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On the Fly
Move over, birders. Esteemed nature writer Robert Michael Pyle takes to tallying butterflies.

Mariposa Road: The First Butterfly Big YearBy Robert Michael Pyle
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 544 pages, $27

Even people who claim to like butterflies may fail to understand much about them, regarding them as mere symbols or as scraps of flying color, not as living insects. Newspaper stories about monarch butterfly migration are replete with references to these “frail, delicate creatures,” ignoring the fact that monarchs are honking big butterflies, tough and adaptable, as proven by their long journeys. But if butterflies fare poorly in the public eye, their fans get even less respect. In the media, lepidopterists are, at best, depicted as knobby-kneed kooks in pith helmets, leaping through fields, nets a-swinging. The late Rev. Ron Gatrelle, an avid lepidopterist in the Carolinas, once told me of the reactions of locals when he walked backroads with his net: “As far as they’re concerned, I might as well be wearing pink tights.”

Conservationist and writer Robert Michael Pyle is probably too independent to care about image, but he has put a lot of thought and energy into raising the profile of the butterflies themselves. As a young lepidopterist who fell in with the birders of the Seattle Audubon Society, he soon saw that his favorite insects could become more popular if people were encouraged to watch them rather than go through all the work of collecting them. Pyle’s slim volume, Watching Washington Butterflies, introduced the concept in 1974, and he followed that with the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies (1981) and the Audubon Society Handbook for Butterfly Watchers (1984), putting the pieces in place for a revolution in how these small creatures are experienced.

In the years since, Pyle has written about larger issues in such classic books as Wintergreen (about the destruction of the forests of Washington’s Willapa Hills) and Where Bigfoot Walks (an exploration of wilderness and its meanings), gaining a reputation as one of our finest nature writers. The task of popularizing butterfly watching has been largely taken up by organizations like the North American Butterfly Association. But Pyle has kept his lepidopterist instincts sharp, and periodically he returns to his roots. In 2008 he spent the entire year trying to see how many different species of butterflies he could find on this continent north of Mexico, as described in his epic new travelogue, Mariposa Road.

Well, why not? Birders have been doing “big years” for years—on a local level since the 1890s, on a continent-wide scale since the 1930s, tallying as many avian species as possible in 12 months. Butterfly watching followed the trajectory of birding at a remove of several decades, so it was inevitable that someone would finally give butterflies their due.

Because that someone was Pyle, the journey has its own rich flavor, brimming with detail, resolutely low-budget and low-tech. Eschewing air travel whenever possible, Pyle made most of his trips in his ancient Honda Civic, “Powdermilk,” whose odometer had ticked off more than 300,000 miles before the start of 2008. Navigating without GPS, traveling without a laptop, he did not blog from the road (although a funky “antiblog” developed, as Pyle wrote notes on postcards, placemats, pieces of bark, or whatever scrap was handy, and mailed them to friends at Orion magazine and the Xerces Society, who then posted images of these missives online). He was determined to be an “unhurried narrator,” and by any measure he succeeded.

The calendar year starts in midwinter, of course, when butterflies are scarce in most places, including coastal Washington where Pyle lives. He could have pumped his year tally to 100 quickly by starting in southern Texas, the richest U.S. region for winter butterflies, but he chose to begin at home and wend his way slowly south through Oregon and California. Before his list hit a dozen species, he had already come face-to-face with a bobcat, sampled chocolate-covered crickets, considered the pros and cons of exotic eucalyptus groves, visited sites immortalized by Steinbeck and Kerouac, been kicked out of more than one unsanctioned campsite, looked at the legacy of habitat loss in the San Joaquin Valley, and posed for photos with kids who thought he was Kenny Rogers, not the last time he would be mistaken for the singer. His approach seems to say: Butterflies? We’ll get to those, but in the meantime, there are a lot of other things to see. 

Pyle does end up plying his formidable skills to describing butterflies, more than 470 species by year’s end. In Texas, regarding the common mestra, formerly known by a different name: “Such a dainty of orange peel and oyster shell both deserves and requires a euphonious name, like amymone.” In Alaska: “An Arctic white perched like a swatch of pale linen in a drawer lined with white heather, lichen, and moss.” In California, on finding the little Muir’s hairstreak: “the forewing coppery, the hindwing based in grainy purple-slate, grading out into lilac, rust, and a sparkly blue rim, all crossed by a zaggy white line. John Muir would have no complaint with his patronymic.”

