ROBERT MICHAEL PYLE’S expansive knowledge of the natural history of North America shines through in his new book Mariposa Road: The First Butterfly Big Year, the story of his yearlong journey in search of as many of the continent’s eight hundred species of butterfly as he can find. He makes not one journey, but a series of journeys, from his home in Gray’s River, Washington, which emanate out like the “ray petals of a daisy,” as he tells it. He calls himself “a fool with a butterfly dream,” a dream inspired by similar journeys made by others in search of birds, namely James Fisher and the legendary Roger Tory Peterson, who together wrote Wild America, and Kenn Kaufman who told his tale in Kingbird Highway. So Pyle is not alone, and yet, to his knowledge, no one has ever made such a journey in search of butterflies. His is the first “butterfly big year.”
Pyle, a former Orion columnist, has written an exhaustive description of the places he goes and the people and creatures he encounters (not all of them butterflies). He includes details of the weather, the roads, the fine beers and endless peanuts, the inns and empty parking lots where he sleeps off the day’s hunt. There is precedent for this too in the dutiful record keeping of naturalist-explorers like Lewis and Clark, Edwin Way Teale, and even Charles Darwin. This is Pyle’s great art, his attention to detail in the tradition of the great masters, and we owe him a debt for seeing, for documenting, for making a record of our world as it is. You find on most any page a lovely, spare execution, as in this passage of Pyle’s journey through the Columbia Gorge: “There, in a clearing off Oak Lake Road, we found what we’d come for: a two-banded checkered-skipper, spreading its wings in a nettle patch. Its clean, ivory-on-charcoal speckled pattern stood out sharply at rest, unlike its buzzy gray blur in flight.” Everything happens in this book, and nothing happens at all, like the long, beautiful monotony of everyday life.
Mariposa Road is, in the quietest way, a book about Pyle’s personal life. He writes about his tooth trouble, how he came to a lifelong study of butterflies, and most notably, about his wife Thea’s ongoing battle with cancer. This latter story deserves more attention, and might have helped drive the narrative, but Pyle chooses to lift the veil only a little. Thea is one of the more compelling people in the book, and when she joins Pyle in Florida, his prose takes on a brighter and crisper energy so that you come to realize this: these two are still deeply in love. She finds a rare blue-colored green tree frog, prompting Pyle to exclaim, “She always spots the best stuff.” It’s too bad Thea could not have accompanied Pyle for the entire year.
The book is long and includes an appendix but not an index, which would be helpful to readers using it as a resource. Though Pyle explains his reasons for not including photographs of the butterflies he encounters, readers would benefit from such a visual feast. Still, this book belongs in our hands and on our shelves in the company of other artful records of our place. Perhaps in a hundred years we’ll still be reading Mariposa Road for a glimpse of what we’ve lost, or better, of how far we’ve come in recovering our wild places. For now, read this book not to penetrate deeply, but to skip lightly from place to place down North America’s highways and backwoods roads in search of those beautiful fliers. You’ll arrive. You’ll look to see. You’ll see and be off again, the country rolling by in a kaleidoscope of wingéd colors and fragments and shards of light.