Robert Michael Pyle on butterflies, Bigfoot, becoming a Nirvana fan, and working with legendary grunge musician Krist Novoselić (’16 Soc. Sci.) on an album ten years in the making

It started with a book-signing. That led to some beer-drinking, which led to lots of Grange meetings and—finally—recording.

Robert Michael Pyle
Photo by Benjamin Drummond/Courtesy Penn State Behrend

Throughout the better part of a decade, award-winning author, lecturer, and lepidopterist Robert Michael Pyle worked on a spoken-word album in which poetry about the natural world meets acoustic instruments played mostly by grunge icon Krist Novoselić (’16 Soc. Sci.), founding member of and bassist for Nirvana.

Butterfly Launches from Spar Pole, released last fall, began with one “guitar-poem” written and arranged for a meeting at a southwest Washington Grange. The album was rounded out over the following decade while Pyle, winner of two National Outdoor Book Awards as well as a John Burroughs Medal and Guggenheim Fellowship, worked on other projects. He has two books—The Tidewater Reach and Nature Matrix: New & Selected Essays—slated for publication in 2020. Another, Where Bigfoot Walks, is being made into a movie; The Dark Divide—with David Cross portraying Pyle and Debra Messing acting the part of his late wife, Thea—is slated for release this year.

Here, Pyle talks about how he and Novoselić met, what it was like to work together, whether they might work together again, and more.

How did the collaboration come about? Years ago, I had heard that Krist had acquired a place down here in the Willapa Hills, but I didn’t know him at the time. One day, he showed up at a book-signing of mine in Skamokawa. In comes this very tall man and this very tall woman, both very striking. He introduced himself and Darbury, his future wife. We met again later at a Leo Kottke concert in Longview and, afterward, came back to our place in Grays River. Over some beers, we talked about conservation and other common interests.

Krist became very involved in the community and local Grange, where I’ve been a member for almost 40 years. Krist listened and learned as much as he brought, eventually becoming Master of Grays River Grange No. 124—an office he still holds today. We worked together on some Grange projects and got to know each other much better.

Another thing Krist did was host a program on our local radio station, KMUN (Coast Community Radio) in Astoria. Almost all of what he played was vinyl. Sometimes he’d do mash-ups of poetry and music. One night, Krist played Orson Welles reading the Gettysburg Address against John Fahey’s slide guitar, and David Allen reading from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass with Leo Kottke playing in the background.

I was the Grange Lecturer at that time, responsible for programs. And I suggested to Krist that we do something similar for Grange, with him playing his acoustic guitar and me reading some Whitman. “He said, “Good idea, but the heck with that—let’s compose our own, and work it out together.” I was writing more and more poetry at the time, so I said, “Sure, let’s do it.” He said, “Let’s do something with a lot of nature in it, a lot of natural history”—like most of my writing—so that sat well with me.

During a residency on the Oregon Coast to complete a book of poetry, I worked on a poem that might work for this purpose. Meanwhile, Krist wrote a guitar song for it. We didn’t really discuss what we were going to do, but I think we had a common idea in mind. He emailed me an MP3 of the guitar piece, and I played it and read my poem. I was amazed how closely they fit! I fiddled with the poem a bit more, and he fiddled with the song a bit more. And that became “Notes from the Edge of the Known World,” which we recorded and placed on You Tube.

And that’s where this whole thing started about ten years ago. We thought it would be a one-off deal. But we enjoyed it so much we said, “Let’s do another one. What shall it be?” Krist was going to college at the time at WSU online. And he said, “Well, I really enjoy my geology class. Why don’t you write a geology song?” I like geology, too, having minored in it at the University of Washington. So I wrote a poem about the Bretz Floods, which carved out the landscape as we know it. And Krist wrote a wonderful guitar piece for it. That was number two.

After that, we started doing more. I don’t remember the order in which everything happened. But sometimes he wrote the music first, and sometimes I wrote the poem first.

