Life with Lepidoptera

Peter Marren. Rainbow Dust: Three Centuries of Butterfly Delight. University of Chicago Press. 2016.

This was subtitled “Three Centuries of Delight in British Butterflies,” when it was first published in the UK in 2014. The Chicago edition has a preface for American readers, making some comparisons between the American and European faunas. He briefly mentions the great American collectors of the nineteenth century (see my post from February 2015) and introduces his favorite butterfly lover, Vladimir Nabokov, to whom he will return  throughout.

Marren begins with personal recollection and reflection on his early days as a butterfly collector: the joys of pursuit and capture, the thrill of discovering a new species to add to his collection and the less easily expressed delight of simply being alive and out in a world inhabited by beautiful, delicate beings.

In discussing this aesthetic joy and recounting the history of the long fascination that butterflies have exerted on the minds of human beings, Marren does a great job of presenting the collectors, artists and writers who left behind a record of their pursuits. Among those he most admires are the Rothschilds, who have probably done more for entomology than any of the other great families of England. Nine different members are listed in his index. His account of the lives and works of the many notable painters and engravers of butterflies, from the late Renaissance to the 21st century, reminds us of the enormous labor involved and the many disappointments and financial failures that dogged their efforts. It is very helpful to have a computer or tablet handy while reading this chapter, so you can search out examples of work by Moses Harris (see example above) Henry Noel Humphries, F.W. Frohawk, Richard Lewington and David Measures. The book itself has only monochrome illustrations of butterflies in the chapter headings.

I was rather less taken by Marren’s attempt to write a literary, cultural and psychological history of the passion for butterflies. The familiar identification of the soul (psyche) with a butterfly and the various ways butterflies appear in poetry do not seem to add up to much in terms of understanding human responses to the natural world. Nor do his forays into mythology make compelling reading for me. His accounts of the people who established our understanding of the lives of butterflies are much more interesting. The tribulations of women who shared the passion are especially telling: from Lady Glanville whose interest in butterflies was grounds for suspecting her sanity and thus contesting her will, to her successors in the eighteenth and especially the nineteenth century, who contributed much to entomology, despite a “men only” attitude among most organizations and institutions.

One of the best features of this book is Marren’s fascination with the names that people have given to butterflies over the centuries and in different parts of the world. Here, I think his cultural reflections are on firmer ground. Besides, the names are just amazing and fun to wonder about. Why is a beautiful flying insect called a red admiral or a golden hog? He also comments on how names and naming conventions have changed over the centuries. Luckily, we have the Linnean system to impose a more or less uniform system so serious students can keep things straight.

Marren also does a fine job of describing the butterflies themselves and their habitats all across England and Scotland. He talks about the plants they rely on and the plant communities they inhabit, with much attention to how changing ecology, driven by modernizing agriculture and the rise of suburbs, have affected species, some for the better, but more for the worse. His 12th chapter on butterfly monitoring and preservation efforts is one of the best reflections on the dilemmas of trying to maintain and protect natural habitats that I have read in a popular work.

Marren chronicles the decline of butterfly collecting as a hobby and even as a scientific endeavor in Great Britain. More and more areas prohibit collecting, and more and more of the public is openly hostile to the idea of killing and preserving butterflies. Marren’s own collection from his youth in the 1950’s and 60’s was accepted by the Natural History Museum, because well-documented specimens from the latter part of the 20th century are scarce and valuable records of the state of the fauna, which help scientists today understand how things have changed. The anti-collecting bias of many current environmentalists and natural history enthusiasts is understandable, given the decline of so many species, but largely misguided, at least if they care as they claim to, about protecting these natural wonders. We need more solid documentation, not less, for butterfly populations, and although photographs and even unvouchered reports can be helpful, serious conservation needs specimens to verify what it is that is there and to enable us to trace the shifting makeup of populations. As Marren makes clear in his chapter on efforts to save England’s butterflies, simply trying to freeze things in place is a sure route to failure. Too many organizations and agencies, at least here in my home state, still seem to think that way, though.

