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Originally published Monday, October 11, 2010 at 7:01 PM

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Book review

'Mariposa Road': Robert Michael Pyle's big butterfly year

Washington state author and lepidopterist Robert Michael Pyle's "Mariposa Road: The First Butterfly Big Year" recounts the year Pyle was on the road trying to spot as many species of American butterflies as possible. Pyle discusses his book at several area locations in October.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Robert Michael Pyle

The author of "Mariposa Road" will discuss his book at these area locations:

• At 8 p.m. Tuesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or

• At 7 p.m. Wednesday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333 or

• At 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Eagle Harbor Book Co. on Bainbridge Island (206-842-5332 or

• At 7:30 p.m. Friday at Town Hall Seattle. Tickets are $5 at or 800-838-3006, or at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m.

'Mariposa Road: The First Butterfly Big Year'

by Robert Michael Pyle

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 558 pp., $27


To bird watchers, a "big year" means setting out to see as many North American species as possible in 365 days. The famous bird-field-guide writer/illustrator Roger Tory Peterson and his friend James Fisher chronicled their travels in the 1955 classic "Wild America." Kenn Kaufman's "Kingbird Highway" (1997) followed that tradition, as have other accounts. These two books, explains Gray's River lepidopterist Robert Michael Pyle, directly inspired his 2008 big year for butterflies. As far as he knows, it is the first.

"The diversity of American birds and butterflies is roughly the same," he states, "but there are profound differences ... " Birds fly in rain and snow, for instance, but butterflies rarely do. Birds can live several years and many migrate, offering themselves for observation twice annually; most butterflies live a week or two in specialized habitat. Miss a species, and you may not find it elsewhere later.

While there are roughly 800 butterfly species Pyle could have seen, his goal is 500. He ranges across the continent from Alaska to Florida and even Hawaii, mostly in his 1982 Honda Civic called Powdermilk, which began the adventure with 354,490 miles on the odometer. Pyle often sleeps in the car, camps or crashes with friends. Although he is the author of 14 books, publishes frequently in many periodicals and is in demand as a speaker, all of which would seem to indicate he could allow himself more luxury, Pyle's big year is as much about soaking in the surroundings as ticking the next butterfly species off his wish list.

This delight in the joys around him, whether it's a tasty ale after a long day or a sunny, flower-rich hilltop bustling with butterflies, elevates — let's face it: a list — from being a tedious catalog of "I saw this, then I saw that" and so on.

I can identify only five butterfly species, yet I found myself drawn in by Pyle's enthusiasm. Successes, failures, near misses, good friends, absent-mindedness, marvelous meals, countless peanuts and his wife Thea's battle with cancer all affect the year.

This account is not rocket science (luckily). There are some scientific names to negotiate, but armchair travelers who love a good yarn will find Pyle's exuberance catching.

Sometimes, I was in over my head. At a recent New Mexico Native Plant Society meeting, a talk scheduled on Sandia hairstreaks attracted a large audience. I was surprised when the couple beside me asked, "Is a hairstreak a plant or a butterfly?" (Sandias are mountains; hairstreaks are butterflies.) I thought of them whenever I encountered mysterious sentences like this: "But this pap was a new hop lep on me." Pyle knows his subject so well, sometimes he forgets we readers might not be able to distinguish bushes from butterflies.

Like Peterson's seminal book of more than half a century ago, "Mariposa Road" mentions big issues: global warming, fire, development, pollution, pesticides and other threats. Pyle notes these problems in case we care to help address them. His book already has raised $45,000 for habitat conservation — Pyle's followers pledged money for each species he observed — frosting on an already delectable treat.

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