Looking for the intellectual equivalent of comfort food, I recently began re-reading early volumes of Patrick O'Brian's great seagoing saga, the Aubrey-Maturin novels. Besides rousing fact-based descriptions of some of the heroic naval cannon duels of the Napoleonic wars, appealing to me are fictional glimpses of the dawn of modern natural science, especially ornithology.
We live in an age when people can be surprisingly contemptuous of learning, a time when some will consider me hopelessly geeky for admitting I find this subject interesting. But maybe not - after all, Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic scientific expeditions lately have become an amazingly popular topic, and channels including Discovery have a solid following (though probably only a tenth that of professional wrestling).
Many early European forays into previously unstudied regions are adventure travel of the highest order, seeing and recording plants and creatures for the first time. It's as if the world is a vast library filled with a strange and beautiful language that we only began to understand a couple centuries ago, each species a beautifully illuminated page. And most of us still have only a vague inkling of what's out there: we're functionally illiterate when it comes to nature. As we've become ever more remote from the land, experiencing life by watching TV and no longer growing our own food, our senses have atrophied. How much richer our lives would be if we possessed a better understanding of what we see around us.
I'm privileged to be on friendly terms with a couple of the West's best writers on nature, Barry Lopez and Bob Pyle, and I always feel somewhat like a snot-nosed kid asking Babe Ruth and Cy Young for their autographs whenever I have anything to do with either of them. Each has trained his mind to understand what their eyes see, and convey some part of their wisdom to we whose vision is less keen. They demonstrate it's still possible to make new discoveries, to interpret our surroundings in fresh ways that speak to our spirit and imagination.
Pyle, who's sort of a neighbor out at our country place in Wahkiakum County, is particularly adept with the names and habits of living things, most notably butterflies. For him, a butterfly isn't just a pretty scrap of animated color, but an individual with fascinating quirks, a history and a future. His recent book, "Chasing Monarchs," was an in-depth look at one man's love affair with the Monarch butterfly, one of the flashier members of the million-member insect order Lepidoptera. It's pace is a little too stately for it to be described as an adventure story, but "Chasing Monarchs" stands as evidence that getting to know butterflies can be a lot of fun.
That impression is strengthened with Pyle's new book "The Butterflies of Cascadia," which is easily the most entertaining nature guidebook I've ever read. Published by the Seattle Audubon Society ($29.95), it functions as a pictorially stunning record of the butterflies of Washington, Oregon and nearby areas, also briefly touching on the moths, which apparently have fewer admirers. If you've ever wondered about the butterfly feeding at your window box, this book is the tool for you, a product of deep and sustained study of an amazingly rich niche of life.
But in a sense, the most rewarding parts of "The Butterflies of Cascadia" are Pyle's personal observations on each butterfly and the enthusiasts called lepidopterists who pursue them. Both the bugs and their fans obviously are real characters. Nearly every page has a gem, like this about Pale Tiger Swallowtails: "Like Western Tigers, these frequent roadsides - who has not tried to dodge swallowtails while crossing Cascade passes in June! The resulting road kills, though sad, offer a fine opportunity for obtaining study specimens, since close encounters with windshields often leave the wings unblemished."
I recently was interested to read of a study linking the emergence of modern humanity with a profound genetic shift no more than 100,000 years ago permitting the development of language. In essence, the ability to describe our world and convey what we learn is the trait that makes us most human. Reading Pyle's butterfly guide makes me proud of our language, our curiosity, our legacy of scientific inquiry. We've evolved pretty well if a mind like Pyle's is the result.
Now if we can just get a few people to read the book, in a mountain meadow, before chasing butterflies...