I’m not much of a natural history buff. Not talking about human history, but natural history — the history of planet earth, the story of animals etc… So when I was recently asked, “What is the greatest discovery in natural history?” I didn’t have much of an answer. I hemmed and hawed and thought about a couple of big events. Oddly, the near extinction of the buffalo in America popped into my mind (because of a recent museum display I had seen about that particular topic), and the biblical account of the flood came to mind.
If you had given me 100 chances, I never would have guessed the answer that a 3D movie at the Chicago Museum of Natural History gave me.
The discovery of the winter resting haven of the Monarch butterfly.
I’ve never studied butterflies much, but the story of this discovery is actually pretty interesting.
Growing up in Canada in early 1900s, Fred Urquhart became enamored with the Monarch butterflies that invaded his home every summer. He was captivated by their color and their flight, and soon began to notice patterns in their behavior. By the age of five, he would spend hours (yes hours!) a day watching them. In particular, he noticed that late in the summer, they all left the area at almost the same time, and crossed Lake Huron on their way south out of Toronto. He wondered where they went.
As he grew older, his curiosity grew with him and so did his capacity to explore this phenomena. His future wife, Norah, joined him in his passion of discovery and the two of them set out to find answers. So by 1940 (Fred was thirty years old) they finally found a way to tag Monarch butterflies with a sticker that wouldn’t hinder flight, but could endure rigorous travel. And here, the Urquharts ran into a new problem: even if they tagged ten thousand butterflies, how could they ever track them?
They didn’t give up.
Instead, they gave out recourses to others, and invited people to join them in their journey. Norah and Fred placed ads in papers around the country and even into Mexico. They urged people to join them in their quest to find Monarch butterflies and to mail found tags back to their offices in Toronto.
People around the country were excited to join this new adventure, and thousands and thousands of volunteers (called “Citizen Scientists”) began searching for butterflies and requesting tags. Now butterflies were being tagged all over the Great Lakes region and as the years rolled on, data was being collected from people finding those tags as far south as Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas.
In fact, seeing a migratory pattern that centered in the deep south, and believing that the Monarch was wintering in Texas, Fred and Norah actually spent a winter in the mid-60s trying to find the Mondarch’s illusive haven. They didn’t find millions of butterflies in Texas that winter, and both of them returned to Canada a bit disappointed.
But they didn’t give up.
Instead, they gave out even more ads and reached out to more people. By the 1970s, Fred and Norah now had Citizen Scientists as far south as Mexico, and in fact, it was their first south-of-the-border Citizen Scientists, Ken (an American) and Catalina Brugger who made the initial discovery of the Monarch butterfly’s winter home in the mountains of Cerro Pelon. By following the lore of local villagers and the rumors of massive butterfly sightings, they eventually found millions of Monarchs in one place.
This was 1974, and Ken and Catalina called Fred who was instantly ecstatic, then urgently insistent that they find one more thing: a tag to verify that the monarch’s of the north were indeed migrating to Mexico. He had to know that the Canadian butterflies around his home were the same ones showing up in Mexico. Ken and Catalina. along with several other Citizen Scientists, searched through the heavily wooded trees of Cerro Pelon but they did not find a single tag.
But the Urquharts didn’t give up.
Instead, Fred and Norah headed south to Mexico in the winter of 1975. As Fred, Norah, Ken, Catalina, a local hispanic farmer and a photographer from National Geographic climbed the 10,000’ peak to see the butterflies, not five minutes after arriving, a branch from a large pine tree broke and almost landed on Ken’s head. As he stepped back slightly stunned and thankful for the near miss, he noticed something. As though it was written like a hollywood movie script, he saw a butterfly tagged with the code, “PS 397;” a code given to a school in Minnesota. Fred had his proof.
Many zoologists of Fred’s day were convinced butterflies didn’t migrate. And certainly if they did, they didn’t migrate over 2,000 miles just to avoid winter (from Minnesota to Mexico, PS 397 flew well over 2,000 miles, probably requiring close to 2 months of travel!!). But Fred didn’t give up in his quest and after 60 years of curious exploration (which included 40 years of formal research) he ultimately made, what many natural scientists have since called, one of the greatest discoveries of natural history.
You see, each time Fred and Norah hit a problem, they chose not to give up, but instead, they gave out. They gave out resources to empower others. They gave out freedom for others to join them. They gave out the opportunity for someone else to be first, in order that the greater cause might be achieved. The Urquharts were far more concerned about the final truth of the matter, than they were the personal fame or recognition. In fact, if it hadn’t been for Norah’s ad placed in a Mexican newspaper, the Urquharts might have died before the winter home of the Monarchs had been discovered.
I wonder how often you and I give up when we should give out? How often we surrender when we need to call for reinforcements? I think too many of us have bought into the American story that urges us to seek alone, to claim the fame and to be the force that changes [insert your situation here], instead of believing that there are others who should also be a part of our story.
The Scriptures would certainly give us the impression that it’s the team that succeeds best, and that individuals thrive when they recognize their part of the bigger story. For example, in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul states that each of us is a member of the Body of Christ. Christ is the head and is the one giving direction, but for those of us who have put our faith in Christ, we are co-workers with Him and represent that different facets of His body. Some of us have more prominent roles (the eyes, they heart, the hands) while others of us are less noticed (the liver, the pinky toe, the inner ear). But a hand cannot do the work of the ear, and without our hearing, where would we be?
Likewise, I wonder how often we try to do something we’re just not equipped for, and then give up? How often do we try to tackle a task alone, that actually requires the help and work of others? We don’t have much success and we quit, when in fact, we just need to reach out to other members of the body. We just need to be like the Urquharts, giving out resources that empower others, or freedom so that others want to join us, or even opportunity to let others be first so that the greater tasks that God has given us, can be accomplished.
I can promise you that Overboard Ministries wouldn’t exist today if God hadn’t put it on my heart to give out. The ideas and plans and books of others have given birth to this ministry as much as my own books and ideas (more!). And as Overboard grows, I know that God will bring me along side others in a journey that will help the greater cause — encouraging Christians to live their God-designed lives out of the comfort of the boat, and out on the water where Jesus is building His Kingdom — reach out further than ever.
Embrace the Body of Christ and your role in it. Embrace the gifts and passions that God has given others and when you feel like giving up — give out instead, and see what God will do through others.
Go ahead and take the plunge, life is always better on the water!