I’m just about done with a couple of natural history books I got myself in the post-Christmas binge (one of the few times a year I allow myself to purchase new, rather than pre-owned, books). Confession: I lose interest in well over half the books that seem perfect for me; never getting around to finishing them, always thinking I’ll get back to it later. Not so with these books; I read the first one in under a week, and devoured the second one practically in one sitting.
The first was Robert Michael Pyle’s Mariposa Road, the story of the first butterfly Big Year (after the fashion of the birding big years by Fisher and Peterson in the 50s, Kauffman in the 70s, the Dunnes in the 90s, and Weidensaul in the 00s, all of which are classic birder memoirs, and most decidedly NOT after the fashion of the “competitive” big year chronicled in Mark Obmascik’s 1998 The Big Year). I was predisposed to enjoy this read, having devoured his Handbook for Butterfly Watchers a year or two ago, but I have to say it took me a while to really get into it. I was expecting, I don’t know, more reflection and philosophizing, and what I got was often too much intellectual shorthand. Engaging shorthand, but the story didn’t really flesh out for me. It wanted to be about twice as long as it is (and at 500 pages, it’s already “too long” for most readers, so I understand why it isn’t longer), so I could get a better feel for the places and people described all too briefly.
To be fair, Pyle had a lot to contend with on this project. The big year was 2008, and the story of it published in 2010–lightning speed for a book like this, that needs to distill the hot, dusty, freezing, wet experiences of an entire year of driving, flying, trainhopping, side-of-the-road sleeping into a meaningful narrative arc. Pyle even quotes James Fisher, co-author of the first big year story, who opined pithily (in a quote that I have yet to source) that
It invariably takes longer to “write up” an incident than to experience it. Every naturalist who writes needs ten days to sort out one really productive day in the field.
And there’s just no way, given the production schedule this book must have been on, that Pyle had the luxury of those ten days. No matter how hard he tries to dress it up, at times the book reads like a list of species seen, but in language that can only fascinate a committed lepidopterist.
I might be judging a bit unfairly, though, because I notice that, where my own knowledge comes into play, I find the writing much more interesting. As he drives from Montana down into Utah, naming the geologic formations and their productions along the way:
The coal-bearing Frontier Formation folded into the Cretaceous, fluvial Dakota, then Early Triassic fossil sand dunes of the Navajo… Across Flaming Gorge Dam I entered the Browns Flat Precambrian volcanic ash. Up into lodgepoles the mauve Lodore Formation kicked in, then in Uintah County, the also-purplish Madison Formation from the Mississippian.
The Pennsylvanian Weber Formation “produces oil.” My highway monopoly dissipated behind a pod of road whales called “Wilderness” and “Pioneer,” using that oil at a clip…. At the last hairpin, the Park City Formation gave up its phosphate to a giant mine and its oceanic holding pond. After the Triassic Moenkopi and Chinle formations, the Mississippian and Navajo reappeared, and then the Jurassic Carmel—produces dinosaurs!
And on in that entertaining vein. So I’m glad I stuck with this one, as I would have been committing an injustice against a favorite author of mine to give up on him before his interests and mine reconnected. (Not that I’m ALL that into geology, but I’ve read about a lot of dinosaurs, and I have practically as much experience with them as I have with butterflies: which is to say, almost none!)
The second book, and the one I finished much more quickly, is Mike Brown’s How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, the story of a young astronomy professor at CalTech finding Pluto-sized objects in the Kuiper Belt, thus finishing off the demise of that unlikely 20th-century planet discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona. This story is truly engaging, and has enough human interest to keep even the nonastronomically inclined reader turning pages.
The title pretty much gives the story away, but the plot is actually quite entertaining, and well worth reading for yourself. The only thing I’ll give away is that it involves a nerdy CalTech professor, romance, international intrigue, scientific conservatism meeting radical elements, and a little girl who knows that her daddy killed Pluto, and killing is wrong so she’s mad at him.