Trina Paulus, author of "Hope for the Flowers," helps Wyatt Malenczak release a butterfly into the wild at the Northeast Earth Coalition’s annual Monarch Butterfly Event at Crane Park on Sunday. (NEIL GRABOWSKY / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
About 100 people gathered around a folding table in Crane Park on Sunday, buzzing with excitement.
A mesh enclosure sat on the table, and with the help of children in the crowd, Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock held the enclosure and unzipped a side panel. A monarch butterfly hovered above the table and swooped toward the sky. Squeals erupted from the crowd, and the sea of faces turned upward, watching the orange and black butterfly float into the distance.
The monarch release was part of the fourth annual Monarch Butterfly Event, hosted by the Northeast Earth Coalition. The event featured environmental groups including the New Jersey Native Plant Society, Watsessing Park Conservancy and renewable energy advocate organization 350.org, as well as performances from rock band Forget the Whale and from Egyptian belly dancing group Audie and the Daughters of HetHaru.
“Monarchs are so charismatic and their decline has been so dramatic over the past few years,” David Wasmuth, chairman of the NEEC’s board, said. “They are under special stress first because of industrialized agriculture that a lot of the milkweed has been wiped out by and also their wintering grounds in Mexico are being deforested.”
The event aims to raise awareness of monarch migration, the importance of planting native plants and the practical things people can do to support monarchs, Wasmuth said.
Montclair’s “Butterfly Lady” and author of “Hope for the Flowers” Trina Paulus said monarchs are “the canaries in the coal mine.” Paulus, who turns 90 years old next week, raised more than 500 monarchs this year. In all, she’s raised more than 3,000.
Paulus finds the monarch eggs by searching through milkweed plants, flipping over the leaves and scanning for the eggs, each about “the size of a grain of sand,” she said.
“We’re all part of nature,” Paulus said to the crowd. “If we just depend on technology, we’re not going to save ourselves. We have to go back to the rules of the earth, sharing everything and not climbing over others.”
Montclair High School graduate and Cornell University student Lily Becker helped to build the garden at Crane Park while volunteering with NEEC in 2017. Becker now works as the NEEC farm manager, overseeing community food production.
“It just feels really special to be in this space right now where there are so many members of the community sharing the abundance and being here for this special event because I feel like that’s what the vision was four or five years ago when we started,” Becker said. “We wanted to make this a thriving ecosystem that included community and was this kind of space where we can all come together.”
Creating more spaces for pollinators like Crane Park is essential and starts with lawn reduction, said Deb Ellis, co-leader of the Essex County chapter of the New Jersey Native Plant Society.
“It’s something where people can do something very easy by just choosing to plant some native plants in their yard,” Ellis said. “It’s an easy, fun thing to do to help Mother Earth.”
Lawn grass is the biggest crop in New Jersey, and the resources required for its maintenance — gas for mowers, pesticides and water — are all taking an unnecessary toll on the environment, Ellis said. Native species only need to be watered during their first season and they not only look nice, but help to build and nurture the community’s ecosystem, she said.
“We’re teaching people to have a few more flowers and bushes and a little bit less lawn,” Ellis said.
Wasmuth and NEEC founder Jose German-Gomez are both regular columnists for Montclair Local’s culture section.