Monarch Miracles

 Kate and her aunt Rosa against the backdrop of the Monarch forests.

Kate and her aunt Rosa against the backdrop of the Monarch forests.

In February, Design Wild’s Project Manager, Kate, embarked on a pilgrimage to see the overwintering site of the Monarch butterflies in Michoacán, Mexico. The story of the monarchs is as rich as the orange of their wings. They unwittingly model, for those who listen, some of the qualities we’d love to see manifest in our future world. For us at Design Wild, the efforts made to protect them also speak of the inextricable nature of building justice for both humans and the living companions around us.

This age old migration begins (and ends, and continues) in what we think of as the Northeast United States and Canada. During the spring and summer months, monarchs lay eggs on the milkweed plant, Asclepius. Milkweed is a proud and beautiful plant, but unfortunately, it is often misrepresented as a weed. Once born on milkweed, our baby caterpillars eat their way through childhood. Monarch caterpillars grow up to 2,7000 times their starting weight in just two weeks. When the time comes, these mighty caterpillars spin themselves into royal emerald green cocoons, embellished with gold dots. After a couple of weeks, they complete their metamorphosis, emerging as the regal and striking orange and black butterflies. 

 Mighty milkweed going to seed

Mighty milkweed going to seed

 Royal chrysalis 

Royal chrysalis 

Several generations of monarchs are born in spring and summer. They typically live for 3-6 weeks, enough time to eat, mate, and lay eggs, bringing new generations into the world. But come fall, the emerging monarch generation starts its long journey south.

This special generation of monarchs, known as the ‘supergeneration,’ has the age-defying power to live up to eight months. They manage this by remaining in a state of elongated adolescence, trading in maturity for the strength to migrate.

But we still haven’t figured out how this generation knows to preserve its strength or begin its migration.


Another mysterious power monarchs hold is that year after year, the millions of butterflies, though new to the world as individuals, follow their millennia-old instinct to find the exact same forests in the high forests of Michoacán, Mexico. Not only do they find the same Sacred Fir, or Oyamel forests, they flock to a relatively small selection of the trees, cloaking their branches with their tired bodies. While most migrations in nature occur when a generation of animals or insects travels to the same place annually.

The miracle of the monarchs is that a generation that flies south is not the same one that returns the next year. Instead, it’s their great, great, great, great grandchildren who are embedded with the ancestral instinct to find the very same forests.

Upon reaching the Sacred Fir trees the monarchs rest from mid-November to Mid-March. They eat, pollinate the wildflowers that line the forest floors, sip water from plants and nearby streams, and sacrifice some of their bodies to the birds that also inhabit the forests. In March, they begin their journey north. This time, they stop in Texas and other Southern waystations to lay eggs. Now the supergeneration monarchs have used the last of their strength and move on to the next life. But they pass their instinctual sense of home to their young who continue northward to find their breeding grounds.

And so it continues, the journey of the monarchs, one of the natural miracles that eludes us humans. What can we learn from this story?

1.  We can draw strength from their own story of persistence that carries a small, seemingly fragile insect over three thousand miles. How desperately we need that level of endurance and determination right now to get through dark times. How do we preserve strength? Can we too stave off the exhausting effects of aging into a jaded adult? Young people who’ve spearheaded movements like the One Mind Youth Movement at Standing Rock, the youth involved in bringing Black Live Matter to the national stage, and the recent Parkland student movement against gun violence show us the power of youthful energy and perseverance.

2.  The monarchs also embody the lesson of unity. Alone, each butterfly weighs just half of one gram, susceptible to the winds, rain, cold and predators that they inevitably encounter along their journey. Yet when they fly among millions, they are strong, they become one migration, one movement. Nature knows the protection that comes with a shared purpose, coordinated movement, and deep instinctual and ancestral guidance. We too must move as one migration, transitioning ourselves together to the future we want to inhabit.

