This story was first told by Donna Haraway in her book, Staying With the Trouble. You can read the original story here. My revision of the story is shortened and simplified for accessibility. If you’re familiar with Donna Haraway, I think you’ll agree she wouldn’t mind and would probably encourage you to make up your own stories about the Children of Compost.
This story was first read at Beverly Unitarian Church in Illinois as part of a service. The woman I asked to read the story actual brought live examples of Monarch metamorphosis, from caterpillar through chrysalis to adult butterfly. At the end of the service, she helped several children release the butterfly.
In the first part of the 21st century, things were looking pretty bad for living beings on planet earth. There were way too many human beings. And all the other living beings were dying.
This is when small communities started springing up calling themselves the “Children of Compost.” The Compost communities appeared in ruined and broken places, places which had been damaged by industry and capitalism over the previous two centuries. The Children of Compost loved the earth and the beings who inhabited it, both human beings and other-than-human beings. They wanted to heal these wounded places. They believed that, in order to heal the wounded earth, they needed to do two things: reduce the number of human beings and increase the numbers of other-than-human beings.
New children were very rare and precious in the Compost communities. The decision to bring a new human being into life was one made by the whole community, because the whole community would play a part in raising the child. The woman who chose to become pregnant would also choose an animal species, called a “symbiont,” for the child to bond with. The species would be one which was endangered or threatened with extinction. As the child grew up, they would help their symbiont species to heal and survive. The most important part of the child’s education was to learn about the animal species they were bonded with, as well the places and other species that were important to the survival of their symbiont species.
When a child and another animal were bonded, the bonding would affect five generations of human beings. This is the story of five generations of human beings, all named “Camille.” Camille’s people lived in West Virginia, in a place which had been damaged by coal mining companies. The mining companies had removed the tops of the mountains. The valleys were filled with rocks. The rivers were toxic. But the place was special because it was along the route where Monarch butterflies migrate every year.
The first Camille was born in the year 2025. Her birth mother chose the Monarch butterfly for her to bond with. The first Camille and four more generations after her would grow to understand the Monarch butterfly species and try to help it survive. It was the responsibility of the older Camille to pass on her knowledge to the next Camille in the chain.
The first Camille lived in a terrible time of mass extinctions, violent climate change, and war. The number of human beings on the planet was still continuing to grow. Four other children were born close to the same time as Camille, and they were bonded with different species: an eel, a kestrel (a kind of bird), a crayfish, and a salamander. Camille’s best friend was named Kess. Kess had been bonded with the kestrel. Camille and Kess were close because the kestrels ate the Monarch butterflies in order to live, and both the kestrels and the butterflies loved the meadows and woodlands. When Camille got older, she studied with Native American people to better learn how to be a good human to her butterfly kin.
Before she died, the first Camille passed on her knowledge to the second Camille, who was born in the year 2085. When she was 15 years old, Camille II was initiated and became responsible for caring for the Monarchs. She left West Virginia and traveled to Mexico, where the Monarch butterflies spend the winter, in order to learn more about them.
In Mexico, Camille II studied with revolutionary women in the mountains. The women taught her about their struggle for justice, for clean water, and a healthy forest. On November 1, 2100, which the Mexican people call, “Dia de los Muertos” (“Day of the Dead”), Camille II watched as the Monarch butterflies return to their home in the Mexican mountains. The revolutionary women told Camille that the butterflies were the souls of their human dead. Camille did not understand this for a long time.
The third Camille was born in the year 2170. By that time, there had been great losses of all kinds of beings, as ecosystems around the world collapsed. But things were finally starting to turn around. The numbers of human beings were finally starting to go down. And this created space for some of the vulnerable species, like the Monarch butterflies.
The fourth Camille was born in the year 2255. During her lifetime, she realized that the Monarch butterflies were not going to survive. In spite of the work of the first three Camilles, the Monarchs were going to go extinct. So she had to prepare the fifth Camille for a very special and very hard job, to become a Speaker for the Dead.
The job of the Speakers for the Dead was to help people mourn for and remember those animal species who had died. Their job was to save species from the Second Death, which happens when people are forgotten by those who are alive. As Speaker for the Dead for the Monarch butterflies, the job of Camille V was to never let the people forget the Monarchs and what lessons they had to teach us. The Camille V remembered the stories of Camille II about how the Monarchs had helped the revolutionary women in the Mexican mountains remember their dead. Her job now was to help human beings to remember the Monarch dead. She began to understand how the souls of humans, alive and dead, are intertwined with the souls of the Monarchs.