 

 

Forgotten but not gone

Forgotten Grasslands of the South. Natural History and Conservation by Reed F. Noss. Island Press 2013

Walden Warming by Richard Primack. University of Chicago Press 2014

Reading Noss’s work, I recall Faulkner’s words, “The past isn’t gone. It isn’t even past.” Forgotten, neglected, tragically diminished, but not gone. Noss describes his travels to visit what was once a vast archipelago of grass-dominated ecological communities, ranging from endless longleaf pine savannas (see my post on Looking for Longleaf) to tiny rock outcrop barrens. This island landscape stretched across the southeastern United States from Texas to Virginia. In fact, though Noss does not discuss them, these communities are found up into the mid-Atlantic and New England. Today, the remaining islands, in a sea of agriculture, industrial forestry and urbanization  only hint at what has vanished beneath the waves of “progress.” But remarkably, there is enough to form the core of a restored landscape, something that will be a major challenge for 21st century ecologists.

Many types of habitats fit under the term “grassland.” Woodlands have trees, but their crowns cover less than three-fourths of the ground, allowing herbaceous plants, especially grasses, to thrive. Savannas have scattered trees, with less than about fifty percent cover. Meadows, glades, barrens and balds have only isolated patches of trees. Noss also describes plant and animal species endemic to the southeastern grasslands. An endemic is a kind of organism found in a particular type of community or a local area, and nowhere else. Many of these are critically imperiled, occurring today at only one or two places. The book is illustrated with his photos of the communities and the rare plants.

Noss has really interesting things to say about the factors that have maintained open, grass-dominated habitats over ecological and evolutionary time. The main ecological question is: what is preventing tall woody plants from taking over? The climate is warm enough, and rainfall is adequate for trees. It could be lack of a deep, firm soil that roots can penetrate to support tall stems. It could be that the soil stays wet or dry too much of the year. It could be constant disturbance by flood, wind, fire or herbivores. It could be lack of sufficient nutrients to support trees and shrubs. At any particular site, it’s most likely a combination of two or more of these factors.

The evolutionary question is: how have the species that comprise these ecological communities arisen and survived in a dynamic landscape? The answers are tentative and complicated, especially those related to changing climate. The distinctiveness and diversity of the endemic species, especially their adaptations to fire, imply a long evolutionary history. Some of the endemic plant species, such as those in certain rock outcrop barrens, may have evolved recently, while others, like the ones in the longleaf pine savannas, have been around for a very long time. This field of research is called phylogeography because it looks both at phylogenetic (evolutionary) relations among different populations and species and at the geographic patterns of climate (and so, the species’ habitats) now and in the past.

Many authors have stated the grasslands originated only as a result of disturbance by humans, who do not seem to have reached America before 30,000 years ago at the very earliest. If the grasslands originated before the Pleistocene ice ages, how did they survive the periods of peak glaciation and cold? Noss cites pollen data to show that most of the southeast had a cool temperate climate during the ice ages, but evidence from geomorphology suggests that there were periods of boreal conditions with deep seasonal frost or even permafrost. Aeolian landforms, created by strong winds coming off the glaciers, include dune fields, sand sheets and the famous Carolina bays. These indicate that there were periods where there was little vegetation to stabilize the surface. One possibility is that the pollen record is incomplete, because the intervals without vegetation produce essentially no pollen. Another is that, if the Gulf Stream stopped during the coldest intervals, the Gulf of Mexico would have been a tremendous heat reservoir, keeping the coastal areas warm, while inland sites were cold. On maps of the ice age drop in sea level, the additional dry land, just on the west side of peninsular Florida, looks nearly as large as North Carolina. Thus, a lot of grassland species might have retreated there.

Noss’s book and a recent article (Noss, R. F., Platt, W. J., Sorrie, B. A., Weakley, A. S., Means, D. B., Costanza, J. and Peet, R. K. 2015. How global biodiversity hotspots may go unrecognized: lessons from the North American Coastal Plain. Diversity and Distributions 21: 236–244), which includes the coastal plain up to Cape Cod, call the region a biodiversity hotspot. This is based on the great numbers of plant, vertebrate and insect species in the region and the number of those species that are endemic to it.

