Tracking butterflies, from Mexico to Alaska, in a 1992 Honda Civic.
Ecologist and self-described "butterfly hobo" Robert Michael Pyle looks like, and is frequently mistaken for, country musician Kenny Rogers. Not a bad comparison. He shares with Rogers an entertaining life on the road, accompanied not by guitar and glitzy tour bus but by his trusty butterfly net named Marsha, and similarly trusty 1992 Honda Civic, Powdermilk. Beginning with 354,490 miles on Powdermilk's odometer, and who knows how many of Marsha's netted and whiffed butterflies, the three spent all of 2008 touring North America, from a private butterfly garden in Florida to the "Redneck Riviera" along the Okefenokee swamp, from wild Mexican borderlands teeming with butterflies and patrol helicopters to the serenity of the Alaskan wilderness, seeking butterflies and their signal host plants. His goal was to identify 500 of the 800 American species in a single year.
Honestly, I thought this could be a somewhat long trip, despite my great admiration for Pyle's scientific and writing skills. But from one swamp flower to another floating fritillary, his practiced eye, exuberant wit and descriptive alacrity carry the reader on a delightful tour of America's butterfly cosmos. Like the great naturalist he is, Pyle effortlessly identifies every natural thing along the way -- from bobcat tracks and bird trills to 478 species of butterflies on this, America's "first Butterfly Big Year."
Pyle fully acknowledges his debt to similar road trips: Kenn Kaufman's "Kingbird Highway," Roger Tory Peterson's "Wild America," William Least Heat Moon's "Blue Highways" and his own "Monarch Highway," in which he tracked West Coast monarch butterflies from eggs in British Columbia to winter roosts along the California coast. "Mariposa Road: The First Butterfly Big Year" brims with Pyle's signature passion, wit and linguistic exuberance as well as his scientific accuracy as a Yale-educated ecologist and author of 14 books. Initially I thought I might recommend that Midwestern readers skip ahead to Pyle's passage through our region, but I found I couldn't put the book down earlier -- not to mention that he came this way in November (in search of the eggs of the Karner Blue, an endangered cause celebre). I wouldn't want you to miss what he finds everywhere else in our land, including rednecks and hippies and local beers and local restaurants and stories of the many unsung heroes of butterfly conservation.
It's a joy to ride along on Pyle's "Butterfly Big Year." At 588 pages, the book appears a heavy load, but turning the pages is as breezy as, well, stopping the car, getting out and chasing something miraculous. I've always thought the Spanish word for butterfly, mariposa, to be the most beautiful word in any language. Pyle gives us 478 reasons to celebrate their actual beauty, too, and to care for their creation.
James P. Lenfestey is a writer and poet in Minneapolis.