The checkerspot is only a small butterfly, measuring about two inches across. Its coloring is rather plain, consisting of blacks and browns stippled together in a fairly prosaic pattern. Does this ordinary appearance mean that before the people came its profound role linking deeply disparate worlds was an ordinary occurrence? I do not know, but I have watched them for decades in the green foothills of the San Francisco Peninsula for good reason. Each Butterfly necessarily reminds me of the deep connections at play in the natural world, the world of reality, the world of songs and wonder.I know of no other creature who so subtly signals that there is an earthquake fault in the area. Did the Ohlone Indians know this?
The vanishing populations of the checkerspot butterfly are now making their last stand in isolated stretches of the San Andreas Fault, whose great tectonic shifts have brought unforgettable seismic shudders at various points through history. Why would this butterfly be found fluttering near earthquake faults? The answer shows how deeply connections can run in the natural world, unbeknownst to almost every typer and texter in nearby Silicon Valley.
For supper (and at tea time as well) the checkerspot dines on a particular type of Indian paintbrush, a stubbly, purplish flower well known to the indigenous Ohlone peoples. And that type of owl's clover requires the presence of serpentine in the soil, exuded by a metamorphic rock only found in the high pressure, high temperature pressure cookers of earthquake faults. This means that the shrewd butterfly watcher can use the checkerspot as a signal that an earthquake fault is certainly nearby. For as the checkerspot moves from flower to flower it weaves together the allegedly disconnected worlds of biology (butterflies), botany (Indian Paintbrush), and geology (serpentine). I know of no other species which so clearly links these three very different worlds.
And it is vanishing.
Paul Ehrlich (who became famous for his discussions of the perils of overpopulation) also devoted much of his life to the study of the checkerspot. Several years ago he declared that, after decades of well-intentioned struggle and study, the checkerspot could no longer be found on the Stanford University lands of Jasper Ridge. Had generations of enthusiastic biology students inadvertently trampled its sacred grounds?
This is not a topic discussed in polite company here. How could so many liberal ecologists be so mistaken?
With no checkerspots to be found at Stanford, [CC1] I moved on to the crew of those calling themselves "naturalists" at Edgewood County Park, who have collectively spent hundreds of hours interfering[CC2] in the private lives of a crashing checkerspot butterfly population there. I arrived at the latter stages of that scandal, not long after they had released a large number of checkerspot caterpillars they had kidnapped from a Coyote Valley location which would all too soon be subdivided into a housing development. To the surprise and grief of the sincere ecological meddlers commanding the dog and pony show there, the Edgewood checkerspot population declined even further.
They said they had no idea why.
"Why did you bring so many caterpillars?," I asked.
"We wanted to bring as many as we could," was the response.
"I'm concerned that you brought so many that they all starved."
"I hope not," was the subdued reply.
"Oh," said I. A social butterfly I am not.
At any rate, I absolutely deny any and all allegations that in my explorations of thousands of acres of wild, undeveloped areas elsewhere along the Peninsula I have found another, thriving, colony in one of the happiest moments of my life. Even if I had, rest assured I would tell no other person where they might be.