The album is book-ended by two great sea-journeys. “Voyage of the Beagle” is drawn entirely from the words of Charles Darwin in his great book by that name. “Voyage of the Western Flyer” is inspired by the great Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts. I couldn’t use Steinbeck’s copyrighted text, so I wrote their tale in my own words. It was complicated to get all of the pieces to fit together. It was way too long, and it went through many, many drafts. It includes a quote from Kurt (Cobain) on the idea of one thing being all things. It’s hardly an original concept; so many people have written similar sentiments—Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and lots of others. But I feel no one has stated it better or more concisely than this line from the Nirvana song All Apologies: “All in all is all we are.” Krist plays accordion on this piece. During one of our practice sessions, I slipped in that quotation, and saw Krist’s eyebrows go up. I asked him later, “Can I get away with that?” And he said, “Yeah, I think so.” So when listeners hear that line, I hope they will think of Krist’s friend.”

Speaking of Nirvana, were you a fan? I wasn’t. I was the wrong age. I’m 72 years old. I was more of a Springsteen and blues guy—and a lot of early rock. I wasn’t unaware of Nirvana, but they kind of rolled past me. So, I didn’t know Nirvana very well when I met Krist. I thought, “I like this guy.” And as I got to know him better, I thought, “I better look into his music, and started listening closely to Nirvana. I became a big fan. It’s such an honor and a privilege to get to make art with him. Naturally, I feel very humbled by it. I think Kurt Cobain was a brilliant lyricist and melodist. I love (MTV) Unplugged (in New York) and some of the covers of Nirvana, such as Sinead O’Conner’s version of “All Apologies.” But, Nirvana aside, Krist is just a wonderful musician to get to work with. He may be best known as an electric bassist, but he’s a splendid acoustic guitarist too, both six- and twelve-string, and a very handy accordion player as well. He often brings a guitar to Grange to accompany our singing of “Home on the Range or “Happy Trails,” and at this year’s Christmas party he accompanied the caroling on accordion.

How did Ray Prestegard get involved with Butterfly? Ray came into the group in a little different way. Ray is a longtime professional musician. He’s been on the West Coast circuit for years, playing fairs and bars and clubs. He’s a master of a bunch of different string instruments. Ray was around Cathlamet and Skamokawa about the time that the Skamokawa Grange was falling apart. Membership was older and dying out, and there was just not a lot going on there at all. Krist decided he would like to re-energize the Skamokawa Grange, so he started going to it. He thought that music would be a great way to bring the Grange back, so he started having some open mics and put out a call for local musicians to get together and jam. Jillian (Raye) and Erik (Friend) showed up and so did Ray. It turned out they all played well together, and they formed a band, Giants in the Trees. Krist got the idea for one of our songs, “Two Rivers,” that it might be nice to give it a little more depth and bring Ray in to play some mandolin. That worked out well, so the two of them began building in additional parts for Ray, on several instruments. He brings a lot to the album. I love his violin on “Ceremony,” a poem very close to my heart.

Talk about setting poetry to music. Had you done that before? Of course, all songs are poetry set to music. But spoken word is something a little different. I’ve heard various poets over the years reading with musicians. Growing up, we were a Steve Allen family, and I got to hear him jam on jazz piano with Jack Kerouac, and that was magical. But usually what I heard was musicians—for better or for worse—kind of noodling in the background to the music they hear in their minds rather than actually composing songs, and I wasn’t particularly interested in that. I sort of liked the music or the poetry but I didn’t usually like them together. So I never pursued that with anybody. When Krist suggested this project, I thought it would be fun to try something entirely new. The idea was to balance music and words so both can be fully appreciated. This music is definitely not “noodling in the background!” Krist’s compositions are fully developed musical works, matched with my poems, together making art-songs in which the lyrics are spoken rather than sung. I think the collaboration came out well, and we owe a lot of that to (master record producer and sound engineer) Jack Endino.

Do you memorize your lines? That is a sore point for me. I don’t. But I wish I did. I’ve never been particularly good at memorization. They wanted me to do drama and debate in high school, and I never did. It just seemed that learning the lines and rehearsing would take too much time away from chasing butterflies and girls, sports, and occasional studies. So I’ve never been a good memorist, unlike some poets whom I much admire for being able to deliver not only their own but also the poems of others from memory. However, I’m making an effort now to memorize some of the Spar Pole pieces, so I won’t always have to use a music stand in performance. Maybe I’m not too old to learn.