Mariposa Road is not merely a thesis on Lepidoptera, however. It’s a romp through North America’s rich diversity, with the quest for butterflies providing merely the framework for all the other encounters. Pyle’s sharp prose captures his delight with the landscapes, wildlife, and especially the people he meets. Nothing, it seems, escapes his eye. That may be one unintended message of this naturalist’s journey: Learn to notice creatures as small and fleeting as butterflies, and you’ll never miss any of the larger things.
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By Sy Montgomery
Free Press Hardcover, 260 pages, $25

Naturalist Sy Montgomery gives readers a newfound respect for pigeons, those bobble heads that city dwellers sidestep and shoo away without pause. Although few people hold these “rats with wings” in high esteem, Montgomery clearly does: She devotes 33 pages to them in her new book Birdology: Adventures With a Pack of Hens, a Peck of Pigeons, Cantankerous Crows, Fierce Falcons, Hip Hop Parrots, Baby Hummingbirds, and One Murderously Big Living Dinosaur. She offers plenty of reasons. During World War II, pigeons received the Dikin Medal (the animal Medal of Honor) 32 times—for delivering crucial messages, while under fire, from the front lines. That’s more than dogs and cats combined. Pigeons can travel hundreds of miles in a day, at faster than 60 miles per hour, and they nearly always find their way home. Montgomery fawns over more than just the Columbidae family’s 303 species. She describes her friendship with and admiration for the hens that, for two-plus decades, have shared her farm; the rare Australian cassowary she’s desperate to spot; and the orphaned baby hummingbirds she worries about like a nervous mother. Montgomery, a vegetarian, is even inspired by meat-devouring hawks. She simply loves birds. And to read about her intimate adventures with them is to enter a world any birder would be hard pressed to leave.—Michele Wilson
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A Conservationist Manifesto
By Scott Russell Sanders
Indiana University Press, 238 pages, $19.95

In a world that focuses relentlessly on consumer culture, it’s refreshing to read Scott Russell Sanders’s plea for “a new vision of the good life” in A Conservationist Manifesto. We should value wilderness and wildlife, of course, but also a limestone courthouse in Indiana, the art of quilting, our own hometowns. In this collection of essays—one, “Limberlost and Found,” first appeared in the May-June 2001 Audubon—Sanders explores how to achieve “a more durable and responsible way of life.” He takes readers to lands both tame and wild, from Indiana to Alaska, and he also ranges through theology and etymology, positing, for instance, that “wilderness represents in space what the Sabbath represents in time—a limit to our dominion, a refuge from the quest for power and wealth.” He examines the roots of words like resource, or re-source, which means to rise anew, to be self-sustaining. Clean air, fish, topsoil—all will renew themselves if we take proper care of them. Minerals and fossil fuels, however, “are not resources at all, because they cannot be replenished.” Sanders advocates a simplicity of lifestyle, since the more we consume, “the more the planet must be mined, bulldozed, clear-cut, paved.” And in the face of enormous challenges, he urges us not to lose heart: “Just because we can’t live without doing harm doesn’t mean we can’t do less harm.”—Mary-Powel Thomas
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Extreme Scientists
By Donna M. Jackson
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 80 pages, $18 (Ages 8–12)

Ask kids to imagine a scientist, and they might think of a lab-coat-shrouded, begoggled “classic nerd,” surrounded by microscopes and beakers. Extreme Scientists upends that notion by introducing three researchers who defy stereotypes. First there’s the hurricane hunter, who tracks dangerous storms by flying into their center. Using radar and GPS, he collects meteorological information, such as air pressure changes, to send to the National Hurricane Center so that forecasters can predict weather trends and issue warnings. Next is a microbiologist “cave woman.” Armed with lamps and other gear, she maneuvers through caverns of all kinds—limestone, ice, even underwater—in search of microbes that could be used for making medicine. Finally kids meet a “skywalker”—that is, a botanist who scales redwoods and other arboreal titans hundreds of feet high to study their ecology and learn how to protect them from pollution and global warming. Donna Jackson’s text is thick with facts, but the researchers’ anecdotes, which include harrowing recounts of near-death experiences, and graphic images depicting each scientist in action, will keep kids tuned in, perhaps concocting their own adventurous careers.—Julie Leibach
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Art of the Wild

For an exemplary model of the purpose-driven life, home in on a honeybee. Photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher’s Bee (Princeton Architectural Press, 128 pages, $29.95) will guide you on the journey. Using a scanning electron microscope, Fisher examines the insect’s anatomical minutiae, beginning with its antennae—sensory organs that not only smell, taste, and hear but that also detect changes in other physical phenomena, such as temperature. She ends with its two pairs of wings, which create a bee’s telltale buzz as they beat up to 230 times a second, warming the hive. Each cross section, gradated in gray, appears as an abstract or interpretive piece of art but is really an architectural marvel of form exquisitely fitting function. What look like tapered thorny petals belching unraveling yarn, for instance, are actually organs that help create the airtight chamber of the bee’s proboscis, responsible for drawing up nectar, honey, and water, and for transferring food to hive mates. Indeed, theirs “is a peaceful society whose industries benefit life,” writes Fisher. In bees she sees inspiration for us. “How can we emulate their example of harmlessness and beauty?”—Julie Leibach
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