Pyle's 'Chasing Monarchs': tiny, lovely, mysterious

August 15, 1999|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,Sun Staff

"Chasing Monarchs: Migrating with the Butterflies of Passage," by Robert Michael Pyle. Houghton Mifflin. 274 pages plus map and appendix. $24.

Who would dream of a journey pursuing orange monarch butterflies more than 1,000 miles across the southward sky? Many, maybe. But one has done the deed and told the tale: Robert Michael Pyle, a distinguished nature writer who travelled through the Northwest, California and Mexico in Powdermilk, his Honda Civic.

This travel and science journal is meant as a wake-up call outside the academy. Pyle illuminates the plight of the monarch, which needs milkweed patches as a habitat. The more America is logged, sprayed and paved over, the fewer butterflies there will be.

Pyle's mission was to watch monarchs as they fly south for the winter, much as birds do, in a test of a long-accepted notion lepidoptrists call the "Western model." The theory holds that monarchs west of the Continental Divide migrate to California.

By spotting a monarch near the Mexican border, Pyle believes he has single-handedly disproved the Western model: "While I do not actually see it cross the border, it will reach that invisible line in about ten or fifteen minutes. ... I am thunderstruck by the thought that this one butterfly holds the power to contradict a major myth of American natural history."

Yet of all the monarchs Pyle tagged, none was recovered to support or contradict the Western model. The next year, he and a friend tagged a monarch in Washington later found near Santa Cruz, Calif. -- the first specimen showing a voyage taken between the two states.

Ironically, this find buttressses the Western model, but then again, the debate is clearly more open than it was before Pyle's excursion.

Given such captivating material, Pyle accomplishes what he aspires to achieve. This is a sophisticated yet readable book: deeply felt and thoughtful. But a conservation classic in the rank of Aldo Leopold's "A Sand County Almanac" it is not -- not in terms of the lyrical beauty and wisdom of Leopold's prose, a 1949 environmental wake-up call.

If only Pyle's book had more stirring lines like this: "I tried to compress my being into the butterfly's poppyseed brain and imagine what it was like to be clinging to a leaf in the dark, with a hundred miles to fly against tomorrow's wind." As it is, some of the best stuff in the book are quotations from other writers.

Another drawback is that there is no Sancho Panza on this jaunt, an absence creating a lonely atmosphere. Since Pyle seems averse to talking to strangers he meets along the way, his narrative lacks animation. Travel books written by solitary wanderers usually come alive through human voices in vignettes and chance conversations.

That said, there are charming details here. One is that in Michoacan, Mexico, monarchs are believed to represent the spirit of the departed, especially souls who died young.

Pyle also succeeds in bringing out the agility of these creatures who cross hundreds of miles in air, often following the Colorado River and other waterways as they take what naturalist Rachel Carson called "the closing journey of their lives."

Jamie Stiehm has been a staff writer for The Sun for two years and before that was on the staff of the Hill, in Washington, D.C. She has published articles in the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and many other newspapers and magazines.

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