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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
One of the most amazing stories in the book of creation must be that of the monarch butterfly. These fragile-looking creatures undertake a migration of 2,000 miles between Canada, the U.S., and a small area in Mexico every few years. In this account of her fascination with Danaus plexippus, Sue Halpern combines elements of natural history, hard science, and memoir. At the heart of Four Wings and a Prayer lies a tantalizing question: How do so many millions of monarchs end up at the same place in Mexico -- a place they have never been -- since there is a generation gap between each return journey? In recounting efforts to understand the migrations, Halpern meets a colorful assortment of scientists, from the researcher who drives around Mexico doing field surveys to the glider pilot who follows monarchs at cruising altitude through the skies of Ontario.
Like so many other species, monarchs are threatened today by a host of pressures brought on by human activities. The famed El Rosario butterfly reserve lies in one of Mexico's poorest areas; it's under severe threat from slash-and-burn farming, logging, and the economic despair that drives them. Ironically, the North American Free Trade Agreement chose the monarch as its symbol, because it, too, crosses among the continent's three nations. But the poor environmental practices that NAFTA encourages may harm the monarch's chances for future survival.
The author is a firm believer in science. Contrary to recent critics like Wendell Berry, who accuse science of demystifying the sacred kingdom of nature, Halpern believes it is a unique way of creatively reckoning with the universe. Her hero-scientists engage with the ecological problems that threaten their research subjects, rather than withdrawing into the academy. "The science may be neutral," she writes, "but the scientist is not." In this poetic study, Halpern shows that the monarchs have also touched her life in a special way: "Their story was part of mine." (Jonathan Cook)