Magdalena Mountain: Excerpts from a Place-Based Novel
By Robert Michael Pyle
The yellow Karmann Ghia left the road at 45. Its tires never scored the soft tissue of the tundra. It simply flew over the edge, into the mountain abyss.
A lookout marmot shrilled at the sight. A pair of pikas, young of the year, disappeared beneath their rockpile as the strange object passed overhead. Clearing the stony incline, the doomed auto glided over the rich mountain turf. Its shadow fell across a patch of alpine forget-me-nots, deepening their hue from sky to delft; then passed over a pink clump of moss campion. A black butterfly nectaring on the campion twitched at the momentary shading. Such a shift of light often signaled a coming storm, sending the alpine insects into hiding among the sod or stones. But this cloud passed quickly, so the sipping butterfly hunkered only briefly, then resumed its suck from the sweet-filled floret. A bigger black form took flight when the bright intruder entered its territory. The raven charged the big yellow bird to chase the interloper out of its airspace, succeeded, and resettled.
In Magdalena Mountain, Robert Michael Pyle’s first and long-awaited novel, the award-winning naturalist proves he is as at home in an imagined landscape as he is in the natural one. At the center of this story of majesty and high mountain magic are three Magdalenas—Mary, a woman whose uncertain journey opens the book; Magdalena Mountain, shrouded in mystery and menace; and the all-black Magdalena alpine butterfly, the most elusive of several rare and beautiful species found on the mountain.
As the slope fell away toward the canyon below, more than keeping pace with the glide path of the Ghia, so fell the yellow missile. Sky whooshed aside to make room for it, otherwise there was no sound but for three shrieks on the alpine air: a nutcracker’s alarm scream; the whine of the engine, gunned by the foot glued to the Ghia’s floorboard; and a third, muffled by the glass, growing into a hopeless wail.
The thin alpine air parted before the plummeting car, smelling of green musk, of the great high lawn that is the Colorado mountain tundra. The perfumes of a hundred alpine wildflowers filled the grille of the Ghia. Soon the sweet mingled scents would be overcome by the rank fumes of oil and gasoline mixing with the terpenes of torn evergreens as the grille split against pine and stone. But the rider smelled nothing.
The air took on a chill as the projectile left the sunny upper reaches, crossed over timberline, and entered the shade of the upper forest. Never once had it touched down since takeoff, nor could it fly much farther. Gravity never ran out, but the earth rushed up at last to meet it. All the elements of the alpine earth—mineral soil, bare stone, grass, sedge, herb, shrub, and solid trunk of ancient limber pine—mingled with the yellow metal when the Ghia went to ground. Soft parts met hard. Granite tore rubber. Branches smashed glass and pierced the cloth upholstery. The engine block escaped its mounts and flew a little farther before shattering against a boulder and coming to rest as shiny shrapnel in the streambed far below. The blow that tore the motor free, ending its long scream, ripped the driver’s door from its hinges. That other shriek was loosed into the general clamor. Then nothing.
Almost nothing remained from this unplanned event to disturb the day up above, where it began. The nutcracker returned to its snag, the marmot to its post, the raven to its rock. The black butterfly nectared on, then flew. The forget-me-nots still flowered low against the ground. Not even the green verge of the road betrayed anything amiss. Only a black rubber streak in the roadway gave away the launching spot. Even the golden-mantled ground squirrel whose mad dash across the asphalt had started it all lay not dead on the shoulder, but basking on a boulder nearby in the late summer sun, unabashed by her close call.
Of the steaming yellow mass among the trees and rocks a thousand feet below, no one knew a thing. Bumblebees investigating the yellow spatter on the slope found battered, barren steel instead of woolly sunflowers. The Karmann Ghia’s aberrant track would never be repeated. And for all the difference it made to the mountain, it might never have happened at all.
Erebia skims the rocky face of Magdalena Mountain like a floater gliding across the surface of a big pale eye. His own eyes, paired black globes dominating each side of his head, survey a broad periphery for patches of pink that might mean nectar and shapes of dark that could be females. Able to see the visible spectrum as well as ultraviolet, he can pick out many hues, though a flower we call “yellow” might fluoresce some other color to him, and stand out even more. And while his compound eyes have thousands of lenses, Erebia sees no honeycomb image, but a single picture of fair clarity. Or so science believes, as butterflies decline to reveal their visions.
On his first flight, Erebia looks down and all around over the granite boulders that make up his rockslide. The stones lie as they fell when the mountains broke apart. Their colors are the pink and gray of feldspars, the white of quartz, the black and glass of micas, and the greens, yellows, oranges, and blacks of lichens. These rocks are home to Erebia and most of what he sees, besides the sky. As for the sky, when it is blue, Erebia flies; when white or gray, he basks, and when purple, he creeps into the rocky cracks and holes. And when the sky turns his own color, it is time to take to the deeper shelter beneath the boulders until morning. Stone and sky make up most of Erebia’s world.
