Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Bicycling with Butterflies


Call it the butterfly-book effect. I recently re-read Barbara Kingsolver’s still-excellent 2012 novel Flight Behavior, which imagines the monarch migration gone amok due to climate change. (The book holds up remarkably well, and is rightly now considered a classic text of climate fiction.) So I think I had butterflies on the brain when I happened across Sara Dykman’s cycle-travel book Bicycling with Butterflies (2021) and decided to pick it up. The intersection of cycle-travel writing and environmentalism makes a certain sense: cycling and ecological or climate-change-related travel go well together. Perhaps this is part of a new trend; watch out for Riding with Rhinos and Pedalling with Pandas coming soon to a bookstore near you.

I’m only sort of joking. Activist-inspired travel writing, from Gaia Vince’s Adventures in the Anthropocene to Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction to Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine’s Last Chance to See are all part of new ways of thinking about the intersection of travel and environmentalism. But as I’m learning, getting the right balance between these two aspects can be tricky.  

In the case of Dykman’s book, the premise is simple: she sets out to cycle the route of the monarch butterfly migration, a 10 000 mile journey from Michoacan, Mexico, to Canada (southern Ontario and Quebec) and back, to raise awareness about the monarch’s plight. 

If you haven’t heard, the monarchs are in trouble. Their numbers are plummeting and the cause is plain: it’s us. Our chemicals, our development, our influence on the planet’s climate systems–these factors all threaten the future of these iconic orange and black insects whose storied migration is familiar to millions, including me. (I grew up in southern Ontario and remember seeing lots of them, as well as lots of milkweed.)  

In addition to being a seasoned cycle traveller, Dykman is a biologist, so she talks a lot about the science of monarchs: how and where they lay eggs, the various stages of the reproductive cycle, what creatures eat monarchs, how monarchs are counted, and what is killing milkweed (the only thing monarchs will breed on). Some of this I knew already (for instance, the devastating impact of glyphosate aka Roundup on milkweed in North America) but much I did not (“the choreographed dance of mating monarchs,” for example). Dykman revels in the joy of close observation of nature, the wonder of transformations. In one hilarious episode, she stops in a ditch to look at a fifth instar caterpillar and while on her hands and knees is confronted by a baffled policeman who assumes she must have crashed. 

An educational impulse is at the centre of this project, and throughout her trip, Dykman gives monarch presentations to local school kids en route. These start out a bit rough, Dykman admits (her call and response of MILK? WEED!! wasn’t well thought through, she realizes), but she quickly figures out what kids care about and these school visits become a crucial and rejuvenating part of her mission.

But cyclist, scientist, and educator are not the only hats/helmets Dykman wears. The other one is activist. Dykman is on a mission, and I mean that in both the figurative and literal senses. Her passion for the cause of the monarchs is evangelical; every person she meets en route– every wrinkled cowboy on the back of a truck, every stranger in a parking lot–is an ear to bend, an opportunity to spread the gospel of butterflies. “Conversation starters,” she calls them, the questions Dykman likes to ask random folks about monarchs and their migration.  

I can see how this is all fine and good for short conversations with strangers, but on a long journey, like that shared by an author and reader of a book, such preaching can become tedious. That’s the thing about evangelicals: they generally only want to talk about one thing. And in a travel book, this is a problem. As much as I admire Dykman’s passion and commitment, I did, after a while, begin to find her earnestness a bit tiresome. I know, I risk sounding like a complete asshole criticizing this aspect of the book, and I don’t want to suggest that the book is humorless. (There are actually some very funny bits.) But sometimes the activist’s monomania works against this project as a cycle-travel or even just a travel book.                         

One fascinating but problematic aspect of Dyman’s trip is how she connects with the monarch community across the continent, a network she refers to fondly as “Crazy Monarch People,” the highest concentration of which, it turns out, reside in Ontario. These are activists, citizen scientists, and devoted volunteers who “quietly fill their lives with beauty and fight to give monarchs spaces beyond the margins.” The community of CMPs extends across the eastern half of the continent, and Dykman benefits greatly from the activation of this vibrant and generous network of remarkable activists. 

Soon enough, in almost every town and city she passes through, Dykman is invited to stay with monarch people. But the problem, narrative-wise, is that once ensconced in the CMP network, Dykman ends up spending a lot of time with like-minded people. On the one hand, we get profiles of interesting, devoted monarch nuts, whose passion is certainly admirable. On the other hand, though, this creates a narrowness to the realm of interaction, especially in the second half of the book. True, she does still encounter the occasional redneck and other non-monarchists who test her patience and are impervious to her mission. But if, like me, you believe that one of the appeals of travel (and travel writing) is meeting a diverse range of humans, then you too might find parts of this book a little thin on that front.

It’s terrible to say, but even extinction gets boring after a while. So when something non-monarch-related happens to Dykman (the lost pannier episode, a random trucker handing her a ten dollar bill, her pulling the Jesus card on the mean-spirited church folks who don’t want to let her camp on church property), my eyes perked up. I could have done with more of this kind of thing.  

Dykman’s message here is an important one, no question, but an environmental travel book, like an ecosystem, depends so much on balance, and there’s something about the balance in this book that doesn’t quite work for me. I have no doubt that Crazy Monarch People will love it, but Crazy Guy On A Bike readers probably not so much.

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