in the morning, there were often people sleeping in the sand up above the tide line. Wrapped in sleeping bags with shopping carts next to them, they stayed huddled until the fog burned off and the sun warmed them into motion. Sometimes that process was accelerated by the Boardwalk employees cleaning up trash or the police shaking them awake and announcing that camping is illegal on all city beaches. Then they’d gather their belongings and head towards the park benches by the bathrooms or the green space next to the river.
When I was considering Santa Cruz as my next place to live, several people intimated that the “homeless situation” should scare me away. It didn’t; in fact, it drew me in. I had spent the majority of my adulthood living in ski towns and guiding in wilderness areas. There were no street or van dwellers there. I had begun to forget that hundreds of thousands of people in our country lack safe, warm, and regular places to spend their nights. I knew that acknowledging the problem did nothing to solve it, but avoiding it certainly didn’t help.
Beach Hill is situated right in the middle of three areas some locals call “ground zeroes” or “zombie zones.” One of these is the Main Beach, the huge expanse of sand in front of the Boardwalk. Another is Lower Pacific Avenue, an area to the north of my old apartment, down the outdoor staircase. I walked those blocks almost daily, and, on my way, I passed the Taco Bell where men and their Chariot baby strollers filled with pillows and sweatshirts commonly congregated, smoking and chatting amongst themselves. Sometimes they asked me for spare change, and sometimes I gave it to them. Other times, I said hello and smiled, starting a friendly but short conversation. But, still other times, I kept my gaze to the ground, trying to avoid provoking a man who appeared to be yelling at no one in particular.
To the east of Beach Hill lies the San Lorenzo River, a waterway which flows into the Pacific Ocean on the far side of the Boardwalk. Above it sits an asphalt pathway, ideal for crossing town on foot or bicycle. When I ran there in the mornings, groups of three to ten people would be sleeping under the protection of the bridges, hiding from the overnight fog or winter rains. Later in the day, I would weave a route through clusters of younger homeless folks. Their pit bulls scared me, with their bony heads, stocky bodies, and sharp, raspy growls, and the cloud of marijuana smoke was often suffocating. I never stopped to talk in those spots; I just slipped through the crowd, trying to make myself invisible.
“Everyone’s from somewhere,” I always hear. I suppose that’s true, in the sense that we’ve all got city names on our birth certificates, and most of us can identify the hospitals or houses we kicked and screamed our way into. But I’m not sure that these cities and towns are where we’re actually from. I think that our concept of home is more complicated, that it has something to do with our connections to particular ecosystems, particular copses of trees, patches of beach, city blocks, or even highway vista points—places where we feel settled and grounded, places where we are who we think we are and who we know we should be.
Of course, it’s possible my opinion about personal provenance is rooted in the fact that I’m hesitant to own up to my New Jersey roots. Even though I spent eighteen years in a roomy colonial house on a cul-de-sac, I was never really comfortable there. The topography was bland—no big hills or mountains to help me position myself in space, no ocean to remind me of my relative size. And, the all-too-visible march of economic progress began to depress me as soon as I was old enough to understand it. I watched New York City’s urban sprawl steadily creep towards my hometown, engulfing the few patches of wetlands and open space that remained. By the time I left, the parcel of woods just beyond our dead-end street had been chopped down to make room for McMansions. It was no longer a “dead” end; it had come to life with in-ground pools, leaf-blower armadas, and professional dog walkers.
When I was old enough to pack up a no-frills Mazda pick-up truck and head out on my own, I began to search for my place. I knew where it wasn’t, but I had no idea where it was. Between then and now, I’ve found shelter in several Rocky Mountain towns, a southern Chilean city, and an off-the-grid Mexican educational facility, as well as in the myriad backcountry campsites I occupied while working as an outdoor educator. Santa Cruz was my latest stable sleeping site—until recently, anyway. I moved away a year ago.
The last time I was asked, I said I was from Santa Cruz, although I’m not quite sure that’s true.
The butterflies that hang out in Santa Cruz are from somewhere. In some ways, they’re from Santa Cruz; after all, it is where the species returns to, winter after winter. When the world gets cold and dark, this is where the monarchs hole up. Home, to many, is where you go when things get hard.
