I'm crammed into a moss-covered hut with a handful of poets from the University of Washington's poetry and science program at Friday Harbor, and we're all going googly-eyed and sparkle-brained over biologist Jenny Shrum. She's pointing at laminated maps, fiddling with improvised scientific instruments, and projecting infectious curiosity.
Since 2014, Shrum has been working under the guidance of the island marble butterfly team to restore San Juan Island's population of the butterflies, an insect that scientists believed had gone extinct back in 1908, and which is now a candidate species for protection under the Endangered Species Act. There's only one population in the world, and they flutter about the tumble mustards and pepper plants on the island's harsh, windswept, ocean-beaten coastal prairie.
Shrum tells us the number of island marbles—probably well under 500, though there's no way of assessing an exact number—is totally unstable: "One bad year, one wicked storm—all it takes is one event and the butterfly is kaput," she says.
If the US Fish and Wildlife Service places the marble on the endangered or threatened species list, however—and they still have to go through a rigorous, research-intensive process that is open for public comment in order to do so—then it will be protected.
In order to understand why anyone would want to protect the butterfly, one must try to understand the butterfly itself.
The students' task for the day is to absorb Shrum's lecture from the perspective of personas related to the butterfly, and then to write a poem about the experience from that perspective. One of us is a mustard plant, the butterfly's home and food source. Another one of us is a deer, which eats the mustard plants that sometimes have butterfly eggs on them. And another is a caterpillar-munching bird.
I'm supposed to play the role of the lepidopterist, a butterfly collector, but I can't figure out why I'd want to collect, study, and inspect this butterfly at all. With the exception of its fuzzy wuzzy widdle face, the butterfly is unremarkable. A fleck of barely animated lichen with a two-inch wingspan. You might confuse 10 of them for a ripped-up note tossed into a field.
And in the hut, the students and I aren't even looking at actual butterflies—we're looking at inch-long cocoons stuck to long wooden dowels that Shrum props up just so in store-bought mesh containers. Shrum rears the butterflies in these containers and releases them every April. Last spring, she and the team released 105 butterflies, about 30 more than the previous year.
In the wild, the caterpillar spins its cocoon and then lashes itself to its host plant with ropes of silk. But in captivity, Shrum uses dowels to approximate plant stalks. Sometimes, though, the caterpillars do a bad job of securing themselves to the dowel. In those cases, Shrum ties the cocoon to the dowel with a tiny red thread. She goes through all this trouble for a good reason. If the cocoon isn't positioned correctly when the butterfly is ready to emerge, then the creature's wings might rip or get damaged in some way.
The butterfly won't necessarily die if that happens, but "a butterfly without wings is just butter," Shrum says.
The science joke gets a chuckle in the room, but when Shrum explains how the butterfly's life cycle perfectly aligns with life cycle of its host plant, the students grow quiet. Wonder fills the room. Ears perk up and pens press to scrap paper.
If you wanted to convince a crowd of skeptics that a benevolent god exists, you might begin by describing the close relationship between the island marble and the mustard plant. When the butterfly's eggs begin to hatch on the mustard's bud, the plant just so happens to be growing the right kind of petals for the little hyphen-sized caterpillar to eat. As the caterpillar continues to grow into a thing that can eat more complex food, so the plant begins to grow more complex stuff—flower, fruit, and stalks—as if in response to its needs.
These island marbles are interesting and mysterious, but more importantly, their decline may exacerbate the alarming diminishment of coastal prairies, their natural and only habitat.
But are those reasons enough to spend any amount of federal dollars to pull this bug back from the brink? Oceans are acidifying, arctic sea ice is melting, and carbon levels in the air have risen to irreparably high levels. One can easily imagine a Trump administration gutting the funding needed to tackle these issues. And yet bright, talented biologists are spending their time tying cocoons to dowels to save a single species of butterfly from extinction. How could they possibly care?
Shrum is the first to admit that the restoration process can be brutal and ethically complex. Even something as simple as constructing a temporary deer fence to protect the area where the butterflies breed causes some damage. Mowing the perimeter kills snakes, and the fence posts provide perches for birds to wreak havoc on insects that live in the surrounding grasses, and possibly even the island marbles themselves. The choice to preserve one animal means potentially killing others.
The weekend after the class in the hut, I sat down with Shrum in the laboratory's dining hall. She rolled up on a bicycle, wearing more or less the same outdoorsy gear I'd seen her wear the week before. Her bright eyes made me think she saw the world more clearly than I did.
Trump had been elected president a few days earlier, so we prefaced our discussion with a 15-minute existential freak-out session, but her chipper nature and earnest spirit returned as we began talking butterflies.
At the most basic level, Shrum says, she works for the National Park Service, and their mission is to preserve "natural and cultural resources... for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations." The butterflies live on park land, and Shrum says doing what they can to protect the butterflies and their habitat falls within the scope of that mission.
