Overseer of Butterflies

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.

ROBERT MICHAEL PYLE grew up and learned his butterflies in Colorado, where he fell in love with the Magdalena Alpine and its high-country habitat, the setting of his novel Magdalena Mountain. He took his Ph.D. in butterfly ecology at Yale University, and worked as a conservation biologist in Papua New Guinea, Oregon, and Cambridge, England. His twenty-five books include Chasing Monarchs, Wintergreen (which received a John Burroughs Medal), Where Bigfoot Walks, Sky Time in Gray’s River and The Tangled Bank, a collection of his columns from Orion. A Yale-trained ecologist and a Guggenheim Fellow, he still studies butterflies, is a full-time writer living in southwest Washington, and is one of Orion’s most frequent contributors.


  1. I know Robert Michael Pyle personally, having heard him speak and accompanied him on field trips. (Lucky me!) I have a stack of his beautifully written books (most are autographed) and I hope this year-long quest to see butterflies of the US will be followed by still another book. I also hope that when he comes to Florida he contacts us at the Atala Chapter of NABA in Palm Beach County. We would love to join him on one of his butterfly hunts.

  2. For 20 plus years I was a winter wanderer/collector on Baja beaches – the best of my 82 years. I recommend curiosity and poverty as drivers for a great life.

  3. I am an Interior Designer who has abandoned Interior Design. As a profession it is devoted entirely to the destruction of the planet. While there are designers who are trying to design with “green” concepts and “green” materials the truth is there is almost no zero impact way of doing anything beyond walking or riding a horse bareback.

    I’ve been an environmentalist since 1954. In 1962 at the age of twelve I tried to face down a bulldozer capping a local wetland and was nearly buried for my trouble. In 1970 I did a 4′ x 8′ painting titled the Pollution Mural in my art teacher’s office. Since then I’ve been researching and involving myself in all manner of things that have nothing to do with Interior Design.

    But about four years ago I finally arrived. I started investigating our local government because I felt it was committing environmental crimes. It turns out that none of Canada’s environmental legislation can protect it from its worst enemy – our governments and politicians. There had to be a new way. There was. I started researching the Criminal Code of Canada. It turned out to be a very useful exercise. No one is allowed to kill anyone in Canada with anything – including air pollution emissions. That was the turning point. Now I’m on a mission that will stop quite a number of ill-conceived government initiates in their tracks. In one case I investigated a case of attempted murder where some people were killing their neighbour – a retired nurse with barrel burning emissions. That is now a criminal investigation and I have a petition before parliament to ban barrel burning on a national basis. Soon I will launch another one to have all of our dumpsites made to conform to proper standards.

    Actually there is no end to where this can lead and it’s exciting to boot. So far it hasn’t paid a cent. But when you are doing what you’re meant to be doing, you find a way to continue regardless of the perilous state of your finances.

    My work unfortunately requires an internet connection to succeed. That’s the one really sad thing.

    I wish Robert you had a good camera to take with you. Some of the sights you are going to see would be better served with a camera. Not for the butterflies so much as the habitat.

    Most lepidoterists when they publish work have their butterfly shots published but the habitat and “lifestyle” shots that are so valuable are lost to the public. Eco-system information is so critical to saving species.

    Central and Southern Ontario where I live is almost devoid of too many species that were profuse when I was growing up. A walk through a forested area or a field is now like a walk through a museum diorama.

    Certainly there is still life but most of it is composed of invasive species. The Butterfly count is nothing to what it was and many species are just gone or seriously depleted.

    Robert’s trip reminds me of the African Transect partially sponsored by National Geographic some years ago. Robert, get a camera.

  4. Overseer of Butterflies, we wish you the very best Big Year ever! And yes, get a good camera to document all the wonderful tings that you will see and do in the coming year. I know Lana (post 1) and am jealous of course that she has signed copies of your books. Visit all of us in NABA, Broward Chapter and Miami Blus Chapter, too. We would love to show you the lovely rarities that are hanging on by that slender silk to their very existence.

  5. I certainly agree with Robert Pyle–for those of us lucky enough to be “retired”, we can choose how to spend those precious days left to us. Over the working years, I mutated from “shell collector” to “bird-watcher” and native plants and butterflies.
    Having worked for government, I am now free to have an opinion and voice it–hence I became a full time environmental advocate. It’s time to make sure those woods, trails and ecosystems are their for future generations. Such fun!