There is more. Green grows now among the rocks, wisps of alpine grasses that gave sustenance during Erebia’s larval months. These blades will be sought by his future mates and all other female Magdalenas for egg-laying, as they fly from stone to basking stone. Erebia is not unaware of these patches of grasses. Were his flight to graze the edge of the rocks, or to reach the fellfield or the beginning of the tundra, Erebia would see much more green. Here, in July if the snow melts, the whole of the arctic-alpine seed bank bursts its vaults as if entire field guides spilled their flowered pages across the slopes in leaf and bloom. No one unfamiliar with the tundra, surveying the winter mountain, could picture its summer profusion. No one having seen it once could but wish to behold it again. Magenta paintbrush daubs the variegated green canvas among a pointillist array of blue and white and gold and lavender. Insects hover and dart over all, nectaring and pollinating, mating and preying, laying eggs and eating leaves, feeding birds and one another, as from the boggy turf rises a sweet stink of Ordovician richness.
But that rich turf is not this Erebia’s realm. Of all the alpines, only Magdalena restricts itself to the rock-realm. Anyone wishing to see it must take to the boulderfields as well. These dark dryads hold a special attraction for arcane cadres among lepidopterists who call themselves “Erebia freaks.” Most collectors prefer the cheaper charms of gaudy swallowtails and iridescent blue morphos to the understated hues of the dun, striated satyrs. Among those smitten by the subtle mystique of Erebia and its kin, magdalena stands out as a special favorite. But as generations of Magdalena hunters will testify, the black beast comes down the rocks directly toward them, only to swerve away at the last moment. Their futile sweep of the net results in the capture of nothing more than a black shadow on the breeze. Not a few such hunters take away only air as their trophy, and they blame not only the rocks, not only the altitude, not only the clouds that always seem to close in too soon, but also the sharp eyes and quick reactions of the butterflies themselves. Erebia is a dodger.
As Erebia takes wing for the first time he sees a foreign object in his path. Another black shape, it stoops toward Erebia at great speed. Ravens, finches, even pipits might be too slow and clumsy to catch an active alpine on the wing, nine times out of ten. But now, Erebia is engaged by one of his few superiors in the air: a black swift. Covering vast areas of mountain sky in a day, the swift (her name is a great understatement) normally feeds at a higher level. But drawn down over the snowbank by the cloud of insects chilled in the updraft, the jet hunter swoops low over adjacent rocks, where she spots Erebia. In a flick of her sickle-shaped wings, the bird dives for the butterfly like a heat-seeking missile locked onto its target, like the black bullet her body resembles.
Had he swerved and dropped, Erebia might have escaped. Instead, he actually changes course to fly directly at the predator. A male butterfly first locates his mate by sight; size and shape mean less than color, or even amplify the attraction. Any swarthy form passing near a male Magdalena is likely to elicit engagement on the wing. Now, in pursuit of a potential mate, Erebia flies into the face of danger.
No gentle lover, the swift opens her broad, froglike bill—a mousetrap triggered by sensitive vibrissae around the mouth—and clamps it shut on the insect. A friendly zephyr shifts Erebia’s wings just enough to remove his body from that gaping maw, so that only the left forewing is caught. In another second the bird would have pulled Erebia into her gullet by tug of tongue and air, and been off to another meal on the run, spitting bits of black wrapper into the wind. The catch takes place just over a large boulder, behind which a bruised and web-faced lepidopterist has been lying in wait for an alpine to course down the declivity. His move, from a concealed position, might have been successful—but the “bloody bird,” as he calls it, beats him to it, sweeping the prize right out of the air above his head. Yet his net-stroke has already been launched, and it nearly apprehends both black objects, parva and magna. It so alarms the swift that she shrieks, as swifts will in play, fear, or rage. Agape, she releases Erebia from her grip and speeds skyward, filled with a bird’s version of frustration.
The butterfly flutters to earth, shaken but unhurt, and the entomologist falls upon him. The air rings with a metallic “clink” as he snaps his net over the grounded black Icarus. “At last!” he exults, as he prepares to bottle his catch in a cyanide jar. But first he examines the specimen held firmly and gently in his flat-bladed stamp tongs. “Bloody hell!” he curses. “Buggered up by that bloody bird!”
