How did you first become interested in Monarch butterflies?
What is the importance of Monarch butterflies? Why do we monitor the different phases of their lives (egg, caterpillar and butterfly)? Is this a local, statewide, national, or international effort?
Carolyn explained that Monarchs, like polar bears, are an iconic species whose future is not assured. “Monarchs undertake an amazing migration each year, whose secrets scientists are still trying to unlock. But their numbers have declined so much that the migration is at risk,” she said. “A number of groups across North America came together to create the Monarch Joint Venture, a partnership of nonprofits, state agencies and academic programs trying to conserve the monarch migration. One of the partners is the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project (MLMP) at the University of Wisconsin. Since 1997 its scientists have enlisted the help of citizen scientists to collect information on Monarch distribution and milkweed habitat. Carolyn has established her farm as a registered site where she and other volunteers collect data on Monarchs, which is then reported to MLMP. “Citizen scientists like our monitoring group are studying all stages of Monarchs from egg to butterfly in order to provide data to researchers,” she explained. “These data have informed scientists on what threatens Monarchs and what role people can play to help them survive.” Carolyn noted that data have led scientists to confirm that the early stages are when the greatest mortality occurs.
What is involved in monitoring Monarchs? Does it take special skills or training?
Carolyn explained that Monarch monitoring requires volunteers to learn what the different instars (larval stages of caterpillars) look like, and where to look on a plant for eggs and caterpillars. “It’s not difficult,” she said, “but it definitely takes some practice for most folks to learn to correctly identify what instar they are seeing.” She related how excited her monitoring group gets when they find the first egg, the first caterpillar, or see adult Monarchs flying around the milkweed patch. “There is such excitement and joy when you find one of these delicate creatures and know that you are helping to assure that Monarchs will continue to be enjoyed by people everywhere,” she explained.
Are Monarch populations increasing, decreasing or staying the same?
“The data show differences in Monarch population totals from year to year, sometimes up and sometimes down. But the overall trend is clearly a marked decline,” Carolyn noted. She said that between last year’s and this year’s numbers, there was a 22% drop in the number of Monarchs that overwintered in Mexico, where most eastern Monarchs go to spend the winter.
What are the threats to Monarch survival?
Carolyn said that Monarchs have a lot of predators, including birds, spiders and grasshoppers. “But the loss of habitat is one of the biggest threats to Monarch populations,” she noted. That has been exacerbated by the broad application of insecticides that many farmers use. “Over the last 20 years, ‘Roundup-ready’ crops are being planted and entire fields are being sprayed, as opposed to selective spraying that had been the practice before,” Carolyn explained. There has also been a loss of overwintering habitat in Mexico.
What can ORMN members and others do to help support Monarch butterflies?
“Plant milkweed and nectar plants,” she said. She noted that even people who live in cities and towns can help Monarchs by planting the food they need and the milkweed they require to lay their eggs. Carolyn encourages everyone to talk to people about Monarchs. “Just sharing your own admiration of these beautiful creatures may change someone’s behavior.” She shared a conversation she had at her local gym with another member, who then became inspired to plant milkwood and native wildflowers on her property. “Every effort is important,” Carolyn emphasized. “If each one of us told five people about Monarchs, and those five people told five people – you get the picture!”
Interviewed by Charlene Uhl
Carolyn Smith holds many positions in the Old Rag Master Naturalist chapter: citizen scientist, educator, committee chair, mentor, and a voice for natural habitats in Virginia. She was interviewed from her unique homestead that is a living example of how a cattle ranch can be transformed into a vibrant natural habitat that supports native flora and fauna.
When and how did you become interested in nature and the natural world?
Carolyn, a member of the ORMN class of 2015, has been interested in the natural world since early childhood. “My father and mother took me camping and hiking from a young age. I was in Girl Scouts. I was always outdoors,” she says. She believes her love of the natural world came from her father (a birder) and mother (a botanist) who passed their genes on to her. Her father in particular was always pointing out the rhythms of nature. He appreciated the spiritual dimensions of nature and considered it his cathedral.