The article calls for the North American Coastal Plain to be listed as a global biodiversity hotspot. A colleague who studies southern grasshoppers told me that the group behind the effort to achieve listing had several more papers in the pipeline that they expected would be needed to convince the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund to add the NACP as hotspot number 36 They succeeded on the first try, just after the article was published (http://www.cepf.net/news/top_stories/Pages/Announcing-the-Worlds-36th-Biodiversity-Hotspot.aspx) Hooray!

Now the hard work begins: convincing people, especially government officials and private conservation groups, to take action. Here in New Jersey, most conservationists still see the coastal plain as a forest region. Natural enough, since fire suppression for the last eighty years has effectively converted what were once woodlands and savannas into dense forests of pine and oak trees and huckleberry shrubs. “Forest,” has such cultural significance in American environmentalism that it is very difficult to convince anyone that this is not what Nature intends. Add modifiers like “old growth,” “pristine,” “climax,” and you have idols that it is very hard to get environmentalists to stop worshipping.

Most people I know in the Mid-Atlantic region tend to blame “development” for loss of natural habitats. To an extent, this is true for the grasslands of the South, especially the loss in recent times of the smaller glades and barrens, but other factors are historically more important. Noss mentioned drainage and conversion to farmland, but this applies mainly to the wetter, richer grasslands. Dense tree plantations have replaced pine savannas. Another factor is loss of large herbivores, beginning with the extinction of much of North America’s megafauna – mammoths, ground sloths, etc. – around 15,000 years ago. To some degree, cattle, hogs and sheep may have supplied their place in the early post-1492 times of open ranges and even today, but livestock can do more harm than good to natural habitats, and they will never be allowed to recreate the vast network of “buffalo traces,” leading to salt licks and waterholes. These trails provided habitat and dispersal routes for grassland plants, as roadsides do today, if we don’t mow them in the growing season or allow exotic invasives to take over.

By far the clearest factor reducing grasslands is fire suppression. Since the advent of motorized firefighting in the mid-twentieth century, the number of fires has changed little, but the area burned annually has greatly decreased (https://www.jstor.org/stable/2484334?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents). This means that fire return intervals have generally become too long to prevent establishment of closed forest canopies. This is fine if you want to grow trees for wood or fiber but terrible for the plants and animals of woodlands, savannas and grasslands.

I have tried for years to convince my friends in the New Jersey Pine Barrens that the greatly increased plant canopy cover since fire suppression began to be effective has caused much of the reported drying out of the landscape. They prefer to blame the loss of wetlands and headwater streams on wells drilled by farmers, developers and casinos sucking water out of the ground. Trees and shrubs are taking just as much water through their roots and evaporating it through leaves, 300-500 pounds of water for every pound of sugar they make in photosynthesis. Some of my conservationist friends and colleagues oppose even moderate thinning of trees in the Pine Barrens. They talk about endangered species’ need for undisturbed habitat, not recognizing that on the coastal plain, far more species are threatened by the loss of open land with herbaceous vegetation – grasslands, woodlands, savannas and meadows. A very experienced botanist I know, however, has become convinced, after seeing species like pine barrens gentian and turkey beard springing up in the wake of forest thinning and reintroduction of fire on managed lands. Too bad the New Jersey Forest Service officials still thinks Smoky the Bear has the last word. They are courting disaster as fuel loads continue to build up in the pines, but they won’t believe that a fire could occur that they could not control. This is incredibly short sighted.

I also wish our environmental community would back off its opposition to natural gas pipelines, which actually create open habitats, and devote more of their resources to stopping the motorized mayhem that’s destroying the last of our native savannas and sand ridge communities all across southern New Jersey. In the Pinelands National Reserve, motorized recreation is not a permitted land use, but pressure from the motorheads has prevented meaningful regulation or enforcement.

