On the wings of the wind

2002-09-02T19:00:00Z On the wings of the windVIRGINIA GRANTIER, Bismarck Tribune Bismarck Tribune
September 02, 2002 7:00 pm  • 

If the earth were to speak, it might sound like this.

He has lived so close to the earth, worked with it and loved it so dearly, that when farmer Jim Oberfoell, 76, talks, all of the rhythms of nature seem to talk with him. All of the soft black nights and blue days and heat and heavy rains of Mother Earth seem to roll like gold dust in the soakage of his slow, low rocking voice that drops deep at the commas' pauses and periods' ends. Especially when the gray-haired man in well-worn overalls talks of magical things, godly things. The things outside.

Things like butterflies and buttes. And that stubborn wind he grew up with on a farm northeast of Scranton.

When, as an adult, he had to work in a South Dakota mine for awhile, he didn't have any wind to listen to.

"Even though I've cussed it … I was so lonesome for the wind," he said. And so sometimes he'd have to drive out into the open country so he could.

"I just wanted to be back out in it," he said.

Nature seems to always have a pull on him. When Oberfoell was a young farm boy, he remembers looking at the bluish and long and mysterious looking Rainy Butte that seemed so far away and so different from the flat patch of his parents' family farm. He wanted to go there someday where "there must be a whole different world."

When he was even younger, maybe about 4 years old, he began noticing all of the flying colors in the prairie grasses outside the family's sod house. The butterflies.

Always the butterflies.

He says butterflies have confirmed something to him. Oberfoell, a regular churchgoer, sometimes wonders about divinity, whether there is life after death, all that. Until, that is, he studies a butterfly - the beauty, colors, the endless variations, patterns. And then he surmises there must be some sort of plan.

"By golly, there has to be something."

He has plenty of butterflies to surmise over.

He can wile away an entire winter evening in his cozy, warm butterfly room in his Sentinel Butte home, studying just one of his many glass-topped hand-made drawers full of butterflies and moths. He has about 140 such drawers, full of about 8,000 to 10,000 specimens.

Oberfoell, who farmed most of his life, until he retired several years ago and moved to Sentinel Butte, hasn't retired from his lifelong avocation - collecting butterflies.

Southwest North Dakota has about 125 species of butterflies. He has all but about four fifths of them. North America has about 700 species of butterflies. "I might have half of them" - many from trading with other butterfly collectors. And he has numerous specimens of the same species and subspecies because of the variation of colors and patterns found within the same species.

His knowledge is known. Louise Oberfoell, his ex-wife, but, according to Jim, "still family," said Jim gets calls and letters from faraway places.

"I think it's the North Dakota collection, really," she said.

North Dakota State University has sent undergraduate students and professors to his farm for his lepidopteran knowledge and advice about tracking certain species. The students would camp in his yard, or in bad weather, bring sleeping bags inside.

"You're not going to find anyone in this neck of the wood who knows more about butterflies than he and that includes me," said Ron Royer, a science professor at Minot State University. "He has been known for years as the man for North Dakota."

Royer said the butterflies and Badlands fauna "are (Jim's) family, these creatures. He knows them as intimately as his family members." Royer said Jim desperately wants to pass on his legacy, loves kids, and Royer hopes he has opportunities to do that.

"Some people can settle on what they want to do when they're young," Louise said.

For Jim, he wanted a life of working with the soil, carefully - plowing around old buffalo wallows, plowing up little virgin prairie - having a close association with nature. But Louise says his big passion has always been butterflies.

Oberfoell even has a butterfly named after him because he was the first to send it in for identification. It's called: Limenitis weidemeyerii oberfoellii. And a type of miller moth, too: Euxoa oberfoelli. Say those without muffing. Jim can. And any other Latin butterfly name that flies at him.

As a young collector, protecting his butterfly collection during childhood was almost impossible. He'd keep them in handkerchief boxes in the sod house full of kids, parents and not enough room. And invariably, they'd get crushed.

Oberfoell ended up leaving home at age 17. He got a job herding 400 sheep in the Badlands, north of Amidon.

"The best six months of my life," said Jim, who still goes out alone, camping in Killdeer and other areas. "I had a good horse, good dog and plenty of range." And a camp trailer that was patrolled by ants and robbed of silverware by a pack rat - a place where Jim, once again, had no way to protect his butterfly collection.

During World War II, he was in the Army, stationed in the Philippines, building roads. But during some of his free time, he and his buddies would use onion sacks to catch some day-flying butterflies. At night, as the night mechanic, he'd also catch Attacus Atlas moths, which have a wing span of about 81/2 inches. He mailed them home. Those didn't make it unscathed, either.

