United States History teacher Jennifer Dolan’s neighbors think she has lost her mind.
“The neighbors just think I’m a crazy lady like, ‘Oh, there’s that lady out there in her sweatpants and her slippers taking pictures of the bush’ … I know they don’t know what I’m doing, but it brings me so much joy,” Dolan said. Contrary to her neighbors’ observations, Dolan isn’t just taking pictures of bushes. She’s tending to a “little monarch garden” where monarch butterflies, caterpillars, and chrysalises occupy native milkweed plants in her family’s front yard.
While renovating her garden in the spring, Dolan added three milkweed plants to attract butterflies. Milkweed is the only plant species where monarch butterflies can lay eggs, so it is commonly planted in gardens to draw caterpillars and butterflies. “Immediately, monarchs were there and they were landing on them every day,” she said. As the plants grew, Dolan noticed more and more butterflies and caterpillars visiting her garden. “And it wasn’t until the end of the summer that I noticed one of the chrysalises, and I kind of thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s crazy.’ They just seemed so unusual to me … It’s just opened up this whole world … I thought they were just really cool, so I started taking pictures of them.”
Her photography quickly blossomed into an Instagram account, @littlemonarchgarden, where Dolan frequently posts pictures of her resident monarchs for her friends, family, and students to enjoy. The account was created two days before Thanksgiving and has 33 followers as of Dec. 18.
Dolan caught the attention of a few students after she casually mentioned the hobby to one of her classes. “She has the coolest Instagram where she posts about her garden and it makes me so happy to see everything grow. Whenever I’m in a bad mood and scrolling through social media and I see one of her posts it makes me very happy,” junior Morgan Feinberg said.
Fellow classmate Nicholas Parlamis was inspired to buy milkweed plants after Dolan mentioned her garden to their class. “She made me want to build a beautiful monarch garden like hers,” he said.
Dolan described her newfound hobby as a reprieve from the stressful circumstances of the pandemic. “It’s been such a scary year in so many ways … When I accidentally noticed that I had these caterpillars in the front yard … It was five minutes a day where I could just get my mind off of everything,” she said.
The many challenges brought on by this year have shed light on the importance of the little things in life, and subsequently encouraged many, like Dolan, to indulge in new hobbies. One of the most difficult parts of distance learning has been the lack of face-to-face interactions between students and teachers. However, Dolan expressed that she has gotten to know her students in a different way, like casual conversations at the beginning of class, which is how one of her classes learned about her monarch garden. “I feel like students have gone out of their way to connect with me like saying ‘Hi’ in the [Zoom] chat at the beginning of class or thanking me … I can’t believe how many people say thank you at the end of class,” Dolan said.
During these difficult times, Dolan noted that her little monarch garden has become a source of happiness and hope. “In a normal year, I don’t even know if I would have noticed that they were there,” she said. “But there’s so few things that spark joy right now. And for whatever reason, they just seem so hopeful and like everything’s going to be okay.”