Besides these immediate threats, I wonder whether the coastal plain biodiversity hotspot can survive climate change. As shown by Richard Primack in his excellent book, Walden Warming (Chicago 2014) there are already substantial changes in the flora and fauna of New England since Thoreau kept a naturalist’s journal in the 1850’s. Surely, though we lack clear evidence, such changes are occurring in the North American Coastal Plain. For plant populations to persist, they must either acclimate (adjust their flowering and fruiting physiology) adapt locally (through natural selection of individuals that best match the warmer climate) or disperse their seeds northwards. Primack points out that the barriers created by towns, farms and highways make it difficult for native plants to disperse to suitable new habitat.

A look at the map of the coastal plain shows another problem: the northward narrowing of the geologic region, until it peters out at Cape Cod and in the sandy outwash plans of southern New England. Even if species can shift northwards, they will find themselves funneled into increasingly tight confines, reduced even more by sea level rise. Europe’s flora is impoverished compared to its temperate counterparts in North America and Asia, because southward dispersal during the height of the last ice ages ran into the barrier of the Alps. The coastal plain’s denizens may be similarly crushed against the rock ribs of New England.

Noss’s points out that many people feel that preserving nature for its own sake is as important as preserving it for its benefits to us. He recasts Jack Kennedy’s famous dictum as, “ask not just what nature can do for us, but also what we can do for nature.” He estimates that temperate grasslands have the lowest ratio of lands preserved to lands destroyed of any major ecological system on earth. In the North American Coastal Plain this ratio may be even lower, although perhaps with more prospect for restoration than in some areas, because so much has been lost to fire suppression, which is fixable.

Noss is a strong proponent of saving all that we can in whatever ways are effective. He is against any form of ” triage,” writing off of species and communities that we decide in advance can’t be saved. He also criticizes the Nature Conservancy for overemphasizing what they call “working landscapes,” and neglecting the smaller, uneconomical bits, those tiny glades, barrens and rock outcrops that house such amazing numbers of endemic taxa. Noss argues we need to practice preservation on many scales, beginning with a ban on development of any new natural lands. We should be redeveloping abandoned or underutilized sites, close to existing development. I agree, but we need to find some way to effectively transfer development rights, or landowners will block any such policy. He also argues that we need to change the policies and practices of our state and federal agencies and private conservation groups to better manage lands already protected. Too many of the best areas are either over-utilized or neglected.

Both these books are excellent reads, especially the authors’ descriptions of work in the field with their colleagues and collaborators. One gets a sense that there are a lot of very dedicated ecologists working to preserve biodiversity in our changing landscape and changing climate. One of the encouraging developments I have noticed is the great increase in contributions from what are now called, “citizen scientists.” People, who might once have pursued their love of plants, birds or butterflies in isolation, now contribute to both current data collection and preservation of valuable old data (Thoreau’s Journals are a prime example) through projects like iDigBio. More could be done, especially if there were a way to report and then evaluate outliers: unusual sightings, anomalous individuals and things in the wrong place at the wrong time. Where economic interests are involved, we do usually follow up, as with introduced pests, but otherwise many valuable observations in our rapidly changing environment may be written off as misidentifications or just lost. I would like to see more naturalist’s, especially our large crop of butterfly watchers learn when and how to collect proper specimens to verify their unexpected sightings. Scientific collecting is almost never a threat to populations of insects, and a specimen allows positive identification and preservation of a record in a way photographs can’t.

I would strongly recommend these two books to anyone concerned about the future of biodiversity along our Atlantic coast.

The search for Cíbola

Castañeda, Pedro de. The Journey of Coronado, with other accounts of the journey, including Jaramillo, Hernando de Alvarado and Coronado himself, translated from the Spanish by George Parker Winship. Librivox.

