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Sue Halpern has written a wonderful, balanced book of one of nature's magnificent, enigmatic phenomenon - the migration of the monarch butterfly. Each winter the monarchs stay, by the millions, in a relatively small area in the forests of the Michoacan mountains, to the west of Mexico City. In the spring they migrate north, covering much of the area east of the Rockies. No single butterfly makes the entire journey; rather they complete the entire journey in two or three generations. They fed on milkweed, extracting toxins that make them poisonous to many species of birds. Halpern logged many a mile in pursuit of the butterfly migration, including stays in Cape May, NJ, Kansas, Texas, rough rides in Mexico, and as far removed as Hawaii, glimpsing the elusive albino monarch. Halpern has an excellent grasp of the current science on the monarchs, and is able to explain it to the non-lepidopterists, which is most of us. Mainly though, science still has far more questions than answers, which is part of the fun.

But as the subject quote indicates, the book is very much about passion, the force that motivates the many people involved in studying the monarchs. Halpern devotes an equal measure to describing the people involved with these butterflies. She starts with laconic Bill Calvert, in his `50's, driving an old pick-up truck, and she accompanies him on one of his pilgrimages to Mexico. Naturally there are serious, and essentially petty funds among the long-time "leadership" in the monarch field, captured when Fred Urquhart, a Canadian professor who was one of the first to start the tagging of monarch, refused to shake the hand of Lincoln Brower, another professor who had deduced, with Calvert's help, the place of the monarch's over-winter refuge. There is a wonderful website, "Monarch Watch," whose inspiration and driving force is Chip Taylor, which facilitates the collaboration of so many amateur monarch watchers. Their website contains an article raising the issue of the sites long-term viability in the current economic downturn, saying they could not survive a 30% reduction in revenue.

Although Halpern does not quote him, few have better expressed the passion involved in the pursuit of butterflies than Vladimir Nabokov, who chased them as a young boy around his home near St. Petersburg. He said in his autobiography, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (Penguin Modern Classics): "... when a protective device was carried to a point of mimetic subtlety, exuberance and luxury far in excess of a predator's power of appreciation. I discovered in nature the non-utilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception." Like cholesterol, passion seems to come in "good" and "bad" forms. There is the good "passion," the type that motivates the many unnamed volunteers studying the monarchs, as opposed to the "bad passion" of the colliding egos of the "big boys" in the field, and although Halpern struggles to be balanced in describing them, clearly Urquhart, who refused to share his priceless data, and is tellingly not thanked by Halpern in the Acknowledgements, had his share of the "bad passion." Alas.

I think Halpern suffered from some bad reviews at Amazon. Some are from students who would be bored with any pursuit of this nature. But others, like the one denouncing her for some form of "New Ageism," since she discussed the "passion" behind the science, which seems all too appropriate to me, appear to be coming from one of the various monarch "factions" perceived to be wronged by the book - and, of course, exhibits a fair dollop of passion in its own right.

Overall, I think the author did a great job, with the science, and with the people, describing this intriguing subject, which seems only about 5% explored. As she indicated in more than one place, when a few questions are answered, many more appear, and so I'd like to ask one: Why the mountains of Mexico, so much further, and high, with the danger of snow, and freezing. Wouldn't the bayous of Louisiana, with the moisture, and the warmth, (not to mention much shorter distance) serve these creatures just as well?

(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on July 08, 2009)
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on 9 January 2002
This is as much a book about people as about butterflies. A deceptively gentle read, as illuminating about those whose existence is dominated by the Monarch butterfly, as it is on the hugely remarkable phenomenon of it's annual migration. Almost as a sub plot Sue Halpern explores the nature of scientific endeavours and our perception of scientists. If that sounds dry, it really is'nt.
Butterflies have never commanded such interest as say birds, but how wrong this is. Tiny insects battling against the odds have never been such a good read!
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My love for butterflies has slowly been growing over the last year. When I saw this book, I thought it would be a fantastic way of introducing me to the monarch butterfly in particular.
Halpern's book discussed the monarchs, but her book is also an examination of the scientists and laypeople that, sometimes, dedicate their life to trying to understand the migration of monarch butterflies. She makes use of anecdote aswell as research into the area, making her writing seem more about passion, rather than scientific drive.
As a beginner to the world of butterflies and lepidopterists, I was able to understand all that Halpern had to say. As the book progressed, her passion for these insects slowly started to weave its web around you, as passive reader. Her book has certainly made me eager to look for more information on these wonderful butterflies.
The only gripe that I have with the book, is that there are no pictures at all (apart from black and white sketches at the start of each chapter). I feel, some pictures of the butterflies themselves would have been the only way this book could have been improved.
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on 9 May 2013
I was slightly disappointed with this book. I found it to be a bit of a chronicalogical diary. However to be fare I am not sure what I expected
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on 13 January 2015
not quite what I thought it was
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