  6. Last year I worked on rearing Yellow Admiral Butterflies. Find the caterpillar on a stinging nettle, bring it inside, feed it, watch it hatch and let it go. I managed to rear around 200 Yellow Admirals. The problem with butterflies, and birds, is people see one and think everything is OK. It is not. Various species can easily die out in an area just due to, in the Yellow Admiral case, no stinging nettles. Looking forward to the book. But we can help keep butterflies now.

  7. Hear Hear!!! Good choice… I wish you sunny days (with some rain at nite) and many butterflies.. it will be informative and interesting to find out how much habitat restoration might be affecting the butterflies in the US and Canada.

    Happy trails..

  8. After reading Mr. Pyle’s article I am a changed woman. He has opened my eyes to the miriad of new “jobs” for which I can volunteer and also be compensated. I realize the compensation comes in the form of self-awareness, pure pleasure, new knowledge and interactions with butterflies on a more intimate level. I love to hold the instars and feel their silky covering. They feel as soft as the old worn security blanket I dragged around as a toddler. Last year, my first in the venture, I raised and released Monarch butterflies. I became an official Monarch Way Station too. I was compensated royally by the beauty of my garden and the companionship of butterflies, my fledgling Monarch among them. As I enter my 70th year, I know all of this is leading me somewhere. I have yet to disover where, but then I do love living in anticipation. Let’s banish all crystal balls and make each day a surprise. You are going to have an amazing year Robert.
    Safe journey and above all, have fun. Truly you are a fortunate man. Kindly keep us in the loop.
    Phoebe Oshirak, Lake Geneva, WI

  9. I am not as familiar with butterflies as I am with plants, yet I am fairly certain that the barrens we have discovered and are documenting in north western Kentucky hosts unusual butterflies! Some of the plants we are seeing are endangered, threatened or even considered extirpated in the state…and if one takes into account the usual symbiotic relationships between insects and plants, this could be an area worth Mr. Pyle’s investigation! There is a Nature Conservancy preserve close by which has a similar plant list and therefore maybe similar insect visitors.
    And to follow the thread of this article: I have recently become a ‘contract botanist’, collecting seed, herbarium specimens and taking photos of plants in their natural habitat for the Millennium Seedbank whilst continuing in my chosen work in Indiana as a garden designer using predominantly Midwest native plants; which ties together my passions for our natural world, travel, photography, writing, growing things and just being alive…having started out as a librarian and computer programmer!

  10. Robert..Good luck and have a great adventure and certainly take some photos of the butterflies and the environment around them..As a teenager I used to love the fall when the Monarchs would migrate through Kansas on their way to Mexico..started my own quest for knowledge of the natural environment. Look forward to the updates.

  11. Robert: When in New York come and experience the wonder of living on an eco-butterfly farm…welcome any time! Stay in our guest cottage and work on our butterfly farm for a free meal and good conversation.

  12. Or, reading Ed Abbey again: “My vocation has been that of inspector of desert water holes.”

    Bob, as you head (I assume) south to Florida, the Gulf and the SW borderlands leaving the mixed rain and snow, the winter floods of the Chehalis, Newaukum and Gray’s Rivers, and the instars (and pupae?) of Woodland Skippers and Ochre Ringlets soaking in the inundated riparian prairie/wetlands here in the musty NW, we will follow your progress, track your entries, and anticipate (with controlled jealousy) the imagoes of spring.

    May daily discoveries (as they must) feed your continual curiosity and delight, so we, the secondary consumers, can thrive as well. If there’s a way to respond, we will.

  13. What a wonderful journey to undertake. Or, in the parlance of earlier times, “what a trip!!”.

    May your roadways be smooth and your days (and nights) be only eventful enough to keep things interesting.

    As a retired recipient of SS payments myself and having learned to live very low on the economic foodchain, I have now adopted the title “Observer of all things natural and benign” and am also the non-designated “Keeper of Hummingbirds”, including some that overwinter here in the NW corner of Oregon – they know how to find me.

    Thank you, Robert, for your wonderful insight.