This was the famous expedition in search of Cíbola, the “seven cities of gold.” The search was prompted by reports from Cabeza de Vaca and his companions, when they returned to Mexico in 1535, after their eight-year odyssey from the Gulf Coast (Cabeza’s account is also available on Librivox – I may write about it later). One of his companions, the African Estevan, made it to Zuni pueblo in 1539, as part of a scouting party led by Friar Marcos de Niza. There he was killed or perhaps simply dropped out of sight. The reports of de Niza convinced Coronado and Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza to mount an expedition. In three years of exploring the southwest of what is now the United States, various parties of the expedition reached as far as the southern end of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado and its South Rim, Zuni Pueblo, the pueblos of the Rio Grande valley, Blanco Canyon in the Texas Panhandle and the Arkansas River, east of present day Dodge City, Kansas. None of these places yielded any gold or other valuables. Either de Niza had a bad case of giving the answer wanted rather than the truth, or his zeal to spread the gospel made him try to see how far he could convince the army go among these unconverted peoples. The native communities could not even feed the expedition without being reduced to near starvation themselves. Some of the Rio Grande pueblos resisted and were overcome by force in bloody assaults. The difficulties of maintaining an army in the field in that country, with only horses and humans for transport, are hard to imagine (they did have a supply flotilla sail up the Gulf of California into the Colorado, but it could not enter the Grand Canyon, and at any rate, was much too far west to help). Once they were out on the plains, east of the Rio Grande and the mountains, they found it impossible even to keep track of where they were. Hunting parties wandered lost for days in the featureless landscape of grass and shrubs, with only the occasional river canyon as a landmark.

Castañeda gives dramatic accounts of the buffalo (which the translation renders as “cows,” presumably for the Spanish, “vacas”) and the natives who hunted them, living in tents on the open plains. His other botanical and ethnographic accounts are interesting but colored by his outlook as a Spaniard: The natives in the pueblos, camps and villages are described as to dress and customs, with frequent specifics on sexual matters, as “they do not practice sodomy,” in one place or “they are very great sodomites,” in another. One peculiar topic was the deadly poisoned arrows made by some of the natives the expedition fought with, which apparently included poison from the same plant that yields Mexican jumping-beans (Sebastiania bilocularis S. Watson, arrow poision plant, according to the USDA plants database). Even more interesting was the antidote: quinces, which Castañeda notes growing in many places the expedition passed through. The quince (genus Cydonia) is native to Asia, but could have been introduced to Mexico early in the 16th century. Northern Mexico is a minor quince producing region today, according to the Wikipedia article. Perhaps it was spread by the natives ahead of the Spanish themselves, or possibly Castañeda was just confused about the identity of a native fruit, as he seems to have been about the “cows.”

Overall, this is more of a reading for the historian or ethnographer than the naturalist. To give account of the landscape you are passing through, so that it can be recognized later, you have to be interested in more than gold.

The Librivox readers were outstanding as usual.

Birding on horseback

Florence Augusta Merriam. 1896. A-Birding on a Bronco. Houghton, Mifflin and Co., The Riverside Press, Cambridge, MA .

This is a delightful book by a great late nineteenth to early twentieth century naturalist. Merriam was an ornithologist, author of Handbook of Birds of the Western United States. She was an organizer of several chapters of the Audubon Society.

This book, which I listened to on Librivox, is a set of notes from two visits to a ranch in Southern California in 1889 and 1894. Many of her observations are of the birds at their nests, an aspect of birding which seems to have fallen out of fashion. Today, there is much more emphasis on counting species and individuals seen and much less on the close observation of behavior. She does tend to use strongly anthropomorphic descriptions and to attribute a greater degree of self awareness to her subjects than would ever be acceptable today. Nevertheless, she is a fine observer and writer. Her descriptions of southern California as it was over a century ago, when life revolved around farming, ranching and orchards are a reminder of how much our landscapes have changed.

Reading her accounts of the numerous attempts at nesting by a wide variety of birds in the oak woodlands and chaparral, it came home to me very strongly how frequently they failed. I would guess that well under half of the nests she saw started produced fledglings. Most were destroyed by unknown agents or simply abandoned. Snakes, other birds and cats were likely culprits. Given the utter vulnerability of the eggs and hatchlings, it is almost surprising that any are successfully reared, though I know it’s been done for a hundred million years or more. A small bird’s life must be exhausting and frustrating, with no time to rest between the challenges of nest building, foraging, territorial defense and, for many, migration. Even during brooding, there must be constant vigilance. Their lives must be a near continual state of nervous excitement, ending in exhaustion.

