The Mission Blue Mission

Saving the habitat of an inch-long violet butterfly, the endangered Mission Blue, is the starting point of a many-sided battle for dominance of San Bruno

In a long black-mesh-covered greenhouse in back of a ranch house that serves as the ranch's office there are wild seedlings in hundreds of flats, puny little plants poking up out of tubes, growing from seeds Kephart has gathered on San Bruno Mountain and other places. Because the seeds are wild, he sometimes has to jolt them to get them to sprout -- with fire, or acid, or with refrigerated cold, his hands like a tough love substitute for nature herself. In some of the flats in his big airy shed, Kephart has violas, the wild violets favored by the Callippe Silverspot butterflies.

"Nobody's been able to grow them from seed, and I've got all these," he says. Elkhorn Ranch and Kephart do restorations all over the state -- a revegetation near Big Sur, at the site of a gargantuan landslide; at the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant; and a 200-acre eucalyptus removal in Aromas, near Watsonville.

Beyond the greenhouse, rows of native plants rise up from ground that gets no water, no fertilizer, no pesticides, no weedkillers. The plants are all colors, all shapes -- long tufted grasses, purple flowers, small herbaceous shrubs. Across the lagoon, a lettuce field of brilliant green, like a gemstone, shines from a hillside. The color, from this distance, seems like something that is sprayed or painted on. Next to the much more delicate shadings of the plants underfoot, the bright green fields, suddenly, seem unreal.

In the last five years, the field of habitat restoration has garnered increasing interest. Part of it was the drought, which prodded people to consider ways to landscape with less water. Restoring native habitat is an interdisciplinary pursuit, Kephart says, combining the demands of landscape ecology with those of horticulture. "The new frontier is to put these concepts into the urban landscape," he says. And San Bruno Mountain, with its isolated wildness, invading exotic plants, development, and endangered species, "absolutely defines the problems of modern ecological restoration."

"You look down at a map of Mount San Bruno," he says, "and you wonder, how can those butterflies make it?"

I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness -- in a landscape selected at random -- is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern -- to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.

-- Vladimir Nabokov, from Speak, Memory

Out of nowhere, it seems, the butterfly appears. As if the air has conjured it. It is a tiny thing, fluttering above the lupine in a dizzy blur. This Mission Blue, anyway, is flying as if someone just slapped it upside the head, stumbling, punch-drunk, shaking up and down, like a tiny little feather duster at the end of a long stick. It seems paralyzed by indecision, too: This flower? That flower? This flower? That flower? Then it's gone -- where? -- and no matter how we look we can't find it again.

Perhaps none of what is happening on San Bruno Mountain -- the fight over habitat, the conservation plan, the extraction of exotic species, the attempt to revegetate -- would be happening without the Mission Blue butterfly. Certainly the presence of an endangered butterfly has given the mountain the money and the management not otherwise available to it. But imagine, for example, if the Mission Blue were not a butterfly at all. Imagine it as an insect without delicate blue wings and a frilly light-blue thorax; imagine it with a hard carapace, a shiny brown airborne beetle the color of dung, with pincers and hairy legs and a stinging bite. Imagine if it were, simply, a caterpillar -- green, oozing gooey liquid from the pores on its pulpy skin -- that never transformed itself, never took to the air, spent its whole life underground, emerging only to sting and die. The bug could still be protected by law, still fought over and litigated about, but would the fight stir the same emotions? Would it seem worthwhile if the insect at issue was horrible to look at, or dangerous to touch?

The question of whether something is worth saving, particularly when the thing at stake requires a compromise of some kind, an alteration in the path of what is called progress, often comes down to what can be gained by saving it. In the case of something like a butterfly, the answer is relatively easy: Save an endangered butterfly, and you get back beauty. Or fragility. Easy enough, in the abstract.

But what if saving a butterfly involves cutting down trees? Trees that are beautiful, to some, in their own right? Can you trade beauty for beauty? Or, in doing that, is there a loss somewhere -- one that cannot be recompensed?

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