Mariposa Road: The First Butterfly Big Year
by Robert Michael Pyle
Reviewed by Marc Covert
(Editor's note: Robert Michael Pyle, the author of today's featured book, will be appearing at our Cedar Hills Crossing location in Beaverton, Oregon on November 4. Click here for more details.)
For more than 50 years bird watchers have had the big year -- a 12-month competitive quest to see and record as many species of birds as possible in a specific geographical area -- all to themselves. The largest of these, the North American Big Year, pits hundreds of seemingly normal people against each other, forsaking families, friends, jobs and other aspects of a settled life in hopes of being crowned that year's champion. Plenty of books have been written about birding big years, most notably Kenn Kaufman's irresistibly titled Kingbird Highway: The Story of a Natural Obsession That Got a Little Out of Hand (1997).
The birders' monopoly has come to an end, thanks to Robert Michael Pyle, whose latest book, Mariposa Road: The First Butterfly Big Year chronicles his 2008 attempt to see and document as many of the 800 species of North American butterflies as possible. Pyle, a prolific author, naturalist, lepidopterist, Yale professor of forestry and passionate advocate for all invertebrates (he founded the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in 1971, at the tender age of 24), seems ideally suited to the challenge. A resident of Gray's River, Wash., since 1979, Pyle "went nuts over butterflies in fifth grade" while growing up near Aurora, Colo. Since then he has become one of the leading American nature writers, penning everything from Audubon field guides, handbooks and coloring books to classics of Northwest natural history, including Wintergreen: Listening to the Land's Heart (1986) and Sky Time in Gray's River: Living for Keeps in a Forgotten Place (2007).
Itching for yet another road trip after finishing Sky Time in Gray's River, Pyle decided the time was right to attempt his butterfly big year, "an opportunity to gain a broad sense of how our butterflies are faring versus development, climate change, exotic biota, and our own land management choices," he writes. Rather than spend an entire year on the road, Pyle pursues his quarry in an out-and-back fashion, "like the ray petals of a daisy, with Gray's River as the flower's disk." For transportation Pyle relies mostly on the indomitable Powdermilk, his trusty 1982 Honda Civic with more than 345,000 miles to its credit, which, when needed, serves as the world's smallest, most primitively-accessorized camper.
What follows is a lively, lavishly detailed account of Pyle's travels and observations. He keeps his promise to both butterflies and readers to never let "mere listing ... get in the way of solid, meaningful encounter with the animal and its habitat. I attended to all of the flora and fauna, including people." Pyle writes with authority and gentle wit, backed by formidable knowledge and experience, always conveying the barely contained joy and fascination butterflies excite in him, even when lying prone in muck or surrounded by clouds of ravenous blackflies. In describing a riotous Florida butterfly meadow, he writes: "A sandy willow lane, traveled by otters and alligators when wet, now hosted a court convention of viceroys, queens, and pearl crescents on a jag, all courting, drinking, and jousting."
Pyle's blissful encounters with butterflies, old friends, ales and road food are tempered by much of what he finds. While the obvious threats posed by habitat loss, wildfires, controlled burns, Winnebago windshields and global warming have taken an alarming toll on butterfly populations, Pyle also sees more insidious threats brought about by ignorance and indifference. Observing butterflies on a hilltop near San Diego, he writes: "When I contemplated the sheer pulchritude of these diminutive hairstreaks I'd been hunting, versus the vanishingly small number of people who have ever beheld them, it seemed to me nothing less than tragic. All those people reveling down there in the hollow, pallid blandishments of the cities and the plain -- and this, right up here, unseen but by us. Well, it's just a particular of the general condition." With Mariposa Road, Bob Pyle does everything in his considerable powers to remedy that condition.