Mariposa Road: The First Butterfly Big Year

Mariposa Road: The First Butterfly Big Year

by Robert Michael Pyle


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From Kauia to Key West, Alaska’s tundra to the Rio Grande, a rollicking year-long search for American butterflies

With a love for adventure as great as his lifelong fascination with butterflies, America’s best-known lepidopterist set himself an irresistible challenge: how many of the 800 species of butterflies known in the United States could he track down in a single year? Packing little more than a butterfly net and favorite binoculars in his well-travelled 1982 Honda, Robert M. Pyle embarked on the first Butterfly Big Year—a 365-day, 88,000-mile sprint to every corner of America.
Mariposa Road is part road-trip tale, part travelogue, and part memoir of people and species Pyle encountered along the way. Most of all, the book is an unprecedented, intimate view of the entrancing world of butterflies, with new attention to their habitats in a time of environmental stress and climate change. From the California coastline in company with overwintering monarchs to the far northern tundra in pursuit of mysterious sulphurs and arctics, from the zebras of the Everglades to the leafwings and bluewings of the lower Rio Grande, Pyle completed an extraordinary journey, ruled always by surprise and discovery. With exuberance, humor, and honesty, he shares his adventures—and his amazing list of species, both identified and experienced.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300190977
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 03/04/2013
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 576
Sales rank: 1,075,506
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Robert Michael Pyle is the author of sixteen books, including Chasing Monarchs and Wintergreen, winner of the John Burroughs Medal. He has studied and written about natural history throughout his career, and as a butterfly conservation consultant, writer, and teacher he has worked in every state and many countries. He lives along a tributary of the Lower Columbia River in southwest Washington.

Read an Excerpt

1. Something Nice in the Woodshed
Moments past midnight, January 1, 2008, I am sitting on an anvil block in the former smithy of our homestead in southwest Washington. Outside, a crust of frozen hail whitens the ground. The sun shone today, but it was cold — this is the frozen North, after all. Even so, I am looking up at a butterfly: first of the year — first individual, first species.
 I expected to begin among the orange of monarchs, hanging in their winter roosts in California. I’ll get to those soon enough. But the oranges I am actually looking at are those of rotted, rat-gnawed life jackets, the handle of a peavey, my Stihl chain saw, bar guard, and earmuffs; and that of a Sunkist oranges box, slug-eaten and full of kindling. The mellow, sun-dried oak in my woodpile is almost orange, though a little closer really to the Baltic amber of the Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale in my wineglass, lifted to the new year, the journey ahead, and this butterfly, which is also orange.
 I spotted it a few days ago when I came out here to the former smithy, now woodshed, for Christmas firewood: that unmistakable silhouette of a winter nymph, outlined against an algal-dimmed windowpane. Thrilled, I hoped it would still be here — not shifted, stirred by the day’s sun and hunkered down behind the woodpile, or eaten by a mouse — by New Year’s. I checked on it each day, resisting the temptation to tape or Velcro it down. Yet here it is: a live butterfly, ringing in the new year, north of the 46th parallel.
 A hibernating California tortoiseshell, it is perched in the upper left corner of the upper right pane of a six-eyed window on the north side of this outbuilding in the lower left corner of the upper left state in the Lower 48. Its spiny feet, or tarsi, grip the wooden window frame; its cloaked, closed wings almost graze the glazing. It has moved in the days since I first saw it, but only a slight reorientation. Sloppy cobwebs hang all over and around the window, but it has avoided them, and the big English hunting spiders are frozen or hibernating too. Handsaws and an old hand scythe hang on nails beside the window, old license plates stand up below. Canoe paddles, lawn rakes, a chipper, and a weedwhacker guard the sleeping creature.
 The tortoiseshell’s orange and black, which give it its name, barely show. Mostly I can see the dark bark brown of the underside, with straw patches and sea blue chevrons. The crenelated edges of the wings suggest a leaf, making the nymph cryptic in the forest, but not here, where it stands right out against the hail-reflected pallor outside the window. Maybe to a mouse it is a leaf in a cobweb. But to me, it is much more. How lucky to begin this Big Year right here, at home, rather than in some distant grove of gum trees. Thea told me she saw a tortoiseshell in here around Halloween — was it the same one? It’s got a couple of months to go. Good luck, little butterfly; and to me too. You are my beginning, and I hope to see you here when I return.