Talk about your inspiration for this project and your writing in general. I have a book called Walking the High Ridge: Life as Field Trip. That image, the high ridge, comes from Vladimir Nabokov, the great novelist and lepidopterist. He lived in both the science world and the world of art and literature. He asked, “Does there not exist a high ridge where the mountainside of ‘scientific’ knowledge joins the opposite slope of the artistic imagination?” I was very taken by that. And I realized what I have tried to do in my life is walk that high ridge of both science and art—and that’s what I feel like we’re doing in this project.

In addition to Nabokov, who are some of your favorite writers and naturalists? There are so many. My main man is Charles Darwin. Rachel Carson was also very important to me. Some of the writers who embraced the land and language in ways I deeply admire include Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Nabokov, and Wallace Stegner. The creature-filled poems of Pattiann Rogers have guided and delighted me as much as any poet’s since Robert Frost. And, of course, Gary Snyder. Essayists Kathleen Dean Moore, W. G. Sebald, and Robert MacFarlane knock my socks off. Biologist-writers I love and seek to emulate number among them E. O. Wilson, Evelyn Hutchinson, and Thor Hanson.

Where Bigfoot Walks is being made into a movie. Did you get to meet Debra Messing and David Cross? Serve as a consultant on the film? Visit the film set? All of those things, yes. It was originally optioned as a documentary. Last year, the filmmaker and director Tom Putnam let me know he was going to go ahead, but that the script had evolved into a feature film. I’ve read the script. It’s respectful of me and Thea and Bigfoot and butterflies. It’s a fictionalized version, but it’s all based on actual episodes from the book. I decided I could not only live with it, but I liked what Tom did with it.

It takes place in the southern Cascades. Part of it was filmed up near Mount St. Helens. Some other scenes were filmed in Vernonia, Oregon. The farmhouse that’s supposed to be my home in Grays River is there. I got to visit two of the sets. I took David Cross into the field to teach him how to use a butterfly net, which was lots of fun, and got to meet his wife, the actor and poet Amber Tamblyn, too, and their butterfly-loving daughter. Debra Messing was just a sweetheart. She wanted to know a lot more about Thea before playing her part, and asked me to send her pictures, which I did. It was both strange and very special to watch these fine actors portraying us, and highly flattering. I look forward to seeing the final cut.

Can we expect any references to the late Grover Krantz, longtime WSU anthropology professor and Bigfoot expert? Grover doesn’t come up in the film. But he does in the book on which the film is based, and was important to me. Of course, you know his (distant) cousin Laura’s podcast Wild Thing, right? Laura’s interview with me appears in the final episode, “Why We Want to Believe.”

What, to you, is the mass appeal of Bigfoot? And are you a Bigfoot believer? That’s what my book is about: why is this a major phenomenon? The appeal is that it represents what we all want and need, which is something wild and mysterious beyond the campfire and yet also something which is close to us—the closer to us the better. Every culture has giants. And there are lots of animals that have a mythical dimension. The difference with Bigfoot is that this actually might be real in a biological sense. Many Native Americans feel that we are silly to even ask the question.

I have not tried to prove it or disprove it. The fact is I’m a biologist. I have spent a great deal of time with Bigfoot studies; I had a Guggenheim Fellowship to do so. And I have found evidence three times—a fossilized footprint and recent tracks—for which I do not have a better hypothesis other than Bigfoot. So I am unable to dismiss it out of hand. My mind is open to it being a physical animal. And I think there are very good reasons to have an open mind about its existence. But I have not seen it. Grover used to say that he didn’t believe, which he thought was close to faith, but that he accepted Sasquatch, based on the evidence. I am not quite there yet, but not far off.

In the newest edition of my book, I have a quote from Jane Goodall—we used to have the same editor at Houghton Mifflin—who told me that, to her, “the evidence seems overwhelming.” In the absence of definitive proof, as time goes by, you need something to keep your mind open. In the new edition of the book, I give seven things that help me remain open. Jane’s quotation and the several sets of tracks I have found are among them. But so is knowing that the world is always bigger and more surprising than we realize. And that’s what Butterfly Launches from Spar Pole is all about, too.

Looking ahead, do you have any plans to collaborate with Krist and Ray again? Might another album be in the future? Krist is already talking about some new ideas. I’m game!



Consider the butterfly: A profile of Krist Novoselić

Review of Butterfly Launches from Spar Pole

On the web

The Dark Divide (IMdB)

Wild Thing podcast