But if where you’re from is where you were born, these insects are from fields and farms stretching from California’s Central Valley all the way to the crest of the Rockies. In those spaces, monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed plants which not only host the tiny eggs for their week-long gestation but also offer the creatures a potent natural defense: milkweed sap is poisonous to most vertebrates. When butterfly larvae hatch, they immediately begin chomping on the leaves that housed them. The toxicity of their food becomes part of who they are and protects them for the rest of their short lives.
Milkweed is not as widely distributed as it once was. Chemicals like Roundup, which are broadly applied to fields planted with herbicide-resistant GMO crops, have nearly eradicated milkweed from commercial agricultural land. At the same time, development transforms vacant lots and farms into more human housing every day—especially in places like California’s Silicon Valley.
Monarch-friendly residents in Santa Cruz, in their attempts to compensate for the dearth of milkweed in nearby inland communities like San Jose and Palo Alto, have begun to cultivate the plant in their backyards. It’s a thoughtful gesture, but Santa Cruz is not milkweed’s place. In the coastal climate, milkweed frequently hosts a protozoan parasite, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE), that appears to have coevolved with its butterfly host. Pupae infected with OE exhibit uneven dark splotches that are visible through their casings. If those insects don’t die before they emerge, they will be too weak to migrate once they do. Since their ability to reproduce is not affected, infected butterflies typically pass their OE spores onto their offspring, perpetuating the condition.
In addition to the threat of OE, the presence of backyard milkweed in Santa Cruz allows monarchs to stay in town all year, completely fouling up their complex multi-generational migration cycle. They’re meant to be snowbirds, not permanent residents.
Santa Cruz’s homeless are from somewhere too; but, I don’t ask them where. I don’t know how to ask, or when. Most days, I could barely make eye contact with the woman in the pink velour running suit who talks to herself, much less figure out how to start up a conversation with her about her roots.
I’m not sure where my hesitation comes from; I just know that it feels like paralysis. I felt sick knowing that she’d been sleeping on a tarp under the footbridge. But, when I thought about offering her a spot on the couch in my heated apartment, I felt scared and uncomfortable, wondering if it would be safe to have a stranger—any stranger—in my space. If she asked me for money, my conscience turned into a battleground for the arguments I’ve heard: “Handouts enable our broken system; give the money to a support agency instead” and “If you have the money, why wouldn’t you give it to them?” Neither line of reasoning has ever satisfied me. For a while, I bought extra food on my downtown grocery store runs and gave that out in place of dollar bills. One winter day, when the woman had a plastic Hefty bag draped over her pink velour, I offered her a turkey wrap. She slapped my hand and said, “Whaddya think, I need your unwanted food?” My gaze dropped back to the ground, and I slunk away, feeling ashamed of my full bag of groceries, the apartment key in my pocket, and the family I knew I could call if things got really bad.
Last fall, just after I moved, Santa Cruz decided to establish a homeless camp on the east bank of the San Lorenzo River, in a spot people refer to as “the benchlands.” Police Chief Andy Mills declared a renewed effort to clean up the downtown area by prohibiting shopping carts—a curious law that happens to effectively displace much of the homeless population. At the same time, the chief openly acknowledged that a series of recent California court decisions, by upholding people’s “right to sleep,” have required cities to create enough overnight facilities to house their residents. Santa Cruz has fewer than 180 shelter beds and a homeless population of at least 2000, with no immediate plans for additional infrastructure. Knowing this, Mills relaxed the overnight camping ban and told his officers to quit issuing citations for erecting tents on the beach and rolling out quilts in doorways. Many residents expressed anxiety about their lawns and parks becoming crash pads, so the police attempted to consolidate people sleeping outdoors into one area—the benchlands encampment.
Last Christmas, I returned to Santa Cruz for my own winter break and semi-hibernation period. While I was there, I rode to the river on my rusty pink cruiser bike to see what the city had set up. The tents—all thin, worn, and poorly erected—were arranged in lines on either side of the lawn. In the open center aisle, people were huddled in groups of three to six, some gathered around a bag of chips, some reading books or napping.
I wanted to cross over the boundaries of survey stakes and flagging tape. I wanted to ask someone what it was like to be corralled into a designated area. I wanted to hear someone’s story and find out how what they thought the city—or any one citizen—should do to help out. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I already felt like a voyeur just watching; going in and asking questions like some privileged reporter seemed even more wrong. So, I just stayed on the sidelines, again.
