Robert Michael Pyle's Chasing Monarchs
Reviewed by Kurt JohnsonChasing Monarchs
Robert Michael Pyle
New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, August 1999.
307 pp., endpaper maps, $24.00 (order here for $16.80)
Everyone loves Monarch butterflies or, at the very least, knows what they look like or something about them. Thus, everyone should love a good book about Monarchs, and, this one certainly fills the bill. The author, Dr. Robert Michael Pyle ("Bob" to thousands of lepidopterists and conservationists) is both a renowned nature writer (Burroughs Medal for Wintergreen, 1986) and a highly trained and capable scientist (PhD, Yale University). He has also been, for decades, a leader in conservation causes. Thus, the inside jacket of Chasing Monarchs bears the endorsement of Dr. Lincoln P. Brower, the foremost scientific expert on Monarch butterflies. But, Bob's aim with Chasing Monarchs is not just a scientific message although one is woven quite masterfully into his narrative. His aim is to bring to the public a love and understanding of Monarchs, as well as an appreciation of the perils they face in todays rapidly changing world. For this purpose, his multiple talents serve him well.
The "hook" of the story is Pyle's decision to follow the annual southward migration of Monarch butterflies from his own neck of the woods in the United States' Pacific Northwest to wherever they go, to find out for himself if the prevailing scientific conception of their route proves true. Now, Chasing Monarchs does represent a certain genre of writing. It is a book that must be read very slowly, not only to catch the poetry in its style, but to soak up the detailed descriptions of landscapes and the plant and animal inhabitating them (including some awfully crusty human beings, from time to time). Anyone wanting to rush through a book will not read this one successfully; it is full of the moods found only in those long, slow, afternoon or evening strolls-in-the-countryside that some of us have not had for years.
This said, Pyle's book is organized by the major steps of his implacable tour- from "Grand Coulee" in the northwest, "Bonneville" somewhere in the middle, to "Cibola" (in Mexico) and "Fandango" (on the U.S.'s Pacific coast). All the way, in flashbacks, asides and meditations within, Pyle fills-in the reader with the necessary scientific data about Monarchs and their story. And, all the way as well, he asks questions and asks the reader to join him in trying to answer them.
The ethical challenge in the Monarch story can be summed up quite simply. Can mankind learn a sense of the inherent value in natural things in time to make some difference for their survival? And, if so, what are the messages people need to hear to gain this insight, both in the mind and in the heart?
Brower's introductory note likens Pyle's varied style, and sense of detail, to Vladimir Nabokov, and not by accident. Pyle is also editor of a book appearing on Nabokov's Butterflies next year and, as Pyle rightly points out in Chasing Monarchs, the worlds of the Monarch Butterfly and Vladimir Nabokov are quite intertwined. The planet's two most beloved butterflies, both facing threats of extinction, are arguably the dizzyingly high flying Monarch and the demure little Karner Blue (scientifically named by Nabokov in 1944). "Karner", as it is known to conservationists, far from being a migrator, occurs only in a few endangered patches of pine bushland in the northeastern United States. The story of the Monarch, the Karner Blue, and all endangered plants and animals is this story of inherent value and the question of whether mankind can discover a sense of it before it is too late. Of these stories, that of the Monarch is certainly an icon.
Chasing Monarchs is both informative and entertaining but it also conveys to the reader an unusual "feel" or "texture"- something connected to the slower moving world of nature- where there is time to think, time to meditate, time to fly several thousand miles. Anyone with a sense of nature-- or just "sense"- will love this book. It's has a "feel" as well as a message.
Kurt Johnson is co-author of the recently released Nabokov's Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius (Zoland Books 1999) and a well-known authority on butterflies. He lives in New York and works in association with the Florida State Collection of Arthropods.
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