But in real terms, would pulling the island marble Jenga block from San Juan Island's coastal prairies result in a major ecological collapse in the region? If we step on this butterfly, will Donald Trump really be president forever, as Ray Bradbury's short story "A Sound of Thunder" forewarns? I mean, we didn't even know the things existed for a hundred years.
"Just because we didn't know the marble existed for a while doesn't mean it didn't," Shrum says. Unless it got blown in from elsewhere, it was probably still on San Juan doing its thing in the invasive mustards and the native peppers, filling the bellies of baby birds or spicing up a deer's salad with protein.
The larger, more philosophical reasons for this sort of conservation work are important to consider, too. According to Elizabeth Kolbert's Pulitzer Prize–winning natural history The Sixth Extinction, we're currently living in and contributing to a wave of mass extinction that this planet hasn't seen since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Only this time, as Noam Chomsky reminds us, we're the asteroid. Maintaining and increasing biodiversity, Shrum tells me, is key to stabilizing ecosystems that grow increasingly fragile or more volatile with every new extinction.
Shrum also conceives of animals and plants as a chain of keys that open locked doors. Behind those doors could be any number of solutions to the problems that face us.
"You don't necessarily know which door each key will open," she says, "but you shouldn't just chuck keys or let them fall out of your pocket, because god forbid you'd actually need it."
Jeff Bradley, the mammalogy collection manager at the Burke Museum, says that scientists now have the analytical power to try thousands of keys on thousands of locks all at once, which is even more reason to try to preserve species.
Bradley mentions the importance of the tiny bioluminescent jellyfish Aequorea victoria, which float in the waters outside UW's Friday Harbor Laboratories. In 2008, Osamu Shimomura won a Nobel Prize in chemistry for synthesizing the protein that makes the jelly glow. Scientists now use this "green fluorescent protein" to see inside living cells. If those little jellyfish were endangered before he did that, and if we let their light blink out because we couldn't think of an immediate use for them, then we might know less about how cancer spreads and how genes express themselves.
Matthew Shepherd, communications director and former conservationist at the Xerces Society, the Oregon-based group that petitioned the USFWS to list the island marble as a threatened or endangered species, argues that "every animal has a right to survival." Quoting E.O. Wilson, he says, "Insects are the little things that run the world," adding, "96 percent of our songbirds in North America feed their young on insects." He insists, "We shouldn't just be trying to tie some economic value or human benefit to conservation," there is value in admitting that we don't totally understand the complexities of nature.
And, of course, there is that group of wowed poets crowded together in a little hut. The restoration effort served those students as a site of artistic inquiry, a place to learn and to consider life outside their own heads. Clare Jacobsmeyer's poetic response to Shrum's lecture (and to our subsequent walk through the prairie) recalls Shepherd's point about the problem of reducing the natural world to its market value: "How much grass is here? / The same as fish in the sea? / Too many to know / Accurately? And if I count, / Will the magic be lost on me?"
Nature seems to respond to Jacobsmeyer's string of questions in a stanza from Cierra Purdom's poem: "Deep burgundy branch / with berries, the whitest white— / contrast is the world's / own way of pointing to two / beautiful things in one wink." Nature's magic rests not in a cold accounting of its individual life-forms, these students seem to be saying, but in the way those life-forms interact with each other to create something larger than themselves. Like beauty. Or chaos. Or an ecosystem.
But it's true: None of the people with whom I spoke could draw a direct line from a recently restored species to a tangible human benefit. USFWS communications manager Taylor Goforth argued for the symbolic importance of the American bald eagle, the cultural importance of returning bull trout back to native streams, and the good god glory of Yellowstone. The reintroduction of wolves in that park, Shrum enthusiastically points out, significantly and surprisingly revitalized that landscape.
But no one could say, "Thank god we saved that fuckin' condor, 'cause we just figured out its feathers cure cancer."
Shrum couldn't tell me precisely how important the island marble might be for us, or how integral it is to the larger world. She really doesn't know. But that lack of knowledge won't stop her and the rest of the island marble crew from trying to rescue this butterfly from the void. In fact, it seems to propel them forward.
This mode of scientific inquiry encourages people to cultivate a positive relationship with the Unknown, despite our knee-jerk fear of it. Poets know something about this mind-set, too. John Keats calls it "Negative Capability," an attitude he perceived in writers such as Shakespeare, which he defines as a person's capability of "being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."
We don't know if protecting the island marble is a good thing or a bad thing or a neutral thing for us or for a planet that, frankly, doesn't need us. But for these scientists, conservationists, and poets, this Unknown is the very condition that makes their work possible, the world into which they imagine white-and-green butterflies proliferating by the sea.