by Joan Schweighardt
Bloomers Blazing is a new regular feature at BLOOM, presenting interviews with (and stories about) people who found their life’s passion after the age of 40.
The prospect of retiring, even with ample means, can be frightening. Relax? Day in and day out? What does that look like? Even if you plan to sprinkle endless days of leisure with interludes of travel, the thought of retirement can still feel like the equivalent of rocketing toward a black hole. That’s probably why some soon-to-be-retirees come up with a strategy to keep themselves busy before they actually retire.
Sue (Eisen) Slaughter did just that. For her sixtieth birthday, this single mom who had raised three kids, nurtured two grandchildren, and worked hard all her life (as a teacher, a counselor, a college instructor/gender recruiter, and an engineering office assistant) bought herself admittance to a six-week online “Brave Intuitive Painting” class with artist/instructor Flora Bowley. Sue had painted before, but Flora Bowley’s class increased her dedication and talent to new levels. She couldn’t wait to get home from work each day to find out what secrets Bowley would next impart.
But discovering her artistic talent (and discovering its appeal to others; Sue has sold both original art and giclée prints of her work) turned out to be only the beginning. Months before her retirement date, Sue fell in love—with monarch butterflies.
Joan Schweighardt: We all love butterflies, but you decided to make monarchs part of your daily life. How did this come about?
Sue Slaughter: Not long before my retirement I participated in an outreach event at Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge—which includes a nature center, aquarium, and zoo—in Chula Vista, CA. I was there representing the Sweetwater Authority, the dedicated water agency for the South Bay area of San Diego (for which I worked as an engineering office assistant for thirteen years). Among the booths that had been set up to educate visitors was one from CHIRP, the Center to Help Instill Respect and Preservation for Garden Wildlife. I’d never heard of them, but the little mesh containers they had on display caught my attention. I went over to look. Each container held one lime green chrysalis. I bought one.
I was told a butterfly would emerge that weekend, so I watched closely. Nothing happened. I even took the container to work and kept it on my desk so I wouldn’t miss anything. Still nothing. Finally, the following weekend, I noticed the chrysalis was changing. First it darkened; then it became transparent; and then all at once I could see the wing colors—orange, black, and white—within. I sat down in an overstuffed chair, the sunlight streaming in over my shoulder, and watched as the chrysalis cracked open and this crumpled, wrinkled, wet butterfly emerged. Tears began to roll down my face. The butterfly dried and then elongated into a magnificent, perfect monarch. I was hooked.
JS: Are the monarchs there in San Diego different from monarchs elsewhere?
SS: Yes. San Diego monarchs are called “residents” because they don’t migrate to Mexico. We have the weather conditions that allow them to stay here all year, and some do. Others migrate to the coast of California.
The monarchs that migrate from as far north as Canada down to Mexico have generational cycles, meaning the first several generations live only a few weeks, and the last generation does not mature sexually right away. Instead it stores up fat. The fat becomes the energy needed to keep it alive while clinging to trees in Mexico over the winter, until it can begin the northward migration again.. Once it’s warm enough to fly to, say, Texas, that generation will mate, lay eggs, and die. The generations following live only a few weeks, as they move up through the United States to Canada. And the cycle continues. By comparison, resident monarchs undergo their cycles of birth and death all within the same region.
JS: Had you ever noticed any residents near your home before you became a monarch mama?
SS: Not really. But now there is usually a kaleidoscope of monarchs flying around my home. I feel so blessed to have such beauty surrounding me.
JS: Did you know a lot about monarchs previously?
SS: Actually, I knew nothing, but I learned fast, mostly from the nearby Water Conservation Garden, Cuyamaca College’s nursery, and Butterfly Farms in Encinitas, CA. I purchased milkweed from the nursery and the people there taught me how to keep the plants healthy. Healthy milkweed is a must, because it’s the monarch’s host plant. The female lays her eggs on it. She will usually deposit only one egg per plant, because she knows her baby will eat the whole thing. No milkweed, no monarchs.
JS: How did your passion for monarchs express itself, in the beginning?
SS: I planted milkweed so females could lay their eggs on the leaves. Then I clipped the leaves and brought them indoors so the eggs could hatch. As they matured, I began taking enclosure containers to work with me, so my co-workers could watch the miracle of birth unfolding too. I kept them in open drawers of my desk and my boss never knew. When a chrysalis began cracking open, I would send out an email alert to everyone in my department and they would come running over to watch. It was the highlight of that portion of my career at Sweetwater!
JS: How exactly do you raise monarchs indoors?
SS: I prune healthy milkweed branches from my outdoor garden and place them in clean root beer bottles filled to the top with water. The bottles then go into a plastic tub (about the size of a dish-washing pan) lined with newspapers. Then I place the monarch caterpillars (I call them “cats”) on the milkweed leaves. Because the root beer bottles have long slender necks and the milkweed extends out of the bottles, any frass (poop) dropped by the cats will fall directly onto the newspaper. At this point there is no enclosure around the cats. They don’t need any. All they need is milkweed, and the milkweed is right there. I can be raising between twenty and twenty-five monarchs at any given time.