It is the tranquility of the sleeping butterflies that really drew me in. They are beautiful when they are flying, of course. But they are magical when they are sleeping. They cluster in groups of several hundred to several thousand, latching—one onto the other onto the other onto the other—until they form a two-foot-long mass of doily-thin wing, whispery antenna, and inchworm body. Then they sleep, or shut down, or check out. Really, we don’t understand where they go when they rest any better than we understand our own sleep consciousness. They stay put until the ambient air temperature reaches fifty-five degrees, when they start to shimmy, shake, and greet the day. If the sun keeps shining, they leave their clumps in search of nectar and water until the temperature drops again. When it’s cold, wet, or windy, they stay put, sleeping away the inclement conditions. Seeing them takes me out of my head, out of myself. Seeing people sleep outside is much, much harder for me. When I glimpse men huddled under bridges on slabs of cardboard, stretched out on the asphalt of the bike path, or burrowed into the sand of Twin Lakes Beach, I feel a hollow lurch in my stomach. People without shelter often cluster together, too, wisely seeking strength and safety in numbers, in community. However, witnessing their congregation deflates me and makes my head spin with questions. How have we gotten to a point where we—myself included—just take this in stride?
I loved living in Santa Cruz. I managed to tap into several communities—groups of writers, artists, swimmers, and mountain bikers—and, though I didn’t feel like I was a crucial member of any of them, I did feel like I belonged when I wanted to. I kept walking and exploring, making a habit of visiting the big bronze surfer statue and the spot along West Cliff Drive where people build towers of precariously balanced stones. When I finished a work project, I let myself browse the three or four thrift stores on Lower Pacific, just north of the Taco Bell. I was proud to live in a city that had outlawed plastic bags and declared itself a sanctuary for everyone.
Once a week, I drove a carful of donated day-old bread and grocery items to a soup kitchen in Watsonville, fifteen miles south on Highway 1. After unloading the food, I helped chop vegetables or roll burritos, chatting in Spanish with the kitchen ladies before serving lunch to the eighty or so people—almost all men—who showed up for the daily free meal. There were a lot of “regulars” there, so I got to know a few of them. I first started talking to Hector, who picked strawberries when the work was available, because he was wearing an old Guns n’ Roses concert t-shirt—an easy conversation starter for me. Martin scared me for a while; he had tattoos ringing his neck and a hunched, imposing presence. But he liked salad a lot more than the other guys, and since I was always stuck pushing the greens, I got to see him smile a few times before I introduced myself.
While having regulars meant I got to know some of them, it also meant that these men weren’t getting any closer to stability. They weren’t out working or at home cooking for themselves. They were making the daily migration from the city park to the food pantry for what might be their only meal of the day. Every time I took off my hairnet and apron and slid into the driver’s seat of my little car, I was exhausted—not by the work, but by the emotional turmoil. I got to drive away, back up north, to my small but safe, warm, and dry apartment perched up on Beach Hill. I knew how lucky I was, even though every rent check dug further into my savings account. I have a savings account. Many people don’t.
The monarchs further captivated me when I learned about their migratory patterns. Santa Cruz’s butterflies leave the area every spring and come back to the same sets of trees every fall. Human beings do this all the time—especially retired ones who have had their fill of northern winters. When the butterflies migrate, however, it’s not voluntary; they’ll die if they stay where they are. It’s also not the same individuals making the journey from year to year. A later generation flies back to the historic wintering spot, and, that generation, often called “Methuselahs,” lives months longer than both the generation that preceded it and the two or three that follow. These butterflies spend up to four months on the coast, their longevity promoted by the state of semi-hibernation, called diapause, in which they spend much of the winter. When they leave in the spring, they head east over the Santa Cruz Mountains to mate, lay eggs on a milkweed plant, and die. These eggs will hatch into a generation of butterflies that lives between two and six weeks while heading further north and east, following the milkweed bloom. Their children, and their children’s children, will do the same. It’s their children’s children’s children, post-metamorphosis, that return to occupy the same tree branches along the Santa Cruz coastline one year later. This is mind-blowing to me—someone who has to muster up months of motivation to buy a ticket to Newark Airport, someone who’s not sure you can ever go back to a place you’ve left.
