Who doesn’t like butterflies?! Lissome and lithe, their shiny, sparkling, shimmering bodies float from one nectar-filled goblet to the next on gossamer wings, sipping of the sweet life-sustaining syrup. Their habitat ranges from the mountains to the valleys, their sizes and shades cover a wide spectrum, and their metamorphosis from tiny egg to larva (caterpillar) to pupa (chrysalis) to adult is almost too fantastic to believe. While I am one of many butterfly fans, I do not know much about these lovely insects, a shortcoming I hope to remedy.
One person who knows A LOT about these winged wonders is one of America’s foremost lepidopterists and conservationists, Robert Michael Pyle. I first learned about him by happenstance when I came across The Thunder Tree at a bookstore in Moab, Utah, in 2011. A memoir of his childhood in a still-wild suburb of Denver before it ballooned into the behemoth that supplanted vast, vibrant stretches of prairie with dead deserts of concrete, it elaborates on his burgeoning passion for butterflies. His style and passion for nature compelled me to buy Mariposa Road, the story of his Butterfly Big Year, but, alas, my good intentions were sidetracked by lesser pursuits, and his 550 page oeuvre has been staring at me accusingly from the shelf for the last seven years.
To avoid a similar scenario, when I recently noticed an advertisement for his latest publication, I did not waste any time, and devoured Magdalena Mountain, his first novel, in a few days. Set in Colorado and full of alluring descriptions of its high country and denizens, the narrative revolves around the amazing life cycle of the Magdalena Alpine butterfly (Erebia magdalena). Natural history is interspersed and contrasted with an account of the political, religious, and social changes that influenced this state and country, and the author’s affirmation of life and love (sexual descriptions are not limited to butterflies) runs through the suspenseful, lyrical narrative like a common thread. One of many possible conclusions I carried away: Only when we cease to look at life in an anthropocentric way will humankind have a chance to survive, and to leave behind a livable earth.
Inspired, I pulled the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies off the shelf where it had collected dust for even longer than Mariposa Road. My husband’s handwritten dedication indicated that this was a birthday present to me in 1998! It seems impossible that two decades have passed so swiftly, but I was equally as surprised to see that this tome was authored by none other than Robert Michael Pyle. Having come full circle, I finally leafed through its glossy pages and tried to identify some of the Colorado butterflies whose pictures I have taken throughout the years, Magdalena not (yet) among them. If I have erred, please correct me. I look forward to understanding more about these creatures who have been at the center of Mr. Pyle’s life, and long and luminous career.
Click here for Flying Jewels-Part 1, my post about hummingbirds.
Click here for my post Monarchs and Milkweed, which shows the amazing life cycle of the butterfly shown in the topmost photo, and the many perils it faces.