The fact that the collector is a true Erebia aficionado, intent upon bagging all of the Rocky Mountain species on his brief holiday in the States, enflames his ire. Like many of his ilk, he desires only perfect specimens. Unless a “mint” individual were unobtainable, he would not place a “rag” among the ranks of meticulously spread, flawless butterflies in his cabinet. He also fancies himself a conservationist, so he punctiliously releases his rejects unharmed, so that they might still reproduce—just as he does when angling on the Thames or the Avon. Now he gently sets Erebia upon a bright clump of moss campion and quits the scene. But before he leaves the mountains later in the day, two perfect males (but no females) of E. magdalena, a pair of Melissa arctics, three rockslide checkerspots, and a pair of Snow’s coppers will lie carefully stowed in his bag, bound for the setting boards in “Rosebay Mount.” his West Sussex semidetached cottage. Over a pint or two of King & Barnes bitter, he will show them to his admiring friends of a December evening in his study, far, far away from Magdalena Mountain.
Stunned by a whiff of cyanide, disoriented by the double jeopardy catches, Erebia perches on the clump. This, after all, is one of the objects of his search through all those repetitive flappings up, glidings down the rockslide: moss campion, and other suitable nectar flowers to fuel his flights. He uncoils his watchspring proboscis, probes a pink floret, and sips the sweet substance, replenishing with sugars the energy expended in his first day as a butterfly—a day that the mountain’s annals (were there any such kept) might fairly describe as “eventful.” Then he crawls to a lump of granite, lays his folded black wings down against it, and basks, for a haze has come over the sun and cooled the mountain air. The haze darkens to a storm cloud, sending Erebia understone before the first cold drops fall. He will keep to the shelter of the boulders for the duration of the shower and all through to the next morning, when the sun will reassert itself.
And that might be just as well. Wasn’t this enough to ask of a first day on the rocks? Falling prey to both the swift and the human, then escaping them both through each other’s agency. He has nectared several times, basked, and surveyed his stony domain as he carried out the age-old flight pattern of his kind: fly up to the ridge, float down to the bottom, investigate objects black, pink, and yellow, avoid all else. Then do it all over again, and again, in search of a mate. Will Erebia survive to find one? It’s a toss-up at this point. At least a female of his species will not be put off by the flaw that caused the collector to reject him. As he basks one last time before roosting, that mark shines like a fresh brand on a black stallion: a bright, clear V, where the scales have been struck away and the thin membrane shows through—a permanent tattoo applied by the broad bill of the black swift.
Mead arrived at the monastery to find it nearly deserted.
“Mead!” Oberon called out upon seeing him. “Have you seen Mary?”
“No, I haven’t. I’d hoped to meet her again today.”
“We can’t find her. She never leaves . . . where could she be?” Oberon’s long face looked drawn, his eyes afraid.
Mead remembered Mary’s plan. “When I talked with her, she said she hoped to go up on the mountain with Annie or you to see the Magdalena alpine butterfly.”
“Up on the mountain! So that’s what she was talking about. I was too busy, thought she only wanted to go for a walk. She must have gone by herself, as Annie’s come and gone. But that was yesterday—good gods, I hope she’s all right!”
“What worries me,” Sylvanus put in, “is that Attalus has not been seen, either.”
“Oh, hell.” Oberon clenched his fists and looked about in a fever of worry. “Mead, will you help me look for her?”
“Of course!” The two tall, bearded men, one graying, the other not, set off for Magdalena Mountain immediately. Oberon took just enough time to trade his robe for jeans and a flannel shirt, squeeze into his boots, and grab some water, raisins, and a first-aid kit. Mead already wore his boots, and had some apples from home. Clouds were rising behind the distant summit as they took off up Cabin Creek for the mountain face.
Oberon said nothing as he led the way. The searchers burned up the creek trail, through the willows, past the pines, and into the subalpine firs. They entered the avalanche trough where it drops from the subalpine, weeping the water for Cabin Creek from its snowfield like some deep tear gland. Once they reached the rotten snow a decision had to be made which way to go. Magdalena Mountain is a very big peak, and to split up now would be dangerous. Oberon decided they should work upward, along the right-hand side of the tear-track cleft, toward the ridge on the north, in parallel. They would stay in sight of each other, one working his way across the slope a hundred feet or so above the other’s traverse.
The lay of the land brought them together again part way across the great central stone face of the peak, rock-pits like pores making every step a gamble. “Watch for orange,” Oberon said, “and blue. She was probably wearing a sort of saffron cape over a long blue dress. That’s what she’s had on lately.”
“Right,” was all that James could reply, trying to maintain his balance as well as his hopes against the odds of Mary’s survival through the night up here so clad. He wondered about the simultaneous absence of Attalus and Mary, but didn’t ask.
Just that filled Oberon’s mind. He’d thought that Attalus might have reconciled himself to the women, albeit with great reluctance. How naive! He should have expelled him, even at the cost of unhousing the brotherhood. And he should have listened more carefully to what Mary had proposed, and he should have taken time to come up here with her. Should, should, should—what good are “should haves” when in fact you didn’t? And what chance could Mary have up here alone with a psychopath, probably intent on her destruction, on a cold mountain where destruction means nothing?
