Sunlight caught in the air

An adventure with the miraculous migration of monarch butterflies

Like the simple beauty of a butterfly, Sue Halpern's little book "Four Wings and a Prayer" points to profound questions. How do we best "know" something as complex as the monarch butterfly - through science, poetry, mythology, simple touch? What place do aesthetics and passion have in science?

Such questions arise from Halpern's investigative foray into the world of lepidoptery, where she becomes, as her subtitle expresses, "Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly."

It all started when Halpern, while vacationing in Mexico with her family, was directed by locals to the butterfly preserve in El Rosario. She was astonished at the hordes of butterflies, like "millions of leaves, ripped and ripping from their moorings," whose wings roared like surf breaking over rocks. The monarchs were "so heavy on the branches of the pine trees that the branches bent toward the ground, supplicants to gravity and mass and sheer enthusiasm."

Halpern soon begins learning the details of the monarch's extraordinary journey. Every autumn as temperatures begin to drop, monarchs born west of the Rockies go to California, while those born east of the Rockies spend six weeks traveling to a remote and unlikely spot: 50 acres of oyamel pine forest 10,000 feet up Mexico's Transverse Neovolcanic Mountains. The Mexico-bound butterflies travel an average of 44 miles a day, but sometimes as many as 200.

The biggest mystery Halpern grapples with is how these monarchs find the same oyamel trees every year without relying on memory, since no single butterfly ever makes the round trip. Three or four generations separate monarchs that spend the winter in Mexico one year from those that go there the next year.

The most fascinating aspect of Halpern's narrative is her encounter with the diverse members of the butterfly-loving community, everyone from renowned PhDs to eager children armed with nets.

She spends much of her time assisting Bill Calvert, a seasoned and plainspoken field biologist, as they drive through rural Mexico tagging, weighing, and counting butterflies. Halpern notes the effect butterflies have on Calvert, who becomes "happy, engaged, fully present."

Studying the monarch butterfly migration not only inspires the intensity of childhood play; it also turns biologists into environmentalists: "The science may be neutral, but the scientist is not."

The monarchs' Mexican habitat is increasingly threatened by illegal logging of the oyamel pines, a dilemma as complex as the migration itself. Halpern realizes that studying monarchs often encompasses politics, sociology, economics, and ethics, as poor farmers often feel they have no choice but to smuggle the pines. Ecotourism has helped relieve this problem to some extent, although crowds of tourists also harm the wintering butterflies. How do we protect an endangered phenomena such as butterfly migration when culpability is dispersed among such different human activities, let alone nations?

Russian novelist and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov once told his composition students at Cornell University that "you must write with the passion of the scientist and the precision of the artist." His dictum describes Halpern's book, which is nature writing at its best. Her spare, direct prose gracefully weds scientific passion with poetic precision.

More important, her story hints that the best way to "know" natural phenomena as complex, mysterious, and beautiful as the monarch butterfly's journey is to look from multiple perspectives - of aesthetics, science, mythology - all suffused with simple wonder.

Scott Knickerbocker is a freelance writer living in Eugene, Oregon.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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