On the Road, With Butterflies

By Joe Eaton
Monday December 06, 2010 - 03:14:00 PM
Pipevine swallowtail in Briones Regional Park.
Franco Folini
Pipevine swallowtail in Briones Regional Park.

On the short list of Books That Ruined My Life, Wild America ranks high. Published in 1955, it’s the jointly written account of a birding trek by Roger Tory Peterson, of fame guide fame, and his colleague James Fisher around the perimeter of North America: from Newfoundland down the Atlantic Coast, down into the Mexican tropics, across the Southwest and up the Pacific Coast, fetching up in the Pribilof Islands. I got hold of it when I was about ten and trapped in Little Rock, and it struck a chord. 

Damn, I wanted to do that! Exotic places like the Dry Tortugas and Monterey, birds that weren’t even in my Eastern Peterson guide… 

Scanning the book now, it’s a kind of pre-Interstate idyll: gas was cheap, locals tolerant, and Peterson and Fisher had an extensive network of friends happy to put them up and show them the good stuff. It was On the Road with birds, and it affected me a lot more than Kerouac (or Steinbeck or Least Heat-moon) ever did. Eventually Ron and I did our own circumcontinental birding trip, minus Mexico and Alaska, although we didn’t get a book out of it. 

The Peterson-Fisher quest was one of the first birding Big Years, an exercise which involves observing and identifying as many bird species as you can within some agreed-on boundary within a calendar year. Much later, Kenn Kaufman documented his own Big Year in Kingbird Highway. Kaufman’s was a much lower-budget operation: he hitchhiked a lot and at one point was reduced to eating dog kibble. 

The latest iteration of the naturalist’s-road-trip book is Mariposa Highway by Robert Michael Pyle. Pyle is a well-known butterfly aficionado (the equivalent to “birder” is “butterflier”), author of a slew of field guides and memoirs, and a founder of the Xerces Society, the first organization dedicated to the conservation of invertebrates. Pyle also co-edited a unique book called Nabokov’s Butterflies, which lets you go straight to the butterfly passages of Lolita et al without wading through all the sex and nostalgia. (I admit to a weakness for Nabokov, who was always, for various reasons, one of those writers I was not supposed to like.) 

Pyle’s hook in Mariposa Highway is the first Big Year for butterflies. In 2008 he crisscrossed the continental United States, with sorties to Alaska and Hawai’i. (I believe that under American Birding Association rules, Hawai’ian birds can’t be counted for Big Year purposes. Either butterfly people are more flexible or the guidelines haven’t had time to crystallize yet.) He identified a total of 478 species, plus another dozen likely but unconfirmed. 

It’s a good read, although it may help to have some predisposing interest in butterflies. I needed to keep a butterfly field guide handy, since the book is sparsely illustrated (endpapers only). Still, Pyle gives vivid descriptions of his hairstreaks, coppers, fritillaries, and blues, and the landscapes in which he encountered them. 

I had to keep reminding myself that this guy is just about my age. I couldn’t romp around the alpine tundra the way he does, or stay awake for the marathon drives. He seems to have a nose for good beer, having discovered the juniper-flavored 395 IPA from somewhere east of Tioga Pass a couple of years before I did. On the other hand, he is one of those people who give names to inanimate objects. All three of his nets have names, as does his long-suffering Honda Civic and his rental vehicles. 

Pyle admits to good days and bad. He misses local rarities, like the Behr’s parnassian in the High Sierra and the Kamehameha on Kaua’i. His nets break, his glasses break, he leaves a yogurt container of irreplaceable voucher specimens in a bar and has to retrieve it from a dumpster. Back in Washington State, his wife is going through heavy-duty cancer treatment. Naturally, some guilt is involved. 

Like Peterson and Fisher, Pyle depends on the kindness of colleagues. San Francisco butterfly maven Liam O’Brien takes him to the prime coastal green hairstreak and mission blue sites. Butterfliers, on the whole, appear to be congenial folks. 

Big Years, avian or lepidopteran, may contribute to our knowledge of distribution, documenting range shifts and extralimital strays. Mostly they’re stunts, indulgences. But what a magnificent indulgence this was!