3.  It also struck me that the monarchs exist in a borderless world, where butterflies are free to make home in many places. How radically different this country and world could be if we honored the same migrations for people – immigrants, refugees, Dreamers – and appreciated the bravery and strength of those who travel by choice or out of need to make new homes.

How ludicrous the idea of a wall seemed upon seeing these tiny creatures so gracefully inhabit the Oyamel Forests. Migrations are woven into the fabric of nature.

We acknowledge that many human migrations are forced; but the lesson remains, how can we honor the journey that immigrants have made? Let us make it safer to relocate, recognize the beauty and contributions those who travel, and respect the notion that living things naturally inhabit multiple homes. We can study these butterflies that have learned to become native to many places. Powerful humans have created laws and borders and repressive institutions like ICE – but climate change has already and will continue to force huge populations of people to leave their homes so let’s imagine a future where we recreate such forces to reflect the natural law of migrations.


4.  From the monarchs, we also can reflect on the need for new forms of stewardship and environmental justice. Widespread degradation of the monarch’s northern breeding and southern overwintering habitats has been a major threat to monarch populations. In the northeast, the use of pesticides and insecticides, mowing down milkweed in roadsides and pastures, ozone pollution, suburbanization and sprawl are all contributing to vast decreases in the treasured milkweed plant so essential to monarch breeding. In the forests of Mexico, illegal logging, forest fires, and poor tourist management have been responsible for the loss of hundreds of hectares of forest habitat where monarchs spend their winters. Butterflies rely on the thick blanket of the Oyamel canopies to keep out the cold winds and regulate temperatures. When trees in the forests are cut, it alters the fragile balance of temperatures, causing swings that kill the butterflies by freezing or overheating.


But the story of conservation efforts in Mexico demands attention, as it is not a simple act of ‘protecting’ forests. The Oyamel forests in Michoacán are owned by private landowners and by ejidos. Ejidos are a structure of communal land ownership that formed after the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century as a way to redistribute rural land from a small number of elites to groups of poor campesinos. Many of the ejidos of the forests are comprised of indigenous people. Despite their landholdings, many of the communities surrounding the Monarch forests remain some of the poorest in Mexico.

And as with many natural areas, when the government and scientists “discovered” the migrating monarch havens in the 1980s, these forests were of course already inhabited by the ejido communities. The people of these forests have been cutting trees in the forests for years in order to clear space for farming and for logging, which for a long time have been their own economic options.

So after the 1986 presidential decree that the forests become protected, the communities using the forests grew angry and resentful that their economic livelihoods were suddenly deemed illegal, with no opportunities for dialogue or input. A government who for years neglected to address the needs of poor communities was suddenly protecting butterflies without any acknowledgement of the impact? After years of conflict, burning forests, and increased illegal logging, the government re-strategized, this time holding conversations with the ejidos and landowners of the forest. In 2000 the protected area increased, but this time a fund was started to pay communities compensation for the income they were losing by not logging. 

The tension over the forests continues today, reflecting a complicated but familiar history of colonialism, the struggle for indigenous land rights, and economic injustice. The story of the monarchs is thus tied up with the story of the forest dwellers. We can’t protect one without taking into account the other, though our capitalist system would have us pit people against planet. [see this story for more on the struggle for sustainable tourism].

But against the backdrop of a daunting global exploitative economic system, there is hope.

The ejidos that own land in the monarch sanctuary forest that Kate visited, el Rosario, have embraced the monarchs and become, once again, protectors of the forests.
 The entrance to El Rosario Reserve

The entrance to El Rosario Reserve

Surely these ejidos still struggle economically, relying on a volatile tourism industry that has been hard-hit by the drug violence plaguing Michoacán. Many residents have had to leave to find work in cities and the United States. But can we honor these community-led efforts to combat the narrative that we have to choose between people and planet?


Can we continue to support the work of strong local communities who forgo the temptation to cut the trees to instead find enterprises that regenerate and respect the monarchs and their home?

These members of the Ejidos are the guardians of the monarchs. If you look closely on the ground, you can see hundreds of monarchs fluttering their wings, trying to warm up. 

