Quick Take:

For decades, Natural Bridges State Beach has attracted monarch butterflies and crowds eager to glimpse their delicate beauty. Their numbers are now dwindling — down 99.9% since the 1980s — and the iconic orange and black insects are coming in smaller numbers to Santa Cruz. Longtime resident and writer Claudia Sternbach remembers trips with her in-laws, her Montessori class and the day the Loma Prieta earthquake solidified her love for the colorful, winged visitors. She also helps us think about what small acts we can do to help them survive.

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Claudia Sternbach

We’ve known that the number of monarch butterflies has been shrinking over the years, but to read in the New York Times that they are now listed as endangered was a shock.

I had read that their numbers had increased since 2020. That increase doesn’t seem to have been enough to ensure their survival.

For decades, Santa Cruz’s Natural Bridges State Beach has been the go-to place in the fall to see the magnificent species. As we speak, the fierce little travelers, which weigh less than a gram, are making their way from southern Canada, where they’ve been cocooning, to our coastal community and beyond. They travel 3,000 miles — 100 miles a day — to get here, and as they travel, they pollinate plants across the country and keep valuable ecosystems intact.

It’s quite miraculous.

While many will winter here, others will fly all the way to Michoacán, Mexico, where they will arrive just in time for Day of the Dead celebrations.

At Natural Bridges, they will land in the same giant eucalyptus trees overlooking the Monterey Bay as those who flew before them, even though they have never been there.

At first glance, one might think the trees are empty. That only their leaves, a muted gray, are hanging from the branches. Then a breeze rises up and the fluttering begins, and a riot of color, orange and black and yellow becomes visible to the naked eye.

It is enough to take your breath away.

Years ago, when my in-laws were still able to travel, they, too, would fly close to 3,000 miles from the East Coast to spend time with us. My father-in-law declared Shadowbrook restaurant his favorite place to dine. My mother-in-law loved nothing more than to go to see the butterflies at Natural Bridges. If we could visit both places in one day, we would achieve perfection.

But my in-laws aren’t the only reason I have spent many afternoons in the grove of trees bathed in the beauty of the winged wonders.

As a Montessori assistant teacher for six years in the 1980s and early ‘90s, field trips to Natural Bridges were an annual event. I will confess that these trips weren’t as relaxing as the visits with my family. The monarchs were not the only ones flitting and fluttering about.

Keeping track of the kids was not unlike counting butterflies to monitor their behavior. Oh, we had such good intentions. We had circle time in the classroom, where we would discuss appropriate behavior in the days before the trip. We practiced whispering in quiet voices. We explained that while, yes, we would be very close to the beach and the surf, we were not there to swim. Not there to even get wet.

But we were negotiating with 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds, and sometimes the desire to dip toes into the water was simply too much. It often became rather circuslike.

One October afternoon, we loaded 20 or so children into the cars of parent volunteers and headed over to the Westside for the annual monarch-watching adventure. The weather was unusually hot and the kids were rather lethargic as we helped them undo seatbelts, gather up backpacks and walk quietly down to the grove. The trees were full, but the air was so heavy with heat, the monarchs had no more energy than the children.

We looked for the shadiest spots and sat staring up at the trees. Beads of perspiration dripped from foreheads, down backs. We passed out cold juice boxes. The weather, so unlike anything we were used to at the time, became the focus of the afternoon. By the time it was ready to pack up and head back to school, we were all relieved. We were all grateful to be back in the classroom, out of the sun.

A monarch butterfly at Natural Bridges State Beach
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Back home with my daughter Kira, we decided to make a fruit salad for dinner. At 4 years old, she felt confident in her ability to cut grapes in half using a serrated plastic knife. We turned on the television to watch “Sesame Street” while we “cooked” in the living room and had the ingredients laid out on the coffee table — a large blue bowl waiting for sliced peaches, watermelon, grapes and more. It was just too hot to think of anything else for dinner.

And then the shaking hit.

A roar filled the house, like a train rumbling.

I grabbed Kira and we ran to a doorway, where we stood watching as the cupboards opened up in the kitchen, allowing my dishes to crash to the floor. A large mirror over the fireplace shattered right where we had just been sitting.

More cupboard doors flew open and jars of tomato sauce tumbled out and shattered. Mugs which had been hanging on a rack in the kitchen took flight. A ladder that held three antique quilts came crashing down on top of the blue fruit bowl, crushing it into shards.

It was Oct. 17, 1989. The Loma Prieta earthquake had struck.

It was centered in the Forest of Nisene Marks, just a few miles from our home. It shook everything loose in my house and solidified my memory of that trip to see the monarchs.

I can recall that afternoon with greater detail than any other visits, even the ones with my in-laws. The stillness. The peppery scent of the eucalyptus leaves. The unrelenting heat. The wonder.

There are still field trips to Natural Bridges. There are still families who make the pilgrimage to say hello (in a quiet whisper) to these beautiful beings who have begun to travel so far to enjoy our coastline. Gardeners I know now regularly plant milkweed to attract and support monarchs.

It’s not too late to plan our own welcome party for them.

Planting milkweed along with nectar-rich flowers native to our area is not that different from stocking the refrigerator for out-of-town guests. It not only nourishes them, it makes them feel welcome. It is an easy, quiet way to try to ensure the health of the monarch population.

Unfortunately, farmers in the Midwest — in an attempt to save their crops — have been spraying glyphosate. It kills milkweed and that — along with climate change — is having a profoundly negative impact on the monarchs.

No one wants to imagine a world without butterflies.

I miss the fact that my husband’s parents, both in their 90s, can no longer make the flight from the East Coast.

I have to content myself with FaceTime phone calls. They left New Jersey years ago, migrating to Florida for warmer weather, and have no plans to fly again. Now it’s on me to visit them, which I do.

The other afternoon, I was talking to my mother-in-law and we were reminiscing about the wonderful times we had when they would visit us here in our little slice of paradise.

“Remember the butterflies?” I asked her. Her face lit up.

“Oh, weren’t they something,” she said.

They were, indeed.

Claudia Sternbach is the author of three memoirs. Her most recent is “Dear Goldie Hawn, Dear Leonard Cohen” (Paper Angel Press). Her previous piece for Lookout, “What to do when even a soothing stroll at the beach begins to feel political?” appeared in July.

Claudia Sternbach has lived in Santa Cruz County for almost four decades. This was not planned but somehow our town by the bay has become her forever home and she is grateful. Her writing career began...