The butterflies are so fragile. I can't stop thinking about them as I sit at the state Capitol and listen to the men in suits talk money, talk deals.
I never knew that the monarch's wings are made of clear webbing with orange and black dust. To put a tiny tag on the butterfly, I have to rub a little of the color off its wing. Then I stick on a minuscule tag and set the butterfly free. I watch it teeter off on the sea wind toward Central America.
It's a bit of an improbable experiment, tagging butterflies on the clean, bright Panhandle coast, hoping somebody across the Gulf of Mexico will find a beautiful dead insect, pick it up and call the number on the teensy tag to tell us where it has landed. But this is how we are trying to quantify this mysterious, awesome journey.
Scientists tell us that only one in a thousand monarchs makes it from the wintering grounds in Mexico back to the Florida coast. They move across America to Canada in waves of birth and death. It is the seventh generation that makes it home to Canada. The butterflies have been making this flight for millions of years, over these turquoise waves and this old sandy shore.
At the front of the room, the men in suits are making a hideous promise to Florida legislators. The money from their dirty oil rigs, they propose with hopeful faces, can go to conservation programs! They will actually be saving Florida! It's a slick bargain that makes the lawmakers look up from their BlackBerrys.
Except. The Panhandle sand is famous, blindingly perfect, out of this world and in it. We are living the Florida postcard. Our kids toddle to the waves, make drip castles, chase gulls. Our grandparents sit under wide-brimmed hats, listening to the surf. Our dogs dig ghost crabs under the full moon.
Why on earth would we gamble on wrecking a place where butterflies linger, where crabs skitter and dolphins prowl? The Exxon Valdez spill happened 20 years ago, and still people can stick shovels in the shoreline and expose black oil. We dig down into Florida's sandy beach and find arrowheads and ancient shells, and we pull them up into the sunshine. Lucky us.
When I sit on the Panhandle beach, the sugar sand I sift with my toes is 5 million years old, quartz crystals sorted and carried by water and wind. It squeaks when I walk, squeaky clean. We never had sand like this where I came from, up north. I could hardly believe it the first time I saw it. It looked fake. Now I see these dunes in my dreams, in a love affair with this coast that's two decades strong.
Once, when I was deeply troubled and walking the bone-white beach, I found a trail of small bird feathers, attractive with two white dots on black. Every time I picked one up, my thoughts gained clarity. At the end of the trail, I had a pocket full of feathers and a solution that moved my life forward. The beach is like that. It gives us time to breathe; it gives us the rare gift of perspective in our scurrying lives.
In our postcard, black skimmers with their gaudy orange clown beaks build a nest right on the beach. The nest is nothing more than a wispy scrape on the bare sugar surface, as delicate as a monarch's wing. I like to lie quietly in the early morning beach fog, flat against the sand, and enter the shorebird world, waves rocking, tiny legs moving in a blur, crabs fleeing for their lives.
We are so blessed.
The oil lobbyists whisper pretty lies in the lawmakers' ears; hands over fat checks, they praise and bow to power. They are good at what they do, as relentless as sharks chasing prey in gray winter waves.
I want to stand up here in this windowless Capitol room and tell them they can't buy our postcard, no matter how much money they flash in their fat wallets. I want us all to circle like dolphins and run them off.
Julie Hauserman, a former capital bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg Times, is a freelance writer and activist based in Tallahassee. This piece is part of an anthology of essays on oil drilling in "Florida, UnspOILed: Writers Speak for Florida's Coast," to be published this summer and available at unspoiledbook.com.