Standing-Room-Only crowds aren't the norm in Olympia, but last night at Fireside Books, there was not a seat to be had to hear Robert Michael Pyle (above)tell stories from his new book, Mariposa Road: The First Butterfly Big Year.
Pyle is a professional lepidopterist, naturalist, author of fifteen books and field guides, raconteur, Xerces Society founder, Kenny Rogers look alike (to some), ale-lover, and resident of Washington State's rainy Wahkiakum County.
In 2007, Pyle left home for a year-long tour of the U.S. to see how many butterfly species he could spot and identify. "Big Year" trips have been common and highly competitive in the birding world for some fifty years (and well documented in Kenn Kaufman's Kingbird Highway and Mark Obmascik's The Big Year), but Pyle's trip marks the first such endeavor for butterflies. For anyone expecting a dry, thinly padded listing of some of the 800 North American butterflies (snore), you will be pleasantly surprised, well entertained, and laughing out loud reading Mariposa Road. Pyle makes it clear from the start that he never lets listing get in the way of meaningful encounters with butterflies in the field.
Pyle's book is about butterflies, but you really don't need to know how to pronounce lepidoptera in order to appreciate Pyle's wisdom about the value of experiencing the natural world. When critics asked Pyle if a book on butterflies wasn't a bit "trivial" given the state of the world these days, Pyle tells us he never makes an apology for being outside with his eyes and ears open. I found this encouraging and eliminated doubts about my book on clouds being a trivial pursuit.
Pyle traveled the country in his Honda with the front passenger seat removed so it would serve as a camper. He could have, he said, stayed with any number of lepidopterist friends in any state he visited, been wined and dined, and lead directly to the local butterfly hot spots. But he wanted to let hunch, chance, and happenstance be his guide. Pyle identified 96% of the 800 butterfly species (some in larval form) that he set out to encounter on his trip--a trip full of "grace notes--stochastic events that happen when you are open to the landscape."
Despite Pyle's fifty years of experience studying butterflies, such guides are bound to lead to sidetrips, mishaps, near disasters, and missed opportunities. And they do. How many lepidopterists do you know who would dumpster dive after a yogurt container of valuable butterfly specimens left in a brewpub by accident or, make a special trip to Elvis Presley's "Graceland" to place a copy of Orion
magazine containing an article called "One Nation Under Elvis"
on The King's grave? I can name but one.
With Pyle's depth of knowledge, environmental ethic, knack for storytelling, and trademark gentle and self-deprecating humor Mariposa Road promises to be one of the best natural history reads this year.