    Keep on Truckin’

  14. I have known Bob forever; at one time joined at the hip in junior high. You have always been one to step out and follow your heart. I am sure this adventure and trail you are about to follow will be as fulfilling as our frinedship has been.
    Buena suerte, mi compadre/amigo. I look forward to following this period of your life.

  15. This sounds like a wonderful adventure. If your plans include catching a glimpse of the Nokomis fritillary, there is a seep not too far from us that has been protected as critical habitat for this species. So, if your journey includes western Colorado, please contact us. You’d be more than welcome to stay with us (in exchange for a good story or two!).

  16. Good luck to you as you venture out in Powdermilk…but hopefully, not too much powdermilk snow! You are just the right person for this great calling!! Can’t think of anyone better suited. We look forward to sharing your adventure. If you need a place to stay in Gainesville,FL,let me know. The guest room has a wonderful view! Kathy (Project Butterfly WINGS)

  17. How exciting! Though I’m sad that Powdermilk won’t be able to hydroplane its way to Hawai’i to see the only two native butterflies here, the Kamehameha butterfly and Blackburn’s butterfly. Their native habitats are certainly at risk and need all the help they can get. I’ll be following Robert Michael Pyle’s journey with keen interest — my book on the Kamehameha butterfly will be published later this year.

  18. What a fun way of thinking of retirement or any career! This has given me new hope to follow my dream of learning about wild rice harvesting on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. If there are any special butterflies in that area I should look for let me know. Your article has really inspired me to learn more about butterflies in every way. What do you think about the new butterfly museums?

  19. Dear Bob, I suspect you will meet a host of kindred self-appointed stewards of unusual treasure, and I hope in your report you will tell us about them, as well as about the butterflies. The power of your journey may be as much to invite us to nectar on projects we love, as to understand the butterflies. Convert us! Start a revolution, as we now take George McGovern at his word–inspired by your example. Boomers, name each your project, and go forth to do the real work now.

  20. I wish to join the list of vicarious travelers on this great expedition. Robert, we have never met but I remember seeing you at the Fire and Grit Conference in 1999. I have been enjoying your essays in Orion ever since. If your travels include NE Tennessee, we have a room and home-cooked meals we would love to share with you. Nature Conservancy wetlands restoration nearby as well as upland forest clearings and the Diana Fritillary in residence come summer.

  21. Here on Camano Island we see the clear cutting for Mega houses…the small patches of woods being cleared, it is painful. I’m hoping you can bring us promising news on your journey, even though the earth warms and animals and plants disappear. I’m taking my nature journal to Skagit Valley to witness the thousands of snow geese there…my heart swells at the sight, and for a moment in the midst of the swirling white masses the globe almost appears “normal.”

  22. Dodie! I love your response. This is one of my favorite quotes, from Leopold Aldo, which I use as my signature on emails:
    “There are some who can live with wild things and some who cannot. Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher “standard of living” is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.” -Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949

    Yes, cutting the trees and forest down is like cutting a major artery for some of us!

  23. Sandy Koi…Thanks for the lovely written word of Aldo. The snow geese and the majestic swans will be leaving us soon. The geese to Wrangle Island and swans to tundra and wetlands. Now my eyes focus on the Saratoga Passage and the arrival of the Gray whales. They come to our substantial tidal flats to feed on sand scrimp. We will monitor our sightings for researchers. They may be in trouble again due to food stock depletion in the far north. They have arrived and we witnessed our first line of feeding pits at low tide today. Soon the first of the butterflies should be about on the blooms, I can hardly wait.

  24. See, there I go stumbling upon your exciting adventure by accident. When you and Thea mentioned what a busy year you were going to be having, never expected it was for something so exciting. Have been enjoying your reports, and watching to see when you will be swinging along (hopefully anyway) the Ohio shores of Lake Erie. Kenn’s mentioned a few good possible finds at the western end of the state, and hopefully I’ll hear about you’re makeing this area as a leg, ahead of time not after the fact.
    Good luck on finding lots of species.

  25. Annabel, I have to agree with you that curiosity about life (i.e., wealth of spirit) supercedes the accumulation of unnecessary
    ‘stuff’ (i.e., poverty of material possessions)! And John, I did a similar thing as an eight-year old when they paved over my grandfather’s property to make an airport….They won, and we all lost: didn’t need the airport, and we lost the blueberry bog and the Great Horned Owl.

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