Sarah Rayner woke up one day in 2009 with an overwhelming urge to raise monarch butterflies.
“I’d never had any relationship to the butterfly before, other than the fact that I taught its life cycle as part of one of my classes,” the biologist said. “I wasn’t particularly attached to them. I couldn’t explain it, I just had to do it.”
Nature has always been a part of Rayner’s life, and so she knew that it had the power to heal, if you let it. But the monarchs were a bit of a mystery for a while. She went on to raise many different kinds of butterfly, but the monarch remains her favorite.
It wasn’t until she heard, while traveling in Mexico to see the sanctuaries where millions of monarchs overwinter, that some cultures believe monarchs to carry the spirits of children who have died.
Her own son, Michael, committed suicide in 2008, just a few months before she made the decision to raise monarchs, and when she heard that, she knew this was a part of her healing, if there will ever be such a thing as healing. She also lost a parent, a relationship, and part of her house to Hurricane Gustav, all within a short time of Michael’s death.
“When I lost my son, I didn’t know who I was anymore. I lost hope. I lost my faith. It was hard to breathe,” she said.
When she stood in the sanctuary, surrounded by millions of flying monarchs, one of them — a male — landed on her head, and stayed there while she walked around.
At that moment, she said, she felt God again in nature — the place she’d always felt God before.
“That turned it around,” she said. And now she sees God in every flower, every caterpillar and every butterfly she raises.
She wants to share that healing power with as many people as possible, and help the declining butterfly populations recover, she said, and so she will be giving a talk on how to attract butterflies from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at the East Baton Rouge Parish Main Library on Goodwood Boulevard.
She will cover the basics of the life cycle, and all the plants needed to attract and sustain butterflies as part of a healthy backyard ecosystem.
Standing in the middle of her backyard butterfly paradise, Rayner said she looks forward to getting home every day so she can come back and soak in the flowering plants, and look for caterpillar eggs that she can bring inside to grow, free from the threat of predators.
Once the eggs hatch, she feeds them from the host plants growing in her yard, safe in containers, until they crawl to the top of the container to form a chrysalis, the pupa that will eventually hatch into a butterfly, and then she releases them to the nectar flowers she has planted for the adults to eat.
“You need to have a good mix of host plants and nectar plants if you want them to stick around,” Rayner said.
She doesn’t expect everyone to get as invested as she is, but every little bit helps, she said.