2. A Big Blow
After the holiday festivities and heavy preparations, I was still unready to take off on New Year’s Day. But on the second day of the year, I got away before 9 a.m. with 354,490.35 miles on Powdermilk’s odometer. Thea crossed the long bridge over the Columbia River to Astoria, Oregon, with me for a goodbye breakfast date at the Pig & Pancake. Parting was hard — but it wasn’t going to be the only time this year, nor the longest separation.
 I headed out across Youngs Bay and into the Lewis and Clark Valley, sodden, brown and green below, gray and white above. Downed trees, fresh stumps, and battered houses spoke to a recent, powerful storm. Driving through the dull, leaden landscape, I felt the first twinge of the solitude that would mark much of my time over the months to come. And then I felt an overwhelming drowsiness and had to take a nap already. A marginal narcoleptic since high school, I can never tell when I am going to have to pull over and take a snooze. With as far as I had to go, and no one to share the driving, that could be a problem.
 For now, I pulled into Fort Clatsop, part of the new Lewis and Clark National Historical Park. The weather was foul — much like that endured by Lewis and Clark themselves when they wintered here two hundred years ago. I napped beside a huge pile of fresh rounds from wind-thrown hemlocks, drugged by the overpowering scent of terpenes. When I came to half an hour later, I braved the rain to search under the eaves of picnic shelters and interpretive kiosks for more diapausing nymphalid butterflies — there were five or six more species that could conceivably be found this way — but saw only banana slugs. When I moved on, mist was settling into the early dark. Down the coast, the great lump of Haystack Rock loomed out of sea spray at Cannon Beach, and an October day I remembered, when the town was alive with butterflies on autumn flowers, seemed geologic ages away.
 Around ten, I settled into a rest area on the Trask River, south of Tillamook, on a dark and stormy coastal night. I’d made a bed from the back seat laid lengthwise, where the passenger seat used to be, propped on my book boxes and topped with a body pillow. I drank the miniature bottle of Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey that my stepdaughter, Dory, gave me in my Christmas stocking to toast the start, and that providential tortoiseshell. Cozy in my chrysalis, about as tight as a midwinter butterfly still months from emergence, I slept eight hours solid, safely out of the heavy rain that beat on Powdermilk’s protective roof. I awoke to Steller’s jay calls after the first night of many on my traveling pallet. The only other two vehicles in the rest area belonged to people living in their cars but, unlike me, not by choice.
 On many passes down the Oregon coast, Thea and I have stopped at Bear Creek Artichokes near Beaver, for both local produce and butterflies. The summer nectar was long gone or far in the future now, but I hoped to find a cabbage white caterpillar on the winter broccoli and kale fields. This tough introduced pierid is one of the only species one can sometimes see this far north active in the winter as a nonhibernating immature. We’d found a larva on our own kale back at Thanksgiving. But this time the fields at Bear Creek lay fallow. I stopped anyway for Longbottom coffee and a French Topaz apple, which I had on the Salmon River estuary in the sun, Sitka spruces and vine maples overhead, a rainbow to the east.
 The night was balmy on the buttoned-up waterfront of Bandon. The deserted pier was illuminated by an octopus, a seal, a shark, and other sea beasts all formed by Christmas lights. I thought of sleeping there, but a wandering constable dissuaded me. It was midnight when I went to ground at Ophir Wayside State Park north of Gold Beach, just about at the bottom of Oregon. Soon any semblance of mildness went out with the tide, as this wild night on the coast got under way.
 I bedded down in winds of true gale force, and I was grateful for my strong, warm holt. A tent would not have cut it. The blast rose to over eighty miles an hour, rocking Powdermilk like a cradle. Then still fiercer, less cradle than punching bag. I was afraid that Powdermilk might actually blow over, or a lamp standard come crashing down on us, or driftwood be cast up in my lap, for I was only yards from the shore. I realized that I should have parked end-on to the coast-wise wind, instead of broadside. I would have reoriented if I could have done so without opening the door, which easily could have blown right off. In any case, I slept very little.
 After a brief surcease the next day, the wind regained its edge and pinned me down. In the damp, hammering air, a heavy, bearded man in a Storey County Jeep Posse windbreaker and ball cap got out of a big, shiny red F-150 to walk a dachshund for a pee. The dog had on a little yellow rain slicker, but the wind blew it over his head, so the man gave up and took it off. Breasting the blow to pee myself, I saw there was plenty of cakile here. This succulent mustard, also known as beach radish, comes in two species along the West Coast, one introduced and the other possibly indigenous. Cakile and cabbage whites have coadapted to the Pacific beaches, so that in summer you can find the whites tossing like bits of sea foam right down to the tide line. These wide-ranging species are beach buddies around many a northern shoreline. I’d planned to comb the cakile at Coquille, but it was dusk when I got there, so I checked the radishes here. I combed a stretch of wind-battered beach bashed by high gray seas, poked under driftwood, on marah straw in the dunes, and under the bathroom eaves: no cabbage white chrysalides.
 Three brown pelicans came coasting into the wind, shooting the tubes, making slow, careless headway south. Would I make any more speed against this wind than they? I wondered. After resisting it for years, I’d finally agreed to carry a cell phone for the trip, mostly for the family’s peace of mind, and so Thea could reach me if she needed to. Now I used the unfamiliar implement to beg a bed for the night in Eureka. There would be a warm welcome and a fine dinner, eve, and overnight to come with Redwood Coast naturalists Tom and Sue Leskiw, and excellent Indica India Pale Ale at the Lost Coast Brewery’s Eureka Alehouse. But first, many more miles to cover. Blow, winds, blow!
 Highway 101 curled past Otter Point and on across the Rogue River into Gold Beach. This should be one of the great town approaches anywhere. But in a stroke of world-class philistinism, a big plastic Motel 6 sign stood out on the forested hillside, directly framed by the Art Deco pillars of the historic bridge. North of Brookings, yellow-flowered hillsides kicked in — but it was European gorse, not the native spring goldfields. Equally exotic pyracantha and pampas grass violated the verges southward, but there were protected acres too, and botanical waysides, and Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, all among the wind-driven gray and occasional sun splashes on the waves. Then, for the first of many entries I would make this year, came California. “Entering Smith River, Easter Lily Capital of the World,” read the sign, followed by one of the best street names ever: Wonder Stump Road.