But when he got back to North Dakota in 1946 and bought a farm from his sister and brother-in-law, he finally was able to get the butterfly collection going for real. And had a house to keep them safe in.

He was a bachelor farmer for 11 years. When he started courting by mail a Minnesota girl, whose sister was married to his brother, he wrote her about his butterflies and even offered to send her a big box of them, Louise remembers.

"I told him not to do that," she said. She knew they meant more to him than they would to her, and she thought they might be ruined in the shipping.

When they married, part of married life became butterfly collecting together.

"Anytime he had extra time, he was out collecting butterflies," she remembers.

His other main hobby, she said: "Writing to butterfly collectors."

They had three children. That was great. But not for the butterfly and moth collection.

"Our oldest daughter … when she was a toddler, fell into a box of butterflies and ruined it," Louise said.

She remembers that Jim didn't get mad, just made the comment, "I guess I'm going to have to collect some more." And then another time, the other daughter, as a toddler, was caught eating a moth from the collection.

This husband of hers did endure some teasing from friends for spending his spare time chasing butterflies. When they were out butterfly hunting, she noticed Jim would kind of hide the net when cars would come by.

Over the years, he's learned much about butterfly behaviors, migrations, which butterfly eats which plant, how some types like to be in groups, others are solitary.

Jim said butterflies like to go out and "mudpuddle," drink together - at the local mudpuddle. They seem peaceful. He's never seen butterflies fight. A number of species like to "hilltop," spend their time at the tops of hills. Some experts have concluded the reason for that - mating. Jim's not so sure. He rarely finds females on hilltops, just males.

They look their age. At age two weeks, the end of most butterflies' lifespan, they're haggard and old-looking.

He tried to share his knowledge with school children a couple of times.

"I was a flop," he said.

Louise disagrees.

He did prepare a special exhibit for a Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation banquet, a group whose mission is improvement and acquisition of wildlife habit. And neighborhood children have stopped in to see his collection. But the 7:30 a.m. coffee gang at the gas station in Sentinel Butte rarely get on the butterfly topic. Louise said not many people share his interest in butterflies.

Cindy Neumiller, 39, who was helping her dad run their Sentinel Butte gas station recently, said she knows about Jim's collection. But what Neumiller knows more about is the kind of person her next-door neighbor is. "He'll do anything for you." He has mowed her lawn when she wasn't there, taken care of her broken garage door.

A serious butterfly catcher won't generally be caught dead running pell mell through the fields after butterflies, which can reach speeds of 10 to 15 mph. To be dignified, a fast walk, if you please. And besides, an expert knows where to go and stand in wait, based on the food sources, Jim said. Want a monarch? Stand near milkweed. Want a common yellow butterfly? Stand in an alfalfa field. Want a Queen Alexander's Sulphur? Stand near a car at an Interstate 94 rest area. That's how Jim, who at the time was employed maintaining several rest areas, found a long-coveted butterfly. It fell out of someone's radiator, still flapping and in good shape, for collection purposes.

But although the common yellows like the alfalfa field, most butterflies aren't found in farm fields. They like native prairie foods. Every plant has an insect that feeds on it.

But there isn't much prairie left.

Jim is worried. He's seeing fewer butterflies.

"Most species are decreasing," he said.

And he does think the Dakota Skipper, which was in the news recently because of its rarity, is indeed in trouble. In June, the skipper, which has a one-inch wing span and is orange-to-brown, was tabbed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Jim is careful not to collect butterflies whose numbers are down. And while it does bother him, killing these beautiful butterflies, he said his way of doing so - slipping them into a jar of ethyl acetate, an extremely quick and painless death - is much less traumatic than most anything Mother Nature has in store.

He's concerned about what will happen to his collection after he's gone. The butterfly collection takes maintenance. Someone with expertise and the room needs to be found.

"I don't know what to do," he said.

Not that Jim's ready to call it quits anytime soon. Recently, two days after cataract surgery, he was back. Out at night, camping in Killdeer, alone. Trying to catch underwing moths with a proven recipe of beer and brown sugar.

"It takes you out into the night world," he said about trying to catch night-flying moths. "They're (underwing moths) are a thing of mystery, really pretty," he said.

And he just had to get back out in it.

(Reach reporter Virginia Grantier at 250-8254 or vgrantier@ndonline.com.)

Copyright 2015 Bismarck Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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