02/10/2014 11:13 am ET Updated Apr 12, 2014

Save the Monarchs, Spread the Milkweed


I'm one of those people who need to explore my surroundings, so when I found myself in Pacific Grove, California, for a conference, I couldn't leave without visiting the Monarch Sanctuary. This was especially necessary because the monarchs are "wintering" in California right now. I wasn't about to give up a chance to see thousands of monarchs hanging out together! Plus, I've heard all the dire warnings about the reduction of the monarch population and had to see for myself what was going on. Was it hype? Or was it real?

I arrived around 10 a.m. and saw...nothing. OK, I saw one tiny monarch flitting about like it was a bit drunk. The sanctuary itself is also kind of...sad. Its entrance is between a motel and some garbage cans. It's very small, and surprisingly, there was no gift shop! I thought back to when I researched the place on the Web and recalled that it was very hard to find. Hmmm...

Undaunted, I drove downtown to the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, where I asked what was going on. "Oh, they are there. If you go back at noon there is a docent who will show them to you. They can be hard to see." But, I asked, was the population declining? "Absolutely," she said. The current population was only a quarter of what it was just 10 years ago, she added. I asked what she attributed it to and she said "urban growth, habitat loss, lack of milkweed." What about agricultural chemicals? I asked. "Oh, that's more of an East Coast problem," she said.

I thought back to my two-hour drive to Sacramento where there were no weeds period--let alone any milkweed. Surprisingly, the gift shop at the museum was also kind of sad. What a missed opportunity to raise money and awareness. Who is the champion of the monarch other than those who used to dress up as monarchs during the very early Monsanto protests? What happened to them? Were they also killed by GMOs? I'm sure they got laughed at and made fun of. But is anyone laughing now? Surely not the butterflies.

So I went back at noon, and sure enough, I did see the tree where the monarchs were, thanks to the docent. It was a pine tree in a neighbor's yard, actually. And while it was a beautiful sight, it certainly wasn't as magical or transformative as I thought it would be. I returned to my organic farming conference slightly disheartened (even though it was my birthday!).

Two days later, I went down the coast to Esalen, which is an organic retreat focused on personal transformation. The retreat center's farm and gardens were such a contrast to the farmland I saw up north: Rich, dark, compost-filled soil was lined with beautiful flowers of all different sorts. The abundance of the earth was palpable. The land there serves as the basis for serving more than 1,000 meals per day. One thousand amazingly delicious meals per day! And even though there is the same drought at Esalen that there is up north, nothing looked dry at all.

And guess what else I saw? Monarch butterflies! Everywhere! Big, healthy happy butterflies drinking from every flower! Co-existing beautifully with more hummingbirds than I have ever seen in my life. This is what it's all about, I thought to myself. This is an image of what an organic life can really be: healthy, abundant, colorfully gorgeous, fragrant, rich and lush--the perfect environment for personal transformation.

So here is the plan. Monarchs need milkweed to survive. I'm going to find a source for milkweed seed and we are going to take it with us wherever we go. Like a million Johnny Appleseeds, we are going to reach into our pockets and spread the seeds wherever we see a place that might be hospitable.

And maybe Monsanto and their ilk can sponsor monarch sanctuaries around the country, to give back and make up for the damage they have already done. For more from Maria Rodale, visit