Sunday, August 4, 2019

Butterfly People

by Drew Martin
I thought it was about time to revisit this blog. In a quickening world of Insta posts, it is important to take a step back for a bit more thoughtful review after a good read.

I just finished reading Butterfly People by Columbia University professor of History, William Leach. It is a fascinating read of a bygone era, when people traveled the world to collect butterflies and moths. But it is so much more than that because it happened in the mid to late 19th Century, when industrialization and the progress of railroads brought city people closer to a kind of nature they never experienced before but which also led to its destruction.

It took me a while to get engaged with the personalities behind this phenomenon, but I really liked the bigger picture ideas Leach expressed up front, and periodically throughout. Perhaps I read too far into this thought, but it sounded like he was suggesting that Americans, who may have been reluctant to Darwin's newly proposed theory of evolution (and some still are), actually embraced it as a tool to help explain the thousands of species of butterflies brought to their attention by the collectors, especially because the study of butterflies, Lepidopterology (or as one correspondent wrote - Butterflyology) detailed everything from wing veins (wing venation) to the comparative anatomy of their genitalia. Not to mention the magical transformation of the sluggish leaf-chomping worm into a beautifully-colored fluttering insect with only a feeding tube instead of a mouth. Especially mind-boggling is the fact that the butterfly remembers its former self and lays its eggs on the very same type of leaf it previously dined as a caterpillar.

I really liked how Leach explained the parallel rise of fascination with the natural world in this part of American history along with the aesthetics of the new industrial world.

"From the 1850s on, a human-made spectrum of color appeared not only in exhibits of world's fairs but in the latest fashions worn by visitors to the fairs, as well as in machine-made goods transformed by industrial design, dead things endowed with the appeal of living forms. Whether Americans were able to reconcile these to worlds of color for themselves, or whether they even cared or thought about it, is difficult (if not impossible) to establish. Did they prefer the unexpected and perishable tints and shades of living things to the "permanent" and "fast" palette of machine-produced things, the blue in a butterfly wing to the same blue in a magazine ad? did they perceive artifactual red as more "beautiful" than organic red? Or did they view them as of equal value, together forming a whole no one had ever before experienced?"

And there is much talk of aesthetics, not only of the butterflies (and moths) but also how to record them, especially when photographic processes began to challenge the beautifully observed drawings by artists such as Mary Peart (above). I love the discussion in which Leach engages this topic.

"William Holland's photos may have attracted a new legion of amateurs, but in time, and in the manner of all such photos, they would also promote distance from butterflies and from the natural world generally by "suppressing" the handwork or the illustrating skills of individual naturalists. In contrast, by depending on their own artistic craft, both Mary Peart and Herman Strecker engaged butterflies more intimately and closely than if they had photographed them, relying on machinery devised by others. 'The correlation of nature-study and drawing is so natural and inevitable,' Anna Comstock argued in her popular Handbook of Nature Study, 'that it needs never be revealed to the pupil. When the child is interested in studying any object, he enjoys illustrating his observations with drawings; the happy absorption of children thus engaged is a delight to witness.' By enlisting the child's own ability, sketching or painting led to a level of seeing and immersion greater than any reached by those who lacked the skill or discipline to draw or paint."

While this book is primarily a reflection of all the ups and downs of obsessive collecting, the conclusive, sour note is that the interest sparked by the butterfly enthusiasts led to economic entomology, which "turned natural history into a killing machine, wrenching it away from its ecological and aesthetic-oriented roots" with "schemes to slaughter insects wholesale..."

"The growth of economic entomology and of laboratory science, and the increasing preoccupation with mere taxonomy, broke the connection between beauty and science that natural history had tied together. the result was to leave science to the professionals, and the beauty of nature to the amateurs - and to the commercial market, the bauble stores, and the spectacle theater."