Bay Nature magazineSpring 2014

Bay Nature Local Heroes

First Person: Environmental Education Award Winner Liam O’Brien

April 21, 2014
Liam O’Brien. (Photo by Amber Hasselbring)

In 1996, a tiger swallowtail butterfly flew into a small backyard in San Francisco’s Duboce Triangle. It paused long enough to catch the attention of Liam O’Brien, who was having second thoughts about his successful career as a stage actor. Shortly thereafter O’Brien joined the Lepidopterist Society, began to scour the region for butterflies, and turned his incredible talent for observation and theater into a career as San Francisco’s foremost butterfly champion. The architect of urban butterfly habitat projects like Tigers on Market Street and the Green Hairstreak Corridor, and the restoration of Mission blues on Twin Peaks, O’Brien is a man on a mission to prove that habitats for humans and habitats for butterflies aren’t mutually exclusive. O’Brien is the winner of Bay Nature’s 2014 Environmental Education Award.

ES: OK, well, let’s start with the big one: What is it about butterflies?

Remember, they are an exotic species in the Western United States, and are rapidly increasing their geographic range and range of habitats. Are they outcompeting or excluding native species in the process? How would we know? We have done almost nothing to monitor changes in the assemblage of mushroom species in areas before and and after the incursion of death caps.

Bay Nature’s Local Hero Awards recognize individuals in our community whose efforts foster understanding and preservation of the natural world of the San Francisco Bay Area. The 2014 awards were presented at Bay Nature’s Local Hero Awards Dinner in Oakland on Sunday, March 23, 2014.

LO: Well, I can’t really answer that. On a basic level, clearly our species loves beauty; that’s a no-brainer. Like anyone, I was enthralled. But why did I go buy a guide and join the Lepidopterist Society? My brother Colin says, “Liam, you don’t do anything half-assed.”

But I’m equally enthralled by our relationship to these creatures. A building just went in down the street, one of these major condos. They have a rooftop garden for endangered butterflies. It’s like, really? The nearest bay checkerspot is 90 miles to the south. But I know what’s going on there. Our species likes to help things. It makes us feel good. And yet these creatures have a distinct lifestyle, they’re not just randomly flying around everyone’s garden. So people’s exploitation of butterflies I find equally enthralling.

ES: So it’s almost like the question of “Why?” is as motivating as the scientific study?

LO: Well, I definitely want my passion to be grounded in science. I was lucky that in my early years, in the nineties, I hooked up with a PhD entomology student at Berkeley named Jim Kruse. He was really into Hemileuca moths. He would let me go with him to set up moth lights on the Mexican border, and I’d just stand there and ask dumb questions. His wife was pregnant, and he was like, “Dude, she said I can have 24 hours, want to go to Utah?” And we would just drive all day for one species. So I had these sort of gonzo years.

I’m definitely lucky that [UC Berkeley lepidopterist] Jerry Powell has been a great mentor. And [San Francisco State entomologist] John Hafernik. People ask, “Why do you say you’re a lepidopterist?” I’m like, “Well, first of all, it’s a friggin’ cool word. No, I don’t have a degree in it, but I’m pretty proud of what I’ve done.” I could never have guessed I was going to do this.

ES: And you kind of mixed your previous theater career with some love of the outdoor world.

LO: I guess. [Robert Michael] Pyle says in his book, “Going on a butterfly walk with Liam is an experience in street theater.” What the heck does that mean? I’m not acting. This is just me. I’m not a character out there, I’m just the nerdy lepidopterist. I get that. But I have a big personality; always have, since I was little. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote a profile on me and called it “Butterfly madness.” Come on.

ES: Does it feel like madness?

LO: No, not at all! I guess I’m sort of an ADD border collie. Because if I flip it over, I guess I have a big loud voice and I point at things and go, “Look at this!”

ES: So how do you know what to point at?

LO: I’m a trained actor, so I have acute powers of observation. I just do.

ES: You almost have your own creation myth about how you took up with lepidoptery.

LO: It was down the street from here, in the Duboce Triangle. I had just come back from New York, where I did Les Miz for three years, and I was like, get me the hell out of New York City. I had a weird career as an actor. I had a lot of success, a career people would dream of, but I never had an emotional investment. So I got cast to replace Garret Dillahunt in Angels of America. And where I was staying, there was a window facing the back and this butterfly flew into the yard and it was a tiger swallowtail, which is this huge new project I have now. That’s oddly serendipitous, 15 years later. But it’s only in retrospect I can look at that moment and see the change: 180 degrees. Theater was waning. I don’t miss it at all. It was a lot of stress.

ES: So you started going out, and—

LO: Yeah, I surveyed all the butterflies in San Francisco. Jerry Powell said, “Learn where you live.” And I really took that to heart. Jumped every vacant-lot fence and combed the city.

ES: What did you learn?

LO: Well, to be so cavalier at first, thinking, “God, what a lousy place for butterflies,” then to just really go out. Am I sad that Paul Ehrlich wrote that 52 butterflies used to fly in San Francisco and I know there’s only 34 now? Do I get sad about what is going on? Or do I tell people that half of our butterflies, females of 18 of the 34 species, now use weeds in the street to lay eggs? A female butterfly is usually a generalist within a family of plants, so if a new mallow is on the block, she’s got a new option. A new tree on the street—there because our species thinks it’s pretty—and she goes, “Oh, my kids can eat that.” That’s the interesting story to me. That’s kind of an amazing adaptation.

And you know, I’m a non-native. I’m doing the best I can to live in a hostile ecosystem as well. I always say, “Smart girl. She’s moved over to a weed.”

I don’t think I’m answering any of your questions.

ES: Has there been a lot of learning process? For the non-butterfly people among us, it’s hard to tell the difference. How

LO: I’m from a world of white-hot honesty. I really have a lot of confidence in who I am, and many times I’m confidently wrong. The thing that separates you from the sociopaths is that if you’re emphatic, and I’m an emphatic speaker, you have to know that you might be emphatically wrong. I learned that one early. You have to check your ego.

They interviewed the silent-screen star Lillian Gish. She was 94 years old. They asked her, “Ms. Gish, what is the key to longevity?” What do you think she said? “Curiosity.” I don’t know who said this to me, but the first moment of stewardship is learning the name of the thing in front of you.

ES: The final question: Do you have a favorite butterfly?

LO: Probably the green hairstreak because that emerald green is just jaw-dropping, and what it’s come to represent as a change in my life, and this kind of crazy band of people in the neighborhood on the west side of San Francisco. Robert Michael Pyle talks about — that it’s not just endangered species, it’s the extinction of experience. You used to be able to see a little green butterfly all the way across this tiny peninsula, from sea to Bay. Now the experience of seeing this little green butterfly is trapped in this neighborhood. But you know what, I’m such a freakazoid, I like them all. Cabbage white! Really? Really! They’re all sort of fascinating to me.

About the Author

Eric Simons is a former digital editor at Bay Nature. He is author of The Secret Lives of Sports Fans and Darwin Slept Here, and is coauthor, with Tessa Hill, of At Every Depth: Our Growing Knowledge of the Changing Oceans.