The bronco in the title, was not, by the way, some half wild creature suitable for a rodeo but actually a couple of docile ranch ponies, well suited for a lady naturalist to wander the country. One in particular was so patient as to stand for hours while Merriam watched nests. The only danger was that they shied at snakes, if they sensed their presence. On occasion, bronco and rider went right past rattlers in the dense brush, but mostly they stayed away from likely snake habitat.

Horseback sounds like a wonderful way to watch birds; I will someday have to compare this book to Birding From a Tractor Seat by Charles T Flugum.

John Wesley Powell

The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons by John Wesley Powell. Revised edition, published by the Smithsonian Institution. 1895. I listened to the Librivox version, by a very able group of readers.

I remember seeing the six-cent John Wesley Powell expedition commemorative stamp, when it was issued in 1969, but I never gave it much thought, except to notice that the steersman has only part of his right arm. I had learned somewhere, sometime, that he was the leader of the first United States expedition through the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. When I came across this account in the Librivox catalog, I thought I ought to listen to it, and I’m glad I did. This is the story of an epic journey told by an extraordinary individual.

Checking Powell’s biography on Wikipedia, I learned that by the time he was 25, he had rowed the entire Mississippi, Ohio, Illinois, and Des Moines Rivers and been elected to the Illinois Natural History Society. After his service in the Civil War (he lost the forearm at Shiloh) Powell taught geology at Illinois Wesleyan University. Along with his students and his wife, he made an expedition to Colorado to collect geological specimens.

His expedition, ten men in four boats, left Green River, Wyoming, on May 24, 1869, and reached the mouth of the Virgin River, at the lower end of the Grand Canyon on August 30, with two or three boats and six men. Three men had left to climb out of the canyon shortly before the end, because the expedition was dangerously short on food and still faced unknown risks on the river. As it happened, they were the unlucky ones: Powell later was told they were killed by Shivwits Indians, who believed they were part of a party that had  murdered some other Indians shortly before Powell’s men passed through.

Powell’s book reads like a journal and is based on the records he kept, but some later editing occurred, apparently. Whatever the case, it is a harrowing tale. One boat was wrecked early, and the rest were frequently capsized. Food was lost or spoiled by wetting, so by the end, they were in danger of running out. Many stretches had to be portaged round or the boats lowered and hauled through on ropes. That and the rowing made every day exhausting. At one point their fire spread into some driftwood and nearly incinerated them in a narrow alcove where they had camped. Powell and some of the others also made regular ascents of the canyon walls to take instrument readings, examine the landscape and scout ahead where possible. These involved rough and dangerous ascents of thousands of feet and tortuous scrambles through narrow slot canyons. This by a man with only one hand!

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the voyage was the uncertainty of what they faced ahead. Around the bends of the river, they were sometimes confronted by large falls or dangerous rapids, with little time to decide whether to go ahead and try to run them or make desperately for some safe stopping point. It seemed possible that they might meet an impassable obstacle at a point where they could not escape from the canyon. They could face a choice between starvation and near-certain drowning. Today, hundreds raft down the Grand Canyon, aided by years of experience, modern equipment and a flow now controlled by the Glen Canyon Dam. Powell’s trip was a plunge into the unkn0wn, Samuel Walter Foss’ opening lines for The Coming American “Bring me men to match my mountains,” could be applied to Powell and his crew, perhaps modified to “…men to match my canyons.”

John_Wesley_Powell_with_Native_American_at_Grand_Canyon_Arizona
Powell and Tau-gu, a Paiute, 1871-72

His descriptions of the geology, the river, the landscape and vegetation are vivid and sometimes enthralling. The latter part of the book describes the trip he made in 1870 and 1871 back over some of the same ground, but visiting many of the Native Americans resident in the lands north of the canyon and eastwards to the Pueblos of New Mexico. These are also fascinating. He worked for the rest of his life as a geographer, ethnologist and administrator at the US Geological Survey and the Smithsonian Institution and was a strong advocate that development in the arid western states, should be carefully limited.

 

Moth Lady

Moths of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter. Doubleday, Page and Co. 1921. I listened to the Librivox version, beautifully read by J M Smallheer.