Growing up as an Air Force “brat”, Carolyn lived throughout the US and abroad. Born in Tripoli, Libya, she lived with the family in Bangkok and Moscow. During the two years her family lived in Moscow she attended a local Russian high school where she learned to speak Russian with a Moscow accent. This in turn led to a career as an interpreter, much of which she spent in Geneva at the nuclear arms control talks between the US and Russia. From there she went to the Sudan to work in a refugee camp, and later settled in the San Francisco Bay Area and had a second career in the non-profit world.
Describe what you do on your property to support a healthy ecosystem.
When she was 15 years old and her father was stationed in the DC area, her parents started looking around for a piece of land in the country. In 1965 they found the 129-acre parcel of land in Madison County where Carolyn now lives. The land was an old family farm that then was used to raise cattle. Over time her parents transformed the landscape to one that is now 80% forest, includes three manmade ponds, marshy areas, and meandering paths through the woods dotted with native wildflowers. She remembers helping her parents heel in 20,000 pine seedlings, which now tower 90–100 feet.
Carolyn continues to add native plants, shrubs and trees to her land and will soon begin a cost-sharing project from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to install riparian buffers along the streams that run through the property. This will involve taking 14 acres out of agricultural production and planting trees and wildflower meadows.
She has also invested significant time over the last 20 years in eradicating invasive plants, including autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellate), Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), mile-a-minute (Persicaria perfoliata), Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) and tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima). Her most enduring nemesis is garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), which she calls “particularly pestilential” because it can quickly and thoroughly take over a wooded area. This noxious weed can produce thousands of seeds each year which remain viable in the soil up for to 10 years. There used to be huge stands of garlic mustard in her woods but she has made great headway after years of compulsively pulling up, bagging and hauling it out of the woods, both on her land and (with permission) that of her neighbors.
Carolyn is also on the lookout for invasive plants that are newly emerging threats to natives. She has found two on her land -- mulberry weed (Fatoua villosa) and incised fumewort (Corydalis incisa). The fumewort flowers not only in spring but also in fall, and she’s trying to keep it from enlarging the foothold it has already gained on her property.
What is the most amazing thing you have experienced in nature?
Carolyn shared two different experiences that reflect her appreciation of the expansiveness of nature. When she lived in California, she used to backpack with friends in Yosemite National Park. She was awed by the “grand scale” of nature when the group would climb Half Dome, which rises 8,839 feet above sea level and has a 360-degree view. “After the physical exertion required to get to the peak, the view was awesome, inspiring and a truly spiritual experience,” she says.
She compares that to her other amazing experience, which is her 4-year study of the life cycle of the monarch butterfly as part of the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project. She described the day-by-day observations she makes, seeing this insect go from a tiny egg to an adult that flies from here to Mexico. Carolyn explained it gave her a new appreciation for living things beyond humans: their constant effort to ensure survival by avoiding predation, metamorphosis into a chrysalis, then emergence as a winged creature capable of traveling over 2,000 miles.
As Chair of ORMN’s Project Committee, what would you like our members to know?
Carolyn resisted becoming involved in administrative duties when she first became a member. She remembers former ORMN president Don Hearl saying “No one joins a Master Naturalist chapter to do administrative work but without it we can’t do what we joined to do – support and conserve nature. So please consider joining the Board or a committee.” Heeding his words, when the chapter’s first Projects Committee chair left her position two years ago Carolyn took her place. She has enjoyed working with the other committee members and getting to know Board members. She says there are individual perks as well, such as interacting with VMN people statewide and attending leadership workshops.
Carolyn views herself as a steward of her land. It took her family years to restore their property to a natural habitat that supports native animals, birds and insects. She accepts the responsibility to maintain and improve this vibrant environment. She continues to be enthralled with the mystery of nature and sees the doorway to learning as exciting and inspirational. “Natures soothes my spirit and fills my soul,” she says. “Like my father, nature is my cathedral where I feel closest to the infinite.”
Interviewed by Charlene Uhl, October 24, 2020
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