• Kate Swisher

Flashes of Orange

August 22nd—raging wildfires burn up and down California. I wake up feeling anxious. Usually the season starts in October, not August. It's far too early for fire like this. I grumble to myself "we are destroying everything."

I open the window but heavy smoke moves into my room like an unwelcome guest. When I turn on my phone, I read a dire message from a political leader: "smoke warning," "poor air quality", and the all too familiar demand to "stay inside." "Stay inside" is the chorus for the Summer of 2020.

I'm staying inside my house for two reasons now: the wildfire smoke and the Covid-19 pandemic. I feel low often. I'm unmotivated to do much of anything, and unhopeful about the future. I experience frequent mood swings over the course of a day. There are moments, however, that uplift me. These moments usually involve the garden.

My mom yells out to me. She still takes walks around her garden beds, despite the poor air conditions. Walking the garden is her form of meditation. Once I follow her voice outside, she points to the milkweed. "Look!" Two brilliant flashes of orange.

It is not the same shade of orange that is spreading across California's horizon like a Jack O Lantern's sinister smile, or the orange licking up dry fields close by, but a friendlier shade of the color. I'm witnessing, in all its glory, the radiant orange of Monarch wings fluttering just outside our front door.

There are four of them. Four wings, that is. Two butterflies. We can't tell if the Monarchs are fighting or mating. They keep colliding into each other, then taking turns landing on the milkweed.

"Plant the milkweed, and they'll come," mom says excitedly. I smile and suddenly feel a rush of relief inside my heart. I find solace in the power of reciprocity. My mom planted milkweed and in doing so, created a habitat for the Monarchs. In turn, the Monarchs add to her biodiverse garden. They help pollinate the plants, help nurture our bodies, and today, help me ease my anxious mind.

I read about reciprocity for the first time in Robin Wall Kimmerer's collection of essays, "Braiding Sweetgrass." Kimmerer argues that humans can be beneficial for the environment if we are willing to give back. If we grow. If we provide the right nutrients to Earth's soil. If we are modest and only take the amount of bounty we receive. In one essay, she writes that "action on behalf of life transforms. Because the relationship between self and the world is reciprocal, it is not a question of first getting enlightened or saved and then acting. As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.”

Today, the monarch healed me of my sadness but only because my mom planted and cared for milkweed. I wonder what seed I will plant that will lead me to more healing?

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