Up in the north, we’ve also seen movements to replant milkweed and other pollinator habitats. Loving humans are creating monarch waystations in backyards, public spaces, and school gardens. Even the five-year-olds that Kate teaches in a Brooklyn elementary school now share in the delight of planting milkweed so that our black and orange friends have homes to lay eggs. Certainly we need a structural change to transform the industrial farming practices that are causing the milkweed decline. But let’s also find hope in the grassroots efforts to educate people and create alternatives in the long-term struggle.

Ten years ago, the monarch population was facing an epic decline. The population dropped from covering 18 hectares of forests in 1996 to covering just .67 hectares in 2013. But since 2016, it has gone up slightly, covering about 4 hectares. Though still at risk of volatile temperature swings caused by global climate change, some are finding hope in the cross-national efforts to protect and rebuild habitat, and find alternative economic options for the people living in the monarch forest reserves.

 Each branch of the Oyamel tree is cloaked with thousands of monarchs, turning from grey to orange as the sun emerges.

Each branch of the Oyamel tree is cloaked with thousands of monarchs, turning from grey to orange as the sun emerges.

We have to remember that the fate of the people in the Oyamel forests, the fate of the children learning to steward habitats in the northeast United States, the fate of the workers on the farms that are forced to use unhealthy chemicals that kill milkweed, and the fate of the monarch butterflies are all wrapped up in one. Let us rethink the traditional conservation lens that has so often ignored the plight of the marginalized.

At last, the final reflection on the power of the monarchs came viscerally as Kate ascended to the top of the mountain in search of the chosen Oyamel trees. The hundreds of people surrounding her fell to a hush, as if they were in a museum, a collective humility that comes from watching millions of beautiful creatures launch from their branches and fill the sky as the sun warms them, pulsing the forest with orange.


How lucky we are to be visitors on this earth, witness to ancient wonder – the butterflies and their fir trees have been around far longer than we can fathom – it’s a reminder to listen.


Monarchs launch into flight when the sun warms the Oyamel forest of El Rosario Sanctuary.

Design Wild in the World...January 2018


Dear Design Wild Friends & Loved Ones,
This past year has been a hell of a trip, stressful for so many of us. It has all brought me a LOT closer to the importance of plants.  I've been learning from these lush comrades who live among us. They just have so many lessons to teach us! Whether it's creating a public green space or a peaceful residential garden, adding a little life to a museum show or someone’s home, the magic of plants radiates through it all.  
This bit of WILD in our world brings peace, breath and a little wonder to our lives and our city. And with it, so many lessons. The first lesson comes from the intimately new spring oak leaf. Unfurling her tiny self, she shows us how to start fresh, to continually begin again, with courage. Next, the abundance of summer flowers in deep red, glowing purple and hot pink show us how to go no-holds-barred and give life all we've got. Later in the season, the beautifully senescing autumn leaves can teach us the ever difficult lesson of letting go, of surrender. And just as the first snows begin to fall, the fall-planted bulbs that we dig into the cold soil as darkness descends stand as an animated act of faith that the beginning will come again.
We are now in the darkness of the year, but there is no fear in this darkness. We gather the lessons from our flora friends to rest, to reflect and to strategize (you know the trees are strategizing!), and we prepare for the spring to come…
Here in the darkness is where the new begins.






DESIGN WILD was introduced to this rooftop in 2012 and we have been caring for it ever since. We have slowly made additions, first to the plant choices and then by adding new containers and of course, a little of our signature WILD. We love the combination of the purple smoke bush paired with the variegated red-twig dogwood, the evergreen texture of a pine tree with the nearly ever flowering Catnip in the foreground.  The varying heights of these trees and shrubs create a border with a playfully porous edge that creates a feeling of privacy while maintaining a connection to the city.  Read more...



