Robert Michael Pyle, an independent lepidopterist, poet, teacher and speaker. The author of 18 books, he is the founder of the international Xerces Society for the conservation of butterflies and other small invertebrates, and a vigorous advocate for loving “the damaged lands” as well as the intact wildernesses.
Robert Pyle is an award-winning author, poet, butterfly expert and teacher. In this exclusive Green Interview, Pyle speaks with Silver Donald Cameron about his obsession with butterflies, and how that led him, in 1971, to found the Xerces Society, named for an extinct blue butterfly and dedicated to the conservation of invertebrate life. Pyle is a lepidopterist, an expert on butterflies, but he’s also a popular writer with numerous books to his credit and he’s an eloquent advocate for improbable forms of conservation like advocacy for the damaged lands in Washington State where he lives—lands that have been ravaged by resource industries. He also worries about what he calls “the extinction of experience,” the decline of direct human contact with the natural world, which leads to the loss of our sensitivity to it.
It was in Crested Butte, Colorado, at the age of twelve, that Pyle discovered his love for butterflies. He describes in The Green Interview, the day he went wandering in search of Copper Creek and the black, velvety butterfly species called Magdalena Alpine: “I was wandering up those meanders of the East River and there was a little ridge and I found my way over the ridge through the sage into the aspen and down the other side in pursuit of fritillary butterflies and I looked down and there was a meadow populated by what looked to me like about 100 people with butterfly nets.” Leading the group of graduate students studying butterflies, were none other than Paul Ehrlich and Charles Remington. Remington was a professor at Yale, a well-known American entomologist, and the father of modern lepidoptery. From that day forward, Remington would become one of Pyle’s mentors. In 1971 Pyle founded Xerces Society, named for an extinct blue butterfly and dedicated to the conservation of invertebrate life. “But it all goes back to that day, my whole life does, as an academic and even as a poet because meeting those men, and the women at the station too, as I got to know them over the years, they enlivened me to see what an intellectual connection with nature could be.” Pyle is currently working on the tenth draft of novel called Magdalena Mountain, which he says is a “human story,” but that it “Incorporates those experiences and the butterflies.”
“I believe my love of damaged lands came from my ditch on the edge of Denver to begin with.” Pyle explains that damaged lands, or lands that have been “hurt…already farmed over, eroded, bashed about,” could also be extremely beautiful. He says the damaged lands “are all around us,” close to people’s homes, often in vacant lots. He says they can be restored but that even in “their depleted condition they can do a lot of good.” Pyle says, “We can go into the clear-cuts, which the urban conservation advocate would like to derogate as worthless—things do live there, particularly if they haven’t been sprayed—there is vital regrowth, not with the same diversity but there are organisms there and there are beauties there, closely observed on the ground: the ground pines coming over, the healing bandages of the mosses and the lichens and the liverworts coming back from the sides and the patches. I take great succor in that.”
The Extinction of Experience
In 1976 Pyle wrote about the “extinction of experience,” a term he coined, which “involves a cycle of disaffection and loss that begins with the extinction of hitherto common species, events, and flavors in our own immediate surrounds; this loss leads to ignorance of variety and nuance, thence to alienation, apathy, an absence of caring, and ultimately to further extinction.” Pyle tells The Green Interview that, “It’s not only the loss of entire species in a worldwide context that matters but it’s the loss of common things near us in what I called a ‘radius of reach.” Pyle says, “the radius of reach is much smaller for the poor, the very young, the ill, the disabled, than it is for the affluent who can go off to Antarctica or whatever. But for those whose lives are constrained, what surrounds them right here, that’s what they get and as the common elements become extinct in that environ then people become more isolated, more disinherited from their setting and less whole, and this breeds apathy, inactivity, leading of course to further losses. So it’s a cycle and a cycle I came to call the extinction of experience.”