What People are Saying About This

Kenn Kaufman

Toss out any notion you might have had about butterfly watchers and meet Bob Pyle: scientist and daredevil, philosopher and magician, pioneer and rebel, and the finest of companions for a vagabond journey. Follow him down the rip-roaring Mariposa Road and you’ll never look at a butterfly, or the world, in the same way again.—Kenn Kaufman, author of Kingbird Highway

Molly Gloss

In Mariposa Road we’re invited along as Bob Pyle crisscrosses the country on a yearlong hunt for butterflies.  He writes of the land and the creatures in it with such extraordinary vividness and grace—describes his adventures and unexpected challenges with such good humor—that we are borne aloft, we can see it all and love it, as he does.  You’ll never have so much fun armchair traveling!—Molly Gloss, author of The Hearts of Horses

Thomas Lovejoy

A charming book, emanating from the traveling naturalist tradition of Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher’s Wild America, and Edwin Way Teale’s four volumes on seasonal change of nature in America—Thomas E. Lovejoy, University Professor of Environmental Science and Policy, George Mason University and Biodiversity Chair, The Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, Washington, D.C.

Francie Chew

Mariposa Road is at one and the same time both a serious endeavor in consciousness-raising in conservation biology, and a set of deeply personal reflections based on a lifetime of commitment to the conservation of invertebrates and butterflies in particular.—Francie Chew, Tufts University

Scott Weidensaul

What Roger Tory Peterson was for birds, Bob Pyle is for butterflies—their most impassioned advocate and ceaseless popularizer. From the dusty heat of Texas and the tropical lushness of Hawaii to the legendary outhouse of the Midnight Sun in the Alaskan Arctic, Pyle is a traveling companion who never grows dull.—Scott Weidensaul, author of Of a Feather and Return to Wild America

Martin Warren

Mariposa Road is a mighty slice of North America, seen through the eyes of one of its most eloquent naturalists. During this Butterfly Big Year, Bob Pyle introduces us to the wonder of 478 species and with each encounter we get a unique insight into the places and people that make up modern America. For those of us in Britain, with a mere 57 species to tick, it is a real treat. This is extreme butterflying at its best, I wish I could have been with him."—Martin Warren, Chief Executive, Butterfly Conservation, Wareham, Dorset, U.K.

Michael M. Collins

Lepidopterists will appreciate Bob’s sightings, chases, and captures, and natural history remarks on species both familiar and unknown. A reader with only a general interest in natural history can vicariously join Bob on his “rays,” enjoying the adventures, learn much about regional biotas, and either elect to look up specific butterflies in a field guide or choose not to. There is much for anyone among a wide readership to consume and ponder.—Michael M. Collins, author of Moth Catcher

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