Today, an entomologist in a laboratory can gaze at a butterfly pupa with a microscope so powerful that the swirling cells on the pupa’s skin look like a galaxy. She can activate a single gene or knock it out. What she can’t do is discover how the insect behaves in its natural habitat—which means she doesn’t know what steps to take to preserve it from extinction, nor how any particular gene may interact with the environment. Four hundred years ago, a fifty-year-old Dutch woman set sail on a solo scientific ...
Today, an entomologist in a laboratory can gaze at a butterfly pupa with a microscope so powerful that the swirling cells on the pupa’s skin look like a galaxy. She can activate a single gene or knock it out. What she can’t do is discover how the insect behaves in its natural habitat—which means she doesn’t know what steps to take to preserve it from extinction, nor how any particular gene may interact with the environment. Four hundred years ago, a fifty-year-old Dutch woman set sail on a solo scientific expedition to study insect metamorphosis. She could not have imagined the routine magic that scientists perform today—but her absolute insistence on studying insects in their natural habitats was so far ahead of its time that it is only now coming back into favor. Chrysalis restores Maria Sibylla Merian to her rightful place in the history of science, taking us from golden-age Amsterdam to the Surinam tropics to modern laboratories where Merian’s insights fuel new approaches to both ecology and genetics.
In this spellbinding biography, Todd interweaves the life of Maria Sibylla Merian, a German artist and naturalist who became famous in the seventeenth century for her engravings of caterpillars, with the intellectual and scientific history of metamorphosis. At a time when theories of spontaneous generation were popular, and when most naturalists contented themselves with specimens pinned behind glass, Merian believed “in what could not be encased—the moment-by-moment shifts.” Her work led her to Amsterdam, where curiosities arriving on trading ships prompted her, at the age of fifty-two, to sell her belongings for passage to Surinam. The engravings of the bugs she saw there brought the strange, delicate environment of the Americas to vibrant life, and revealed the complexities of insect mutation and regeneration. Todd points out the difficulties—competing theories and superstitions, exceptions for every rule—faced by natural scientists in Merian’s day, and hears their echo in modern-day entomology.
Metamorphosis has long fascinated humankind, but few people more than Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), who spent her life illustrating this mysterious process in insects. Merian grew up in Germany, married, had two daughters, left her husband to join a Labadist (pietist) community in West Friesland, moved to Amsterdam and, at age 52, traveled to Surinam to search for insects. Beyond that, little is known about this remarkable woman except for a few letters and her beautiful engravings and watercolors, most of them published in her books on insect metamorphosis. Todd (Tinkering with Eden) fleshes out her biography with colorful descriptions of Merian's world and the people she knew, emphasizing that she was as exceptional in her art as in her life. Unlike other naturalists at the time, she depicted insects together with their host plants, an innovation that influenced many later 18th-century students of insect life. Merian fell out of favor in the 19th century, but today, when scientists have come to appreciate the importance of environment to insect development, her star is rising again. Todd's vivid account should do much to further the renewed interest in this unusual woman and her pioneering approach to insect illustration. 8-page color insert not seen by PW. (Jan.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Women's contributions to science have historically been overlooked or discredited, and we are left with the impression that women played no role in the field's advancement. Such was the case for the gifted naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717), whose watercolors and text documented the (still-mysterious) process of metamorphosis at the turn of the 17th century. Though her work was valued at the time, it was discredited in the 1800s. Drawing on Merian's work and personal documents, Todd (Tinkering with Eden) sheds new light on the history and contributions of this absolutely amazing woman. Not only did her interest in science fall outside normal gender roles but Merian also traveled at the age of 50 as far as Surinam from Europe to study her beloved caterpillars. Admittedly filling in some blanks where no documentation exists, Todd explains that all we really need to know about the woman can be seen through the passion of her work. Todd's writing itself is lush, almost poetic, whether she is describing the science of metamorphosis or Merian's own personal metamorphoses throughout her life. Highly recommended for all public and research libraries.