Thus darkly musing as he watched his every step and the near and far distance too, Oberon almost failed to notice the black flicker in the foreground—almost, but not quite. Mead saw it too. In the partial sunshine, one of them had kicked up a Magdalena alpine, which settled now between them to resume basking. Mead looked closely, for something about it had struck him. Then he saw what it was: this Erebia bore a crisp, shiny brand on its left forewing, the sort of broad imprint, Mead thought, that a bird such as a nighthawk might leave. His mind shot back 2,000 miles and two months, to George Winchester’s drawer of bill-marked butterflies at Yale, and the conspicuous gap in the cabinet where an Erebia magdalena ought to be.
Mead noticed that Oberon was studying the butterfly too, but he felt the grave circumstances scarcely called for small talk about tattooed butterflies, so he left it unremarked. Oberon simply said, “Mary’s butterfly. I thought it might be finished by now,” and strode off across the talus. His movement put Erebia to flight. Mead took one more look as it disappeared into the horizon of the north ridge and muttered to himself, “Damn, I wish I had my net!” Then he felt ashamed, and suffered an insight having to do with loyalty.
That summer Mead was learning rapidly a truth that few people know though millions forget every day: the heart is a fickle beast, subject to the charms of the moment, prone to forget yesterday’s thrall for tomorrow’s, under the influence of the novel and the fresh. Whether circus-women or saints, cowboy collectors or beak-marked butterflies, someone or something is always lying in wait to grab your attention. Wasn’t he ready to die for Mary the other day? And now, with Mary in real danger of dying, he forgets her momentarily in favor of some bird-marked bug. In a strange way, he supposed that was what Noni had been talking about in the hot springs—her conundrum. There was nowhere more to go with that, and an endless expanse of rock to range across in search of Mary. How would they ever find her? Just let her be safe!
As they bought space dearly across the stingy stones, the men cast their eyes in every direction for a stain of saffron, a swatch of blue, a soft form among the hard edges of the rockworld. In his own way, Mead was as anxious as Oberon, as eager to find Mary. He wanted her to know that he didn’t think her mad. Mary Glanville, Mary Magdalene, whoever—where the hell are you? He just wanted her gentle self to be safe. Oberon’s thoughts ran through similar channels, over and over. And neither one of them could see how she really could be safe.
Roaming the phantasmagorical boulderfall, Mead was haunted by visions almost like waking dreams, brought on by fatigue, hunger, and worry. The raisins and apples were long gone. Visions of Erebia, Carson, and Annie, of the absent Noni and the missing Mary, not to mention Molly and behind them all his tortured mother, all these and more trundled through his field of vision as he tried to place his feet. “This is not fun,” he said, as he lost his balance again and skinned his last fresh knee. What was going on in Oberon’s mind, he could only guess, and scarcely even wanted to know.
Oberon and Mead had reached a spot below the south ridge when the rain began. “We’d better find shelter, Oberon,” called Mead, “it can be Electricity City up here!”
“NO! Got to find Mary. She wouldn’t have crossed the ridge. Let’s work back toward the trough, higher up.”
Mead knew they would be prime lightning targets, but Oberon would not be deterred, and they were far from safe shelter in any case. Soaked and slipping on wet rocks, they clambered back across the face. Weirdly, every now and then the sun broke through. There was a sundog over the peak, and once they saw orange, but it was only a rockslide checkerspot they spooked during one of these sunbreaks. Then the cloud and rain returned, and the thunderstorm broke.
Cold mountainbreath howled around them, the rocks became grease beneath their feet, and Mead was afraid. His hair really did stand on end, and Oberon had a ghostly glow about him. They could actually smell the ozone. Mead felt like a sparkplug awaiting ignition. “Keep looking!” Oberon yelled above the thunder. How stupid, Mead thought, to end my summer cooked on a mountain—even if it is Magdalena Mountain.
His own concern for Mary battled with images of being snug between the sheets at the lodge, safe in Noni’s bosom, or someone’s. Then a great flash blotted out those thoughts and all others as both men were dashed to the ground. The rocks sang as electrons danced their crazy steps all along the wet circuits of the stone. Fried grass and burning ozone stank in their noses. Blinded for a moment, but unhurt, Oberon called, “You all right, Mead?”
“Scared shitless! Get me offa here!”
When they could see again, Oberon signaled toward the trough. “If we get down in there, we won’t be as exposed.” That sounded good to Mead. They scrambled toward the middle of the mountain. But reaching it, they found the great tear-track running brimful. As one, they both thought to slip down the waterslide of the chute as a quicker way to the shelter of the forest. It was no smooth ride, more like a freefall over Niagara than an otterslide. But it worked, and they were not far from the pines when another pyrotechnic went off in their faces. They went down again, and this time stayed down. The lightning bit stone a hundred yards away. It was the ground flash that got them.
And that’s where Annie Cloudcroft found them, an hour later.