From Santa Monica to Sonoma, ordinary Californians are working to save the monarch butterfly.

Text by Alex Schechter
Images by By Aaron Burden, Cody James and Christopher Paul

There is a small, defiant section of Santa Monica’s Woodlawn Cemetery that brims with life. Here, symmetrical rows of headstones give way to a wild landscape bursting with deergrass and Cleveland sage, bordered by colorful sprays of California buttercup and seaside daisies. This half-acre strip is known as the Eternal Meadow, a green burial site which uses only decomposable materials for interment, and simultaneously provides a natural habitat for native pollinators like the endangered monarch butterfly. In a place synonymous with loss, it is heartening to see evidence of this beloved creature’s recovery.

“The monarchs’ numbers have been declining for a long time,” explains Connie Day, a retired schoolteacher, and the person responsible for this unlikely oasis. Day has spent most of her adult years advocating on behalf of this endangered species, whose population has experienced a dramatic 99% drop since the 1980s. In her view, the issue boils down to more intentional stewarding of the land. “The best way to support pollinators like monarchs is to support the plants they evolved on over millennia. That’s why native plants are so important,” she said, pointing to the shrubs in the meadow.

California has been the wintertime refuge of migrating monarchs for centuries. Each November, the insects pour in from states like Colorado and Arizona seeking a mild climate with just the right amount of moisture, which the California coastline and the Santa Monica Mountains readily provide.

This four-month sojourn is known as overwintering, and it signals a time of little activity for the butterflies: mainly, they hang out on trees and sleep. Traditionally, these overwintering sites have been a source of wonder for many Californians; picture a cypress tree with its branches weighed down by thousands of snoozing monarchs. But lately, the natural phenomenon has become harder and harder to find.

Certain Californians have made it their job to keep track of these sites. During the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, a team of over 100 volunteers set out with nothing but binoculars and a pad and pencil to conduct a yearly census of overwintering monarchs. The event has taken place every year since 1997, and aims to provide as accurate a picture as possible of the western monarch population. But the picture hasn’t been rosy: in 2020, participants tallied only 1,914 butterflies in the entire state of California, which led some experts to wonder dismally if the species had disappeared altogether. When LA-based plant ecologist Richard Rachman took over as a volunteer coordinator last fall, his expectations were low.

“Everyone told me, don’t worry, you’re not going to see any monarchs,” he recalled. But instead, the monarchs staged a surprising comeback. In LA alone, volunteers counted over 6,000 insects, and the numbers were equally encouraging in places like Pismo Beach and Pacific Grove, typically magnets for the monarchs. Media outlets were quick to spread the good news. “Monarch butterflies lift spirits along California’s coast,” proclaimed the L.A. Times, while the San Francisco Chronicle called the resurgence, a hundred-fold increase over the prior year’s count,“thrilling.”

The future for western monarchs remains uncertain, however. Deforestation, the widespread use of insecticides, and the loss of milkweed have all contributed to the monarchs’ ongoing plight. (A United Nations report in 2019 found that over 40% of invertebrate pollinators, including bees and butterflies, are at risk of extinction.) But of those three factors, the latter might be the most crucial—and the easiest to rectify.

Monarch Waystation

“The primary problem for our monarchs has been habitat loss and the introduction of non-native milkweeds,” explained Day. To combat this, she advises property owners to dedicate a small space in their garden or patio for nectar plants, as she has done at the cemetery. “Without nectar, we won’t have adults. And without adults, we won’t have eggs and babies.” So far, her approach seems to be working. The day we spoke, a pair of monarchs swirled merrily over our heads, then landed on a nearby California sunflower to feed on nectar, their brilliant orange and black wings unfolding in delicate V-shapes over the flower.

It is easier than ever for California residents to access these plants. In 2019, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation began distributing “habitat kits,” or free bundles of native plants, to communities all over California. So far, the organization has shipped over 40,000 milkweeds. One such recipient was the Institute for Sustainability at California State University, Northridge, which oversees sustainability measures for the campus. Through the habitat kit program, staff have been able to grow their 1-acre Food Garden into a thriving green sanctuary, complete with Davidson’s bush mallow, purple needlegrass, California brittlebush, sagebrush, and plenty of narrowleaf milkweed. The garden, which also supplies produce to food-insecure students, has emerged as a vital educational center, where undergraduates (and a few local high schoolers) can learn about the important roles that native plants play in the ecosystem.

“When I came here as a student in 2007, the university used pesticides, and there were lawns everywhere with very few native plants,” said Sarah Johnson, a 38-year-old sustainability program analyst at the institute. Since then, CSUN has turned its focus toward cultivating native, drought-tolerant plants. In 2018, it earned the designation of Certified Bee Campus, which recognizes efforts by university campuses to establish pollinator-friendly environments. Johnson has even spotted a few monarchs this winter, the ultimate measure of success for any native plant garden. “You see how much life is here on this tiny strip of land?” she gestured at the leafy plot around her, visibly pleased. “A little goes a long way.”

In northern California, Raen Winery has used the symbol of the monarch to jumpstart conversations about clean farming, which directly impacts the ability of pollinators like monarch butterflies to feed and lay their eggs safely. In 2016, the Sonoma coast vineyard debuted a limited edition Pinot Rosé called the Monarch Challenge, which gets shipped to customers with a packet of milkweed seeds tucked inside the box. “As farmers, we have a huge responsibility to be stewards of the land,” said founder Carlo Mondavi, the grandson of famed Napa winemaker Robert Mondavi. “We’re in a blessed place in the wine industry to lead by example,” Mondavi said. In addition to releasing the monarch-themed rosé, Mondavi has also co-developed the Monarch Tractor, an all-electric tractor that uses sensors to process data about the land, and thus help farmers minimize their use of harmful herbicides and insecticides.

“It’s been over twenty years since I saw a monarch flying around Sonoma,” Mondavi admitted. Still, that hasn’t stopped him from staying hopeful that farming practices can still change for the better. “Monarchs are an indicator species. When their numbers are down, it indicates that something is not right,” he said. “The good news is that more people are aware than ever.”

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