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The Tangled Bank

Overseer of Butterflies

We all long for a chance to reinvent ourselves. What are we waiting for?

by Robert Michael Pyle

Published in the January/February 2008 issue of Orion magazine




DURING A VISIT with my older brother’s family in Colorado, I asked Tom if he was still working at a computer-shop job that he’d held for some years to supplement his photography business. “Nah,” he said. “Once I got my government job, I quit there.”

“What government job?” I asked. This was news to me.

“Trail inspector,” he said.

“What, for the Forest Service?”

“Yep,” he said. “I check out the condition of the trails, and the government sends me a paycheck.”

I knew Tom had been getting out on the national forests even more than usual lately, making some ambitious hikes in search of downed World War II–era aircraft and taking up mountain biking on top of his longtime devotion to motorized trail bikes. So this seemed plausible, except that I’d never heard of such a job for the USFS, which in any case has been so starved under Bush’s budget that staff have been jettisoned like autumn leaves in a gale. Even trail maintenance has devolved largely to volunteers.

“So they pay you to do what you’d like to be doing anyway?” I asked.

“Darn right,” Tom confirmed. His wife Mary’s expression was something between a smirk and Yeah, right!, and I figured there must be more to the story.

Tom went on: “The paycheck comes from the Social Security Administration, but the title of the job is Trail Inspector.”

I loved the way Tom construed his rightful Social Security payment, and how he defined the job he undertook to perform with its support. It reminded me of Henry David Thoreau, in Walden. When I returned home I found the relevant passage on page sixteen of my annotated 1995 Houghton Mifflin edition, in the chapter called “Economy”: “For many years I was self-appointed inspector of snowstorms and rain-storms, and did my duty faithfully; surveyor, if not of highways, then of forest paths and all across-lot routes, keeping them open, and ravines bridged and passable at all seasons, where the public heel had testified to their utility.” Of course, Thoreau also worked as an actual surveyor, a pencil-maker, and an occasional laborer, presumably all paid positions. But when it came down to describing his dream job, it was “inspector of snowstorms and rain-storms.” Thoreau goes on to complain that, after he has faithfully rendered these services for years, the townsmen still decline to “make my place a sinecure with a moderate allowance.” How lucky then that Tom, in a similar post, should receive a sanctioned allowance! Come to think of it, our younger brother, Bud, has a similar gig. Disabled by a cattle truck almost forty years ago, he has always worked as a poet, painter, and Neighborhood Observer of his West Denver district. His salary is our late father’s Social Security (did I mention that I am a Democrat?).

Don’t we all wish for the same: to define our own most desirable employment, and make a living by it? I remember that when George McGovern was the Democratic candidate for president, he called for a guaranteed minimum national income—a pittance, but enough for the likes of me. McGovern imagined that this would relieve the welfare rolls while encouraging all manner of productive activity in the arts and volunteer services. It sounded great: I could have dropped out of the job scene then and there to devote myself to writing and activism. In the end, voters overwhelmingly approved the Republican notion of competing for what you earned—as much of it as you could possibly corner—and that model has clearly prevailed in our culture. For my part, after briefly flirting with regular employment, I pretty much followed McGovern’s plan anyway, maintaining the part about the minimum but managing always to evade the guaranteed bit.

Contemporary society no more encourages such self-definition than did Thoreau’s townsmen, unless one’s professional aspiration corresponds with what happens to be valued in the marketplace this week, or this year. But just as Tom has found, there is nothing to prevent anyone from designating a primary enthusiasm as an alternate vocation. As long as you can manage to keep body and soul together and muster enough time and energy for it, you can proclaim yourself Manager of Marigolds, even if Marketing Manager still pays the bills. In fact, I have known many working people who have been able to devote more unbroken attention to their passions than those who practice the same activities professionally. When you can leave work at work, your “hobby” time becomes sacred; and then, if you are one of the lucky ones who still has a paid retirement to look forward to, there is no stopping you as that boundless era unfolds. This is one of the reasons that much of the high-level natural history work being done in this country today is the product of amateurs—a word, by the way, which means “one who loves.” Of the three most productive lepidopterists in my state, each of them performing and publishing biology of a high standard, only one is employed as an entomologist; one of the others is retired from an environmental agency, and the third is a working Teamster. But they are all Lepidopterists with a capital L.

Others put their energies and their intimate identities to work in the form of volunteerism. The fact that they are spending their “free time” and not being compensated financially takes nothing away from the ultimate payoff such activities provide.

It just so happens that I am about to reclassify my own job title. Oh, I will always be a writer, and an activist. But for the next twelve months, I will not be a speaker, a teacher, a guide, or a consultant, nor will I practice any of the other random trades that have subsidized my primary vocation as scrivener, watcher of slugs, and mumbler through moss. Emulating my big brother’s example, as I often did as a boy, I am designating myself Overseer of Butterflies. For the year 2008, I will go forth in Powdermilk, my ancient little Honda (now with 353,000 miles on the odometer), and attempt to encounter and deeply experience as many of the eight hundred species of butterflies that live in the United States and Canada as I can.

This will be the first Butterfly Big Year, inspired by the analogous enterprise that birders have undertaken for decades. Kenn Kaufman wrote an unforgettable account of such a quest in his sublime book Kingbird Highway, which was inspired by Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher’s Wild America. Houghton Mifflin, publisher of both those books, is kindly gambling that the chronicle of my travels will be a worthy successor, though that is a mile-high order.

While I will be tallying the species I see, I fully expect the numbers to take a far back seat to my panoramic view of the land, its condition as habitat, and the way it is changing in our time. Through the compound eyes of the butterflies, I will take a broad look at how these creatures are weathering the changes, and how the warming weather, in particular, is affecting them.

It’ll be on the cheap (I’m not old enough to collect my Social Security, though you can bet I will as soon as I am) and simple: just my binoculars, my old butterfly net Marsha, Powdermilk, and me, traveling with a tent, a campstove, and a few bucks for cheap eats and the occasional room in a run-down motor court. The days, the sun, the road, the snowstorms and rainstorms, the butterflies and their plants will be my warp; my weft, the grace and trials of happenstance.

To define the project further would defeat its purpose, which brings to mind a long-ago Washington State election when a self-styled fellow named Richard AC-DC Green ran for Commissioner of Public Lands on the Owl Party ticket. When asked about his platform, Green simply reiterated his campaign slogan: “If elected, I plan to go forth fearlessly and commission the land.” I always thought it a little sad that he wasn’t elected, but in my own way I plan to fulfill his campaign promise. 

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Robert Michael Pyle's publications include Sky Time in Gray's River: Living for Keeps in a Forgotten Place.

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