It was finally happening. After months of planning and a few ever-so-short weeks of frenzied preparation, the day of the third annual Durham Monarch Festival had arrived. And conditions were perfect. When I arrived at the crack of dawn to help set up, the cool morning dew was still condensed on the grassy field that would be our base of operations for the next 9 hours. A few volunteers had beaten me to Sandy Creek Park and were quietly munching on donuts, saving energy for the festivities ahead. I stopped for a moment to take in the park, and then walked over to greet our first round of volunteers and begin converting the verdant expanse into a sea of tents.
The Durham Monarch Festival is a celebration of monarchs. Not the royalty of Europe, but that of the insect kingdom: the monarch butterfly. This is a bug worth celebrating. Each year, its species undertakes an extraordinary migration from the southern boundaries of Canada to the heart of Mexico. And it’s a societal journey: each year, four different generations of monarchs hatch and die while travelling. Imagine if you were about to arrive in a place after a roadtrip that had started when your great grandparents were your age! This is truly one of the most amazing migrations on our planet.
This Monarch Festival isn’t just an abstract celebration of this migration, though. The festival’s location, Sandy Creek Park, carried special significance as a certified Monarch waystation. The park is full of plants designed to attract pollinator species, and its location in North Carolina means it’s the point where some of the fourth Monarch generation, the group that makes the flight to Mexico, begin their journey.
Scanning the field that morning, it was difficult to imagine that this beautiful preserve was once a sewer treatment plant. The site was abandoned in 1984 and sat for almost 2 decades before being bought by the city in the early 2000s. Beyond a few amenities structures: a bathroom, pavilion, and paved trail, however, almost the entirety of the work done on the park has been done by nonprofits and volunteers. The park now hosts a butterfly garden, miles of trails, a wildlife viewing area, and much, much more. And behind a lot of this work is one dedicated individual: John Goebel.
It wasn’t long after had arrived that I spotted John walking quickly across the field with a look that spoke to both anxiety and excitement. “Are you ready for the festival?” I asked as he got closer. He responded jokingly, “Ask me again at 4.” Such a response might’ve provoked a stab of fear from me from any other person, but I knew John was prepared. While the city holds the deed, Sandy Creek is really John’s park. Almost every project inside the park was initiated by him, including the Monarch Festival. He works at least 10 hours a week in park upkeep, and it’s John, not the city, that holds on to the key to the park gate. For his efforts to protect the park, John was awarded Durham’s neighbor spotlight award in June.
I saw John later on at the festival, this time grinning ear to ear as he walked hand in hand with his wife across the grassy lawn. He had reason to be jovial: the festival was in full swing now, and what had been an empty field only a few hours ago was now a sea of people. The nonprofit vendors provided fantastic displays where visitors could interact with a multitude of animals- from snakes to birds to, of course, the monarch butterfly. The Mexican and Canadian Consuls gave speeches about the importance of the butterfly and how it represented the unity of the continent. What followed the speeches was the most memorable, and perhaps most important part of the entire festival: a release of recently hatched Monarch butterflies into the wild. As John walked with the butterfly cage towards the main event tent, he was soon thronged by eager children and intrigued adults. At the count of three he had some children pull open the wire door to the cage. Butterflies soon began fluttering out, sometimes in droves and sometimes one at a time, each one followed by the “ooo”s and “aaah”s of the crowd and enthusiastic applause. This is why the Monarch Festival is special. There are plenty of festivals that celebrate fauna, but few can lay claim to contributing to a mass migration as uniquely amazing as that of the Monarch Butterfly.
Soon after the butterfly release the crowds began to disperse. The vendors took down there tents. The food trucks drove off. As we packed our Keep Durham Beautiful tent into our white Astro van, I looked out onto the again empty field, now covered in the long shadows of an autumn evening, and knew one thing: I could not wait until next year.