I would not have thought that listening to a book about insects, least of all large moths, without being able to see the illustrations, could be utterly absorbing, but Gene Stratton Porter’s descriptions of the finding and rearing of some dozen species certainly is. All of them came from from around her home near the great Limberlost Swamp of northeast Indiana, found by herself, her husband and numerous friends and neighbors, some of whom went miles out of their way to bring her specimens. Besides her accounts of the finding of the adults or caterpillars and her meticulous descriptions of each species behavior and development, there are her minute descriptions of the patterns and colors of all stages, carefully based on the freshest individuals. As a photographer and painter of birds and insects in the days of black and white glass plates, she had to be a very close observer and recorder of colors, if she wanted to get good illustrations based on her photos. A look at the illustrations from the book shows that she did extremely well.Moths_of_the_Limber crop

Her life history observations, such as how hawk moth larvae pupate, burying themselves in the ground and then wriggling back to the surface, posterior end first, while still in the pupal case, so they can spread and dry their wings upon emergence, are fascinating. I like her attitude towards the published literature on moths. She mentions many famous lepidopterists (see my post from on Butterfly People from last February) has read their work, but is willing to point out the shortcomings of their accounts of the actual lives of the insects they describe and illustrate.

Her anecdotes of catching and keeping moths are delightful. Her home must have seemed like more of an insectarium at times, with moth eggs carefully marked and protected on the floors and carpets, because a gravid female escaped and could find no host plant to lay them on. The effort put into successful rearings and the failures that invariably accompany attempts with unfamiliar species must have been very demanding, and the moths were not even her chief occupation. Her novels, the most famous being A Girl of the Limberlost, 1909 and bird photography and illustration took even more time.

Even as she studied them, species like the Cecropia moth and the Polyphemus were losing out to expanding agriculture, lumbering and drainage of swamps like the Limberlost. Later would come DDT and street lights to put still more stress on their populations. Parasites introduced to control gypsy moths have added to the widespread decline, especially in the Northeast. Today, aerial images of the Limberlost show mostly agricultural fields and only a few remnant woodlands, including one small restoration site on Loblolly Creek. We can be grateful that Gene Stratton Porter left us such a beautiful record of what was there before.

Death Valley Days

Land of Little Rain by Mary Hunter Austin, first publication 1903 by Houghton Mifflin.

The Librivox recording of this wonderful book from the first decade of the twentieth century is a pleasure to listen to. Mary Austin’s descriptions of the desert country east of the southern Sierra Nevada are beautifully clear, evoking the harsh land, the hardy plants and animals and the various humans who live among them. My favorite was the pocket hunter, a prospector traveling with his burros and a gold pan that is cleaner than his cooking pots, and who dreams of finding a strike rich enough to allow him to set up as a middle class Londoner. Twice, he made enough to visit England, but each time he returned, with only a pair of elegant green canvas traveling bags to show for the trips. He told how once in a blinding snowstorm he sought shelter with what he thought were a flock of domestic sheep. Looking about in the morning, he saw he had slept among wild mountain bighorns. They bounded away through the drifts like God’s own flock. Breathtaking.

Whether it is the denizens of a mining town or the native Paiute, among them the blind basket weaver and the Shoshone exile medicine man, who must be killed when he can’t prevent an epidemic of pneumonia from taking away a third of the band, Austin tells the stories simply and with evident deep compassion.

She has a soft spot for the coyote, that butt of Warner Brothers cartoons, but in her view far from a fool. She gives loving descriptions of the numerous desert rodents and the jackrabbits whose tracks lead to the waterholes like the spokes of giant wheels, along with their enemies the birds of prey and the scavengers who watch all that goes on from far above, waiting for the predator’s kill or the dying gasp of the starving.

Plants get just as careful attention, some of the best botanical description I’ve read. Whether in her neighbor’s field or on the mesa, she evokes the marvels of the California desert flora with its tough shrubs and delicate ephemerals that blossom only in years when enough rain falls to waken the seeds out of dormancy.

Everything about this book makes me want to visit this land.