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The epic travels of monarch butterflies and more

Published November 26, 2001 8:25PM (EST)

What we're reading, what we're liking

Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly by Sue Halpern
If you live in certain parts of the United States, southern Canada or northern Mexico, you may have had the dreamlike experience of standing beneath a tree and looking up to discover that what, on first glance, appeared to be dead leaves are, in fact, monarch butterflies -- tens of thousands of them, many slowly fanning their wings in the sunlight. The ones I've seen in Pacific Grove, Calif., near Monterey, migrate there all the way from the Rocky Mountains. But the millions of monarchs that every year come to "a largely inhospitable 50 acres of oyamel pine forest 10,000 feet up the southwestern flank of Mexico's Transverse Neovolcanic Mountains" arrive after flying, as a vast burnt orange cloud, from as far north as Canada. Another cloud of the creatures makes the return trip north later in the season, but they're not the same ones that came south. How do they find their way to the same spot year after year after year? It is, as Sue Halpern's splendid exercise in poetic journalism reveals, "one of the great unsolved mysteries of animal biology." To track the monarch migration, Halpern sets off in a truck with a man she's never met, monarch maven and biologist Bill Calvert ("I think they are up there," he tells her as they drive through a rain shower), and takes us along. You needn't have the least interest in butterflies (though if you don't you've got something seriously wrong with you) to enjoy Halpern's sharp, evocative writing. Every page is a treat and monarchs, as it turns out, are not only cool, they rule.

-- Doug Cruickshank

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