Cats are adorable little eating machines. They are usually upside down, under the leaf, chomping away on the leaves, from left to right and right to left, just like someone munching on an ear of corn. The moisture they need comes up from the water in the bottle into the leaves. Each cat will increase in mass 2,000 times. They poop as they eat, tiny dry pellets that I can hear hitting the newspaper even if I’m ten feet away. The frass is fertilizer; it goes back into my milkweed garden. If I have too many cats in the house or it gets to smelling like “Eau de Bugs” (a wet dirt smell), I move the cats outdoors. I have enclosures for them there too, covered over by netting to keep out spiders, ants, lizards, mice, toads, birds and other predators.
When the cats have reached their full size, they begin to wander, looking for a place to become chrysalises. Sometimes I will find one exploring under the table or on the inside of a vase. I scoop them up and place them in individual enclosures. Since they will no longer be eliminating at this stage, I can hang the enclosures from my chandelier, over my table.
I always thought that after retirement my house would become more orderly. That didn’t happen. My monarchs come first—not only caring for them but also watching them. The laundry and dishes wait. Sometimes I even forget to eat.
JS: Do your monarchs recognize you?
SS: Hmmm. That’s a good one. I think they feel my love. I think it shows up in my aura. Outside, they will come very close to me. I used to call them “my sweethearts,” but the term morphed over time—in that crazy, illogical way than endearments often do—into “my sidarchkees.”
JS: Your other passion is painting? How do these two passions compare?
SS: Both painting and raising monarchs use the right brain, and that’s where I’m happiest spending my time. I don’t “try” to paint anything. I just add color, with my hands mostly. Intuition leads me to “see” something I like and I go from there. My painting is effortless; there is no right or wrong.
I paint alone, because words are left brain and it’s jolting to switch from right to left. I don’t allow interruptions; I turn off the phone. My first painting was on a nine-foot-square, two-inch-wide box canvas. With something that size you can fling, goop, drip, spray, and ooze paint onto the canvas. I paint for hours, working on four to five canvases at a time. I am physically exhausted when I finally stop, but also exhilarated.
I started painting at a crossroads in my life, and as I painted, all kinds of emotions poured forth, until I found myself becoming calm.
When I’m with my cats—feeding, watching, diapering (which is what I call the process of cleaning up their frass), moving them from here to there, it’s right brain too. And when one ecloses and an adult butterfly is born, it’s emotional. It’s beautiful; it’s joyful; it’s a miracle.
JS: Do you find yourself wanting to share your monarch elation with others?
SS: Yes! I teach an adult education class on “How to Raise Monarchs.” The people who attend are almost always sweet, gentle, lovely people, and I may have anywhere from a handful to a full house.
I also teach anyone who happens to come to my door. Last week a mom and her two kids showed up. I was still in my PJs but couldn’t pass up the chance to let them in and give them “Dave” (a cat chosen and named by the son). They left joyously, with Dave, an enclosure, and some milkweed. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?
I also bring adult monarchs to events to be released, so that people who need a miracle in their lives can experience one, and people already experiencing miracles can enhance them. In recent times I have helped the following people by giving them monarchs to release: a grieving widow, a man who just lost his best friend, a pregnant woman at her baby shower, a fourth grade class, an adult class, and a bride and groom. As soon as monarchs are introduced to sunlight, they start flapping their wings to warm their body temperature to 86 degrees so they can fly. They’re usually hungry, so I imagine they go off in search of nectar. I love watching the faces of the people as their monarchs fly away. In some cultures, monarchs are associated with the soul, endurance, change, hope, and life. When a grieving widow, pregnant woman, or child releases one, the butterfly’s “lift off” gives them a lift as well. I’ve released over one hundred monarchs, all of which I’ve raised from eggs, in the past ten weeks.
I’ve had to become very creative to transport my monarchs to events. I’ve rigged up a pole to slide the enclosure rings over on in my car. I always wonder what would happen if I got pulled over for speeding. “Sorry officer! I didn’t realize. I got distracted by my…butterflies.”
Recently I started tagging monarchs. This requires carefully applying a sticky tag to the discal cell on the hindwing of the monarch, and gently pressing to force the adhesive through the wing scales. The pre-printed tag contains an I.D. number and the URL for Butterfly Farms (a non-profit organization dedicated to education, conservation and research of native butterflies and other native pollinators) in Encinitas, CA. I record corresponding information for each tag I.D.—time and date, release location, monarch gender, etc.—on a data sheet that gets returned to Butterfly Farms. If someone finds one of my tagged monarchs, they will have the info they need to contact Butterfly Farms to report the time and location and the condition of the by-then-deceased butterfly. Tagging is simple to do and will help us better understand where our monarchs are going during their short (two to six weeks) lives.
JS: Do you worry people in your community will begin to think of you as the butterfly lady?
SS: My friends call me Susie Monarch, and I’ve begun to call myself that too. The email I give to people who want to learn more about adopting or releasing monarchs is MonarchLover071@gmail.com. I’ve recently begun a part-time business, selling hemp oil (a powerful natural dietary supplement that I’m so pleased to be associated with), and the address I use for that is MonarchAmor@gmail.com. So no, I don’t mind people thinking of me as the butterfly lady. There are worse things to be called.
Joan Schweighardt is the author of The Accidental Art Thief, The Last Wife of Attila the Hun, and other novels.
Photos by Sue Slaughter
Photo of Sue Slaughter by Harold Bailey