The Working Waterfront

Don’t mow the milkweed

A small, but effective step to save a species

Courtney Naliboff
Posted 2021-11-04
Last Modified 2021-11-04

Not too far from my house, on one of my usual walking routes, is a huge field. A house sits on the field far back from the road, so that any signs of habitation are invisible to passersby, but the field covers an immense swath of South Shore Road.

It greens up in a patchwork each spring, lighter on the drier, high ground and a darker green from ferns and horsetail closer to the trickle of water that runs parallel to it. As the grass gets taller in the summer my dog makes valiant attempts to rout field mice and grasshoppers from between the flower stalks.

Towards the end of the season, a hired mower arrives to level the playing field, as it were.

Mowing the fields is a late summer ritual, and there’s a certain satisfaction in the neat stripes the mower leaves behind.

Mowing the fields is a late summer ritual, and there’s a certain satisfaction in the neat stripes the mower leaves behind. This year, I noticed an aberrant clump of something in the middle of the patterned land. Upon closer inspection, I realized it was milkweed.

This new cluster isn’t the only one left intentionally standing after the late summer mowing. I’ve seen them on the shoulder of the road, as well as in the town park. Their presence gives me a disproportionate amount of hope at a time when I find I’m grasping to find any sort of glimmer.

Milkweed, as you likely know, is the sole food of the monarch caterpillar. The monarch butterfly population is declining steadily, and some money is now being devoted to preserving its habitat and protecting them from pesticides such as glyphosate.

I’m glad these initiatives are in place, but I’m even more glad to see North Haven taking this incredibly easy step to preserve their habitat—just don’t mow the milkweed.

I asked a friend who mows for the town whether there’s any sort of official milkweed preservation policy and there isn’t—it’s left to the discretion of the mower. All the mowers seem to have gotten the memo.

It seems to be paying off. The summer gardens are full of the lazy flappers, and it’s easy to find a few of the caterpillars in any of those roadside milkweed clumps, munching away and growing to extraordinary size in a few short weeks. Penrose, Bill, and I took a few walks specifically to look for the charismatic microfauna and were instantly rewarded, just across the street from the field and its cluster.

Life feels like a lot right now. Between climate related weather disasters, fires, the Delta variant, legal assaults on reproductive rights, Afghanistan—you name it—everything feels sort of out of the hands of the individual. So the simple act of mowing around some milkweed, and the visible impact it has on a butterfly in need of some support, feels especially powerful.

And while it might not mean a thing in the big picture, I’m hanging on to that saying about a butterfly flapping its wings in one place and affecting the weather in another. Just maybe, with enough little things, we can shift the balance and see a way ahead.

Courtney Naliboff lives on North Haven where she teaches music, theater, and writing in the island school and plays in the band Bait Bag. She may be contacted at