Butterflies, Bigfoot, And Beyond With Robert Michael Pyle

Bigfoot is more than tabloid fodder to some – like Robert Michael Pyle, a lepidopterist and award-winning natural history writer.

Pyle is coming to the Corvallis Public Library on Sunday, October 22 to discuss the reissue of his 1995 book, Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide, which compellingly details his trek into the Washington wilderness in search for clues of the legendary beast.

More than setting out to prove the existence of Bigfoot, Dr. Pyle illustrates how problematic it would be to lose a habitat like the Dark Divide, where so many natural mysteries exist.

Corvallis Advocate: Can you explain what first captivated you to the natural world?

Robert Michael Pyle: I was always interested in natural history. I first became interested in seashells, but I lived in Colorado, which was a dumb place for that. When I was 11 years old, I discovered all the butterflies there. I was on the edge of Denver, where it was still countryside in those days. There was an old canal – the subject of my book The Thunder Tree – and that old canal, the High Line Canal, was where I discovered natural history in a big way.

CA: You are both a writer and scientist, how did you get into that and who were your mentors?

RMP: I was interested in trying to put together a college degree that incorporated natural history, conservation and writing. I got a Fulbright in England to study butterfly conservation and management, really one of the only places where that was going on in those days. I decided to go deeper into my studies, and that led to a PhD in butterfly ecology at Yale, with a scientist, who was an influence on me since I was 12 years old, Charles Remington. He was a great professor of ecological genetics. I found that what I was most engaged in, and probably better at than science, was the writing. I was very much influenced by Edwin Way Teale, the great American nature writer, who I also met in Connecticut.

CA: Why did you found the Xerces Society and how has it evolved?

RMP: I founded it in 1971, simply to provide a mechanism by which we could try and conserve the habitats of rare butterflies and moths. It wasn’t very long until we decided to extend to it insects in general. A little further along, Xerces took on the biggest job in the world, in terms of conservation, which was the conservation of invertebrates. Invertebrates are nine-tenths of life on Earth, so that’s a pretty big job. Pollinators are a huge part of what Xerces does now. Xerces considers itself, the largest pollinator protection team in the world right now.

CA: Can you explain “extinction of experience” a term you introduced in 1975?

RMP: I had been thinking about the first extinctions that I had experienced, which were butterflies in that old ditch of mine. Habitats that I took for granted as a child, where I could always go to find these particular butterflies, were going or gone. It occurred to me, I was not only losing my acquaintance with them, but the other people in that area were losing the opportunity to ever make the acquaintance of those butterflies. The extinction of experience is the loss of the possibility of experience. As diversity declines in our immediate environs – our radius of reach – we lose the opportunity to become acquainted with them, and that means we become more alienated from nature, and out of that, comes even more apathy. We become less likely to resist further losses. So it is a cycle of loss. It goes round and around, and as you lose things, you care less. If you care less, you do less. As you do less, you lose more and so it goes.

CA: Why is the idea of Bigfoot so far fetched for most people?

RMP: It is far fetched for a lot of people just because it is beyond what they know. Interestingly enough, a lot of that has changed. When I first wrote the book, it was kind of hard to draw people out. I’d go into a country tavern where I knew there had been a lot of lore and people would say, “come out back and I will tell you something.” People were afraid of being considered nutty. People are much more comfortable sharing now. Whether or not it exists as a living animal, it’s a powerful presence in the region in many different respects. Of course, every culture in every area, has its giant myths. As the years go by, and definitive proof fails to arrive, that does make it difficult for a lot of people to maintain their openness. At the same time, as years go by, and there are more and more reports, then people do begin to become intrigued.

CA: Can you explain the area known as the Dark Divide?

RMP: The Dark Divide is the name of the watershed divide between Mt. Rainier and the Columbia River. This divide consists of a long, 50-mile ridge of dark, black basalt, craggy ridges and peaks. The significance is, it is the largest unprotected wilderness in Washington. I consider the main point of the book, is that if we manage to save the Bigfoot habitat in this particular area, whether or not the beast walks, we will have saved a chunk of the greatest green treasures the world has ever known.

CA: Are there any new parts added to the reprint?

RMP: It contains a new substantial chapter and afterward called Back to the Dark Divide, detailing the two more recent track experiences. I have included the most important finds, analysis, DNA evidence, to bring people up to date, and give seven things that have worked to keep my mind open since the book was first published.

CA: How do you weigh the oral reports versus hard evidence in the search for Bigfoot?

RMP: The oral reports can only go so far. Mind you, a huge part of the interest in it is the oral tradition among the Native Americans. Bill Holm, the greatest authority of Northwest Native American culture at the University of Washington, says he doesn’t know a single Indian who doesn’t have a literal belief in this animal. They consider this to be a member of their normal neighborhood of animals. I have heard this myself from Native Americans that have been willing to talk to me. Oral evidence is not without value, particularly when it goes back hundreds of years and has the weight of an entire culture behind it. You begin to think, the sky is blue because they say it’s blue. It is still subjective. So everybody still falls down on physical evidence that we have to make our harder judgments on. The most powerful piece of evidence on film is, of course, the Patterson-Gimlin film.

CA: How did your opinions change from the time you started writing the book to now?

RMP: I went into the Guggenheim fellowship as a biologist and a literary writer, without bias. I wasn’t trying to prove or disprove. I was really looking into what the entire set of traditions mean to me and mean to the culture. I expected coming out of it, thinking this is not really something that bears closer examination biologically. Instead, I emerged with an open mind on the subject of its existence. The question of its physical existence wasn’t the point of the book, by any means. People are always asking, “So, do you believe?” I conclude that I don’t know. However, it would be difficult to dismiss what I do know. The evidence inclines me, not towards belief, but an acceptance of the idea that this is definitely a plausible hypothesis.

Dr. Pyle will read in the Main Meeting Room of the Corvallis Public Library on Oct 22 from 2-3:30 pm at 645 NW Monroe. The event is free and open to the public.

By Chris McDowell