Much to the dismay of park management, their lepidopteral celebrities are spending less time at Natural Bridges State Park, where the well-built boardwalk welcomes the human voyeurs. The monarchs have begun to make their midwinter move down the coast to Lighthouse Field State Park earlier and earlier each year. Lighthouse Field is situated along the same coastal road as Natural Bridges—West Cliff Drive, the Rodeo Drive of Santa Cruz. On the inland side of the road stand the city’s most expensive houses, many of which are empty. They are vacation properties that rent for upwards of $500 per night on VRBO and Airbnb.
Lighthouse Field’s geographical position seems to be working better for the monarchs these days. It is possible that recent changes in the coast’s storm cycles—as well as the overall warming of the Santa Cruz winters—have precipitated the move. However, while the location may be right for them, the grove itself is becoming less and less conducive to their nightly roosting. Park officials have been clearing the low branches from all of the area trees in order to be able to better monitor the homeless people who often gather around them. Because the men and women who congregate there make fires to cook and keep warm, the park has to clear the understory to reduce the hazard of wildfire ignition. Apparently, displacement can have a domino effect.
After a couple of years in Santa Cruz, I had to move away. I wasn’t getting the jobs I’d applied for, and my freelance work had started to taper off. I had applied to graduate schools that offered funding, and when one of them—one in a city with cheaper housing costs—accepted me, I figured I’d better attend. My landlords had bought a new BMW with my rent payments, and my bike rack had been stolen from the roof of my car. I wondered if Santa Cruz wasn’t really my place—or, if it had been my place for just a short time. How could I call somewhere “home” when it made itself, in some ways, so overtly inhospitable? Still, after I drove off in the U-Haul, I cried all the way to Watsonville.
A few days into my Santa Cruz Christmas visit, the city announced that the homeless camp would need to be moved. There were too many complaints about drug use, prostitution, and theft, and city employees who work in the building nearby said they were scared to walk from the parking lot to their offices. In addition, the San Lorenzo River typically swells with the winter rains, inundating the benchlands. They said it was important for the health of the watershed to clear and clean the area before the flooding begins. They didn’t mention that it’s also impossible for human beings to sleep in an inundated field.
The plan was to move the encampment residents across Highway 1 to a city-owned vacant lot near the Costco while government officials and real estate professionals continued to search for an appropriate indoor facility to shelter them—a plan that went into effect in February of this year and was funded only through the beginning of the summer.
“Goddamned zombies,” a man said under his breath as he passed me on the bridge by the encampment. “They don’t belong here in the public space.”
During that same visit, I eagerly reinstated my old daily ritual, the one I call “butterfly church.” On one of these pilgrimages, I met a scientist who monitors the Lighthouse Field grove on behalf of the city. After explaining his system for tallying insects and recording weather data, he paused to show me a patch of young plants adjacent to the eucalyptus and cypress stand where the butterflies commonly spend the night. “See this? It’s a butterfly-friendly native garden. The local native plant society thinks the monarchs should be eating only native nectar. You see any butterflies in there? Of course you don’t. They prefer the eucalyptus and cypress nectar—or even nectar from the ice plant across the street. Eucalyptus, cypress, ice plant—these are all invasive species. That’s why the park is letting the big eucalyptus trees die—or even cutting them down. Their policy is to let non-natives disappear. But when they go, the butterflies will go with them.”
Before returning to his paperwork, he reminded me that fifty years ago, none of these giant trees existed in the park. Historic records indicate that, back then, Lighthouse Field was a grassy, treeless, open area. There were no butterflies.
In time, it’s likely the monarchs will be displaced—from a place that wasn’t really theirs to begin with.
The Santa Cruz County Point-in-Time Homeless Census is conducted every other year during the last two weeks in January. The most recent count, finished in January of 2017, put the county’s total homeless population at 2249[i]—a number that seems a little low to me. Of those counted, 80% were labeled as “unsheltered,” and within that group, 36% of them were sleeping on the street, 30% in their vehicles, and 10% in encampments. For whatever reason, lots of people in Santa Cruz think that the majority of the county’s homeless migrated from other states to take advantage of warm weather and liberal attitudes. According to this census, however, almost 70% of the individuals surveyed claimed to have lived in the county prior to becoming homeless.
The questionnaire didn’t ask them whether or not they call Santa Cruz “home.”