—Marianne Stowell Bracke
An extraordinary portrait of an artist and amateur naturalist who explored the teeming life of the Amazon and helped lay the groundwork for our present-day understanding of ecology. Daughter of a prominent Frankfurt publisher of illustrated books, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) mastered the art of drawing and engraving while studying the metamorphosis of silkworms. She went on to paint the larvae of butterflies and moths and to raise important questions about the role of intermediate life forms. With a detective's eye, PEN/Jerard Fund Award-winner Todd (Tinkering with Eden, 2001) has pieced together the life of this neglected genius who charted the micro-world of insects. While male contemporaries considered a species in isolation, Merian looked at its relationship to the environment, its sensitivity to change and its long-term survival strategies. Todd gives equal time to Merian's own metamorphosis. The artist abandoned her husband and took up residence in an austere Pietist community in the Netherlands. She sold her paintings to support her mother and her daughters. She befriended naturalists, scientists and collectors in Amsterdam during its Golden Age, produced a popular book on caterpillars and at age 52 set off for the Amazon to document new species and collect snakes, iguanas and geckos for resale back home. Merian sold everything to finance her journey, braving tarantulas and yellow fever to produce a landmark work. After her death, Peter the Great purchased her paintings and field notes, which later languished in vaults until long after the Russian revolution. European publishers pirated her prints and displayed them out of order, misrepresenting her main ideas. Todd's longoverdue re-examination of Merian's work shows the extent of her scientific contributions and reminds us how much of our early understanding of biology depended on the keen eye of the amateur. This bold, wide-ranging text also considers the theological view of metamorphosis, the controversy over spontaneous generation, Merian's connection to other accomplished women of her day, her opposition to slavery in Surinam and her reliance on Amerindians to bring her specimens. A breathtaking example of scholarship and storytelling, enriched by ample illustrations of Merian's work.
From the Publisher
PRAISE FOR TINKERING WITH EDEN
"You really can't fool Mother Nature, as Kim Todd vividly shows in her fascinating, cautionary first book."—The New York Times Book Review
"Todd uncovers a Greek tragedy of human heedlessness . . . [A] beautifully written natural history."—Outside
KIM TODD's previous book, Tinkering with Eden, received the PEN/Jerard Fund Award and the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award, among others. She has an MFA in creative writing and an MS in environmental studies from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula, Montana.
The Most Noble of All the Worms
How many creatures walking on this earth
Have their first being in another form?
Frankfurt am Main, 1647– 1665
A nother pupa, another time. Cocoon walls, thick with silk, wrapped their contents tight. Inside, the organs altered. The mouth disappeared. The white body darkened, turned dusky gold. Pressed between the wings, the antennae waited to sense the morning.
At a table near dawn, the girl watched and gripped her paintbrush. She’d woken early enough this day to catch the adult moth dissolving the silk strands and pushing them aside. Other times she got up too late or waited and waited, grown cramped from sitting still. How to capture the thin threads swathing the oval, the precise folds of the pupa? Once out, the moth changed so fast, shifting from second to second as it dried. It was hard to move her wrist quickly enough to make the black lines of scrabbling legs.
This pale silkworm, its dowdy moth, drew her in. At thirteen, she may have felt her own innards alter, traced a finger over a face now unfamiliar in the mirror. It’s the time when the young most anticipate a spectacular transformation, hoping for a future saturated with color, shimmering with iridescence. But she had chosen to focus not on some gaudy butterfly, but this dowdy little insect. Those strands, so thin, so strong, that wrapped the cocoon, tied the worm to stockings, and skirts and hair ribbons, bound it to daily life. It was a practical choice, though no one could call this activity practical. She labeled the silkworm “the most useful and noble of all worms and caterpillars.”
Between chores, she cared for her subjects. In the chill of early spring when the mulberry leaves were not yet in bloom, she raised the caterpillars on lettuce. She built them cone-shaped paper houses where they could spin their cocoons, covering the insects if a storm threatened. Thunder made them ill. So many things could go wrong: a room too cold, leaves wet and rotten, eggs that collapsed and failed to hatch, a clumsy finger brushing scales off the wings.
But eventually she captured the whole process, egg to adult. It was an odd picture, not like any her stepfather showed her—full still-life paintings where a moth might echo a color used on a flower petal, or more humble engravings where beetles and butterflies of many species crowded together. Just the simple insect, alone with all its stages. The wings, crumpled like paper, not fully dry. The adult tipped forward, as if still finding its legs. A tiny caterpillar, no longer than a thumbnail, inching across the page. A larger version, fat on mulberry leaves, made of bleached white segments, large as teeth. The pupa lay curved and motionless, wrapped like a mummy in its hard casing, covering the knots of nerve as they came undone to reform in another shape.
As she rinsed her hands and rubbed her brush to clean it, she probably couldn’t say what pulled her to gather all these parts and paint them together, condensing and stopping time for a moment. More likely her thoughts jumped to the unknown striped caterpillar she glimpsed along the riverbank, whether she could find another, how to raise it, when she could do it again.
ONE: The Most Noble of All the Worms •
TWO: Godly Miracles in a Little Book •
THREE: That Which Is Found in the Fens and Heath •
FOUR: Le Grande Monde •
FIVE: An Awesome and Expensive Trip •
SIX: Far Out into the Wilderness •
SEVEN: The First and Strangest Work That Had Ever Been Painted in America •
EIGHT: The Modern World Is Very Sensitive •
NINE: Because of Its Color So Special •