For the past several years, Design Wild has been working with a development team on a new twelve-story apartment building being constructed in Midtown Manhattan. The building will contain 100% affordable units in a wide range of incomes. Not only affordable, it's also going to be gorgeous! We're finishing up designs for two different roof decks and a community park complete with play areas for children, meadow and forest landscapes, eating nooks, and spaces to catch the long views of the Hudson River. Stay tuned as the design phase culminates and the installs begin this spring! Read more...

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Design Wild is excited to introduce our newest team member Kate Selden.  Kate brings a ton of care and strategy to the team with her own mix of hard work and magic powers. Learn more about Kate....

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In these current times, there is an even greater need to stay AWAKE, INSPIRED and JOYFUL. We are paying special attention to people, places, and work that lift our spirits and we wanted to share some of them with you. Here are the first of many:


Truelove Seed says: "Keeping SEEDS is an act of TRUELOVE for our ANCESTORS and our collective FUTURE. It is a practice of FREEDOM."  We can't agree more and we are so excited about the work this company is embarking on. They are collaborating with more than 20 small-scale rural and urban farmers committed to community food sovereignty, cultural preservation, and sustainable agriculture. How dope is that! Visit their website, buy their beautiful seeds and keep growing the future!

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The WILD BOX was a winter project to brings a corner of woodland magic into your home. A simple vessel filled with natural offerings from the woods, it encourages one to pause each day and take a deep breath. Our WILD Box brings the lessons of the season into our home. Winter continues to teach us to slow down, cultivate wonder and connections, explore our inner realm, reflect more and build strength for the future. Learn more about the magic of the WILD Box on an earlier post on our WILD Log.


The Schomburg Center, located close to home here in Harlem, New York, is a research unit of The New York Public Library.  From lectures and movie screenings to 1st Friday dance parties, this cultural institution is busting at the seams with inspiring opportunities. And its always free to boot! Just this year we listened to DeRay Mckesson share some of his stories and challenges as an organizer, running for Baltimore Mayor and navigating today's civil rights movement as a millennial and a gay man. We took in the movie Palante, Siempre Palante! telling the story of the Young Lords of East Harlem with some of the original Young Lords on stage speak on their work after 40 years and its relationship to our current situation (wisdom from the elders!). Find out what's happening this month.

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Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants is filled with stories weaving together indigenous ways of knowing with scientific knowledge of the natural world.  It beautifully illustrates what we can learn from the first nation’s worldview, seeing the natural world and the individual plants therein as our brethren and an integral part of our community. The Design Wild team continues to be inspired by the teachings in this book on our relationships, community, stewardship and the way forward into the future. Feed your spirit this winter and read Braiding Sweetgrass and then reach out and talk to us about it!


Bring the WILD and the light indoors for the season

Here at Design Wild we have been thinking a lot about the darkness that comes with this season.  In these winter months our part of the world turns to long darkness and cold (if you hadn't noticed) and our country, in continual turmoil, seems to be turning more and more to the darkness as well… Winter has descended and naturally we retreat indoors. In the woods, life too retreats into internal realms.  The trees, as our elders, lead by example shedding their leaves of 2017. Letting go they send their energy into their roots, regrouping and building strength for action and renewal to come. They know that spring will return.

Today on this eve of Christmas we are reminded to draw inward, to slow down, to laugh, to read, even to sing and to begin to reflect.

Many traditions bring light indoors to lift a little of the darkness and keep the faith in the return of the sun. We light a candle, a menorah, maybe a Christmas tree and reflect on the source of light within us that can be summoned to carry us through the challenges ahead. 


Design Wild, by its nature intimately follows the seasons. In spring, along with the first buds, we burst into action. Through the long summer months we continue to build and care for the spaces we love. But autumn begins our winding down; we harvest the last of the food in edible gardens, plant flower bulbs in the cold earth as a final prayer for spring and tuck the gardens in for the winter.

Because of this cycle Design Wild arrives at winter's door exited and ready to turn inward; we are ready to reflect on how far we’ve come, record the lessons the past year has taught us and begin to build strength and resiliency for the coming new year.