Every year, on Thanksgiving, citizen scientists throughout the nation count monarch butterflies. The Xerces Society, the invertebrate conservation organization that sponsors the event, reported a total of 192,692 butterflies spread throughout 262 sites in California in 2017.[ii] When this tradition began in 1997, California tallies registered over 1.2 million butterflies. Although the total number of monarchs counted was at its lowest point in five years, Natural Bridges and Lighthouse Field, the main two sites in Santa Cruz, were actually among the handful of sites where numbers stayed roughly the same as last year.
The study acknowledges that the fall of 2017 was unseasonably hot and that California experienced unusually severe fires, smoke, and mudslides. These factors—and climate change, their underlying cause—may have contributed to a later migration and overwintering cycle.
No one questions the undeniable reality of ongoing habitat loss.
I decided to run to Lighthouse Field to catch the sunrise, expecting to see the same huge clumps of earth-toned butterfly wings that I had seen earlier in the week, since it was an inhospitably cold morning for flying. I did see a few small clusters, representing maybe a few thousand insects in total—a far cry from the 13,000 the scientist had counted. I walked all around the grove, unsuccessfully searching for agglomerations in other trees and scanning the sky for individual airborne insects.
Suddenly, two young men appeared, each with fifteen or twenty butterflies in their cupped hands. “Want some?” one asked me. “They’re dead.” I told him that they might not be, that when monarchs are asleep, they often look dead. “Nah, they have no bodies. See?” he said. “They’re just heads with wings. Definitely dead.” Right. I had read about this phenomenon in the local paper. “Zombie butterflies,” the article had called them. Wasps pluck the butterflies’ fatty abdomens from their exoskeletons and abandon the carcasses. The wasps actually shouldn’t have been there; temperatures should have been low enough by then to kill them off for the winter. But it was an uncharacteristically warm one, so, they were there, they were hungry, and they were taking over the cypress grove.
I started back towards the apartment where I was dog-sitting. The sun was shining on the surfer statue, and the surfers themselves were out patiently waiting for the right wave to find them. The illegally-parked van dwellers were just climbing out of their rusty vehicles, rubbing the sleep out of their eyes and firing up their propane stoves. City employees were reopening the parking lots to day users and plucking abandoned sleeping bags from under the eucalyptus trees. I decided to run up Beach Hill, past the jade shrubs, the rosemary hedge, and the ginkgo tree, looking longingly at my old home with someone else’s plants on the front porch.
Meanwhile, the ocean was pounding the beach below, as it does each winter, slowly but surely repossessing this section of coast.
[i] Santa Cruz County 2017 Homeless Census & Survey Comprehensive Report, produced by ASR
[ii] Pelton, E., S. Jepsen, C. Schultz, C. Fallon, and S. H. Black. 2017. State of the Monarch Butterfly Overwintering Sites in California. 40+vi pp. Portland, OR: The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. (Available online at https://www.westernmonarchcount.org/data/)
Bridget A. Lyons studied at Harvard University and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University where she also works as an editor and composition instructor. Her essays have been published by Atticus Review, Wanderlust, 1888 Center, and Elephant Journal. She was recently awarded a Voices in the Wilderness writing residency in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
In addition to exhibiting internationally, Adam Lampton’s work has been seen in publications including Art in America, Maisonneuve Magazine, and Polar Inertia Journal. He is a recipient of a 2006-07 William J. Fulbright fellowship to Macao, SAR., China. He currently is Chair of the Visual and Performing Arts Department at Stonehill College. He lives in Maine.
Portland, Project Statement
These pictures were taken on the outskirts of Portland, Maine in a particular wooded area of only a few square miles formerly known by some of Portland’s homeless population as ‘The Jungle’. Starting in 2000 I roamed the area that functioned as a dump, homeless shelter (usually devoid of any people during the day) and illicit playground for local youth. I returned four years later to find the land changed by an addition of a newly constructed off-ramp and many more semi-temporary living shelters. In 2006 construction crews began work on what is now the completed “Mercy Hospital” where my daughter was born in 2011.
Initially, I found the area interesting both for it’s surprising quiet and for it’s darker connection to the struggles of the people who use it as home, drug store or escape. As I have returned there throughout the last ten years I have begun to understand the landscape not just through the lens of geography or aesthetic inquiry but as inexorably entwined with my own story in a way that feels inevitable. This shift from public exploration to private expression mirrors what I see as the fundamental issue at stake in contemporary photography: No longer is it simply a choice between taking pictures of either what is “out there” or what is “in here,” but every corner of the physical world is assumed to be contaminated by the individual.