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US nature writer shares magic of butterflies


Sharlene King
10 June 2011
The arts and sciences are set to merge when US butterfly expert, conservationist and nature writer Dr Robert Michael Pyle comes to the Southern Cross University Lismore campus on June 15 as a visiting lecturer.

Dr Pyle’s most recent book Mariposa Road: The First Butterfly Big Year (published 2010) chronicles his adventures in 2008, when he set out on a 12-month road trip trying to spot as many species of American butterflies as possible. His goal was 500 butterfly species but along the way he was confronted with the issues threatening them: global warming, fire, development, pollution and pesticides.

“Butterflies are a wonderful window on the world," said Dr Pyle. "Their wings are living canvases of evolution, and their adaptations and behaviours mirror and illumine the complexity of the living world."

“I am passionate about all natural history, including humans of course, but butterflies caught my imagination early as an especially beautiful and intriguing presence. Besides, they are fun to chase, catch, and share. Everyone is passionate about butterflies, or else in a coma.”

Dr Pyle’s career has been as varied and colourful as his favourite invertebrate.

Born in 1947, his undergraduate degree in Nature Perception and Protection and Master of Science in Nature Interpretation from the University of Washington were followed by a doctorate in Ecology and Environmental Studies from Yale University. Dr Pyle has worked as a ranger-naturalist for Sequoia National Park, for the wildlife department of Papua New Guinea, as Northwest Land Steward for The Nature Conservancy, and as co-manager of the Species Conservation Monitoring Centre of the World Wildlife Fund and IUCN in Cambridge, UK. In 1971, the world-renowned lepidopterist founded the international Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, and later chaired its Monarch Project.

Dr Pyle described his transition from scientist to creative writer as “easy” and quoted revered novelist and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov: ‘Does there not exist a high ridge where the mountainside of scientific 'knowledge' meets the opposite slope of artistic 'imagination'?’

“We'd all like to live as complete people, attentive to both our analytical and creative sides,” he continued. “Many superb scientists, such as Rachel Carson and Loren Eiseley, were also splendid creative writers, by attending to their hearts as well as their minds. As a friend of mine said, ‘it just takes the right combination of hormone and headbone.’”

“For my part, I try to give as much, or more, rein to my poet self as my scientist self, in their respective domains. They get along rather well. You just have to leave the objective self behind for a while, and honour your imaginative self and your personal perceptions. For the reader's sake, it is essential to indicate through context which one is speaking at a given moment.”

Dr Pyle believes there is much we can learn from butterflies, scientifically and creatively.

“Because of their evanescence and metamorphosis, butterflies have become almost cliché, but ever-fresh for what they teach us about metaphor, change, growth, and rebirth. Less frequently noted is their exquisite fit to place, which derives from their close co-evolution with plants, soils, and climate. This makes them especially helpful indicators of environmental health and well-being. If the butterflies are suffering then not all is going well, ecologically. Much of my work, both scientifically and literarily, has revolved around this field: butterfly conservation, and how it informs and enriches us.

“Also, I've found that close attention to butterflies and their doings in the landscape can make for compelling adventure and narrative, as in my non-fiction books Chasing Monarchs and Mariposa Road, and my novel Magdalena Mountain. In the end, butterflies can teach us a great deal about ourselves, and how we live on the land.”

Dr Pyle is in Lismore ahead of the Watermark Literary Muster (June 17-20), a biennial gathering in the Camden Haven area of the mid north coast that brings together writers and readers who share a passion for the literature of nature and place. The Muster is recognised internationally as a unique literary event on the Australian cultural calendar where writers share their work directly with readers, talk about the places that inspire them, exchange ideas on writing about nature and place, explore the role literature plays in environmental understanding and inspire others to write about the natural landscape.

Dr Robert M Pyle’s visit to Southern Cross University is thanks to the Watermark Literary Muster and the Northern Rivers Writers' Centre.

Photo: World-renowned lepidopterist Dr Robert M Pyle poised to catch a butterfly. Media opportunity: Dr Robert M Pyle is presenting the lecture at SCU’s Lismore campus in Room D105 on Wednesday, June 15, from 2.00pm to 3.00pm. This is a FREE event and open to the general public. At 6.30pm Dr Pyle will be ‘in conversation’ at the Northern Rivers Writers’ Centre in Byron Bay. Tickets are $10 for NRWC members and $15 for non-members, with cheese and wine included.