But we wanted to help others embrace this seasonal shift, to remind folks not only to come in for the winter but also to keep faith like the trees that the spring will return.  Inspired by a magical little one (Anjali!), we created the WILD Box. 

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The WILD box brings a corner of woodland magic into its caretaker's home. It helps us remember the lessons this season has to teach: to slow down, to cultivating wonder and connections, to explore the inner realm, and to reflect and build strength for the future.  

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Whether you’ve built a WILD Box with us, or you have your own corner of nature in your home, here are our suggested instructions for care:

The WILD Box brings it’s magic to those who show attention:

As you walk through the city, keep an eye out for wild offerings you can add to your WILD Box - an acorn, a stone, an especially beautiful leaf, all will bring your attention and energy to the present wild world and will brighten your winter home.

· Find a moment each day to pause next to your WILD Box

· Light a candle.

· Take a deep breaths...

· Offer a few sprinkles of water, breathe in the smell of the forest floor

· Share a thought of gratitude

Remember, when the time comes, let the WILD things go. Bring in new items to offer. Just like the season the box too can continually change. Every season offers new gifts for your Box.

The magic of building a WILD Box is a small microcosm of what Design Wild seeks to facilitate in the connect people with the natural world; to allow others to participate in designing their space; to nurture a sense of stewardship and wonder as we share the responsibility of caring for these wild spaces; and to illuminate how we all rely on plants for health, connection and peace

There is much work to be done in these cold months.  Be called to action.  And as the forest sleeps, we illuminate the darkness, we bring our light indoors, we reflect, we study and we build our strength.  The plants and our world as a whole are going to need us!

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PARADE: An exhibition by Derek Fordjour opens at the Sugar Hill Museum in Harlem

Design Wild LIVES to create gardens throughout the city.  We love how the magic and wonder of the natural world wildly transforms and improves our city life. We have been busy on a bunch of projects this season designing and creating gardens both in residential spaces as well as public ones.

This month Design Wild is honored to be bring a touch of that wonder and wild into an incredible new installation opening on July 27th at the Sugar Hill Museum:



PARADE: Derek Fordjour

PARADE is an immersive multi-media installation by artist Derek Fordjour that will take visitors on a journey through the sense-memory of childhood and the process of forging an identity.  At once playful and poignant, disorienting and propulsive, PARADE will engage and inspire both adults and children alike.

You may be wondering, how does Design Wild contribute to a museum show??


This is actually the second Fordjour Studio installation Design Wild has contributed to.  The first one was in 2015 and you can read what the Times had to say about that show here.


This time around, Design Wild worked on a few angles of the show, both supporting overall creative process, discovering playful material solutions and bringing touches of that magical wonder only the wood elves do better!

Here’s a bit about our process:

1. Working closely with the artist we down loaded his entire vision into a 3D model. Being able to walking through the model allowed the artist to make design decisions and experience his concept at scale. The model also became an essential tool for communicating with the wider installation team; from curators and museum staff to construction professionals.

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2. Now for materials:

I mean, what museum show is complete without 4 tons of soil? Or several pallets of brick!  Just let me loose in a masonry yard and I’ll be happy for the rest of the day.


3.  And the magic….?

Well… it may involve a 14’ tree installed in museum...  but for that you’ll have to come see the show!


Edible University

Growing Vegetables on the Street

As a horticulture experiment as well as a social experiment a dozen planters located in close proximity to Washington Park in Greenwich Village, Manhattan were planted with a wide mix of flowers, vegetables and herbs including Swiss chard, snow peas, beets, basil, rosemary, beans, strawberries and more.  Growing in one of the most trafficked corners of the globe these edible plants grew in full view of thousands of people traveling through the city.

Many folks stopped to ask questions, to tell stories and relate their own history to vegetable growing, their grandmother's legendary beans, their father's famous tomatoes.  Often the question was 'What if someone steals the crops?' That's ok, as long as they leave some for the rest of us!