An Obsession with Butterflies: Our Long Love Affair with a Singular Insect


Butterflies have always served as a metaphor for resurrection and transformation, but as Sharman Apt Russell points out in this lyrical meditation, butterflies are above all objects of obsession. She reveals the logic behind our endless fascination with butterflies and introduces us to the legendary collectors and dedicated scientists who have obsessively catalogued new species of Lepidoptera. A luminous journey through an exotic world of passion and strange beauty, this is a book to be treasured by anyone who ...
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An Obsession With Butterflies: Our Long Love Affair With A Singular Insect

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Butterflies have always served as a metaphor for resurrection and transformation, but as Sharman Apt Russell points out in this lyrical meditation, butterflies are above all objects of obsession. She reveals the logic behind our endless fascination with butterflies and introduces us to the legendary collectors and dedicated scientists who have obsessively catalogued new species of Lepidoptera. A luminous journey through an exotic world of passion and strange beauty, this is a book to be treasured by anyone who has ever experienced the enchantment of butterflies.
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Editorial Reviews

Curled Up with a Good Book
Elegant, beautifully written...At last, butterflies have a work that is worthy of their beauty and grace.
The Los Angeles Times
As is true of Sharman Apt Russell's Anatomy of a Rose, her latest book, An Obsession With Butterflies, is a rumination on beauty, passionately observed. — Carmela Ciuraru
This collection of essays provides lyrical accounts of Lepidoptera's own obsessions-eating, mating, and migrating.
Wall Street Journal
Evocative...Offers a short but engrossing tour of [butterflies'] fascinating world. Readers be warned: The obsession is contagious.
Burlington Free Press
This enchanting little book is an extraordinary mating of exciting, sure-footed science and inspired prose poetry.
Publishers Weekly
As she did in Anatomy of a Rose, Russell focuses on the natural world here, now concentrating on insects that have long fascinated humans with their beauty, grace and magical ability to transform themselves from lowly caterpillars. According to the author, there are about 18,000 species of known butterflies, varying in color, mating behavior and migratory patterns. Russell merges wit, knowledge and poetic language in this engaging scientific rumination, recounting the stories of several obsessed collectors, including Eleanor Granville, who, in the early 1700s, was declared insane because of her hobby. Vladimir Nabokov is known to entomologists as the man who not only discovered several butterfly species, but reclassified North and South American blues. Russell provides many interesting anecdotes about butterfly mating practices and explains the difference between moths and butterflies. The monarch, for example, drops on the female and forces her to the ground, while a male queen butterfly more sensitively attracts his mate by the scent of the alkaloids he has ingested for this purpose. Some species, like male Apollos, are able to glue a sphragis, or shell, over the female's abdomen that functions as a chastity belt to prevent her from remating and losing the original male's sperm. Russell has produced a well researched and beautifully written natural history of these colorful insects. (June) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Butterflies have always titillated the imagination of writers and poets and scientists. Russell has written a book that has captured both the poetry and science of butterflies in her distinct writing style, which often resembles a lyrical sound bite. She sometimes anthropomorphizes so that the reader becomes a butterfly, and at other times looks at butterflies through the eyes of a 19th-century collector or a 21st-century scientist. The text is accompanied by b/w drawings that are bit muddy compared to her colorful prose; but in any case, she conveys the feeling that a butterfly has lit on the leaves of this book even as she was writing it. KLIATT Codes: JSA—Recommended for junior and senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Perseus, 238p. illus. bibliog. index., Ages 12 to adult.
—Nola Theiss
Library Journal
Flashes of yellow and dazzles of metallic blue, butterflies are the most conspicuous of all insects. They are harmless and easy to approach, and their lives are in plain view at every stage: egg, caterpillar, pupa, and adult. This engaging book is more than a popular introduction to the astonishing world of these fragile and exquisite creatures. In 15 short chapters, the author (writing, Western New Mexico Univ. and Antioch Univ.; Anatomy of a Rose) provides an overview of the complex strategies, compromises, and trade-offs integral to the lives of butterflies while incorporating the lives of the people who study them. In clear (but not simplistic) and often poetic prose, she brings to life such potentially dull subjects as life cycles, form and function, behavior, and defenses. Though the author consulted with professionals to ensure accuracy, there are two errors, long perpetuated in the literature: that birds see ultraviolet light (they cannot) and that peacocks display their tails (it's rump feathers; the tail is short). Still, this is excellent for interested lay readers and beginning students of entomology. With an extensive bibliography.-Annette Aiello, Smithsonian Tropical Research Inst., Ancon, Panama Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Consider the butterfly, says Russell (Anatomy of a Rose, 2001, etc.), and it will expand your appreciation of the natural world just as it has, for centuries, expanded our souls. Start with the simple truth of the butterfly’s beauty—in fact, start with color, to which all creatures have a response, from butterflies to apes ("Look, the gibbon says, I have a big blue bottom"), and then go deeper. Butterflies, indeed, are an ideal introduction to the natural world. They have the requisite slimy beginnings as bags of goo that "spit acrid vomit and emit poisonous gas," which will appeal to one set of people, then undergo their amazing metamorphosis into radiance, which will appeal to another. There are the mayhem, trickery, and tribulations of their youth—"For a caterpillar, it never ends. There is always one more thing to worry about"—the parry and thrust of survival, when even the leaves have it out for them: "In one passion vine plant, the larger instars of the caterpillar are caught and held on small hooks. The scene is medieval." Russell speaks clearly and enticingly about butterflies’ close friendship with ants, the adaptiveness of these beautiful insects, the flexibility of their brains, their patterns of migration, and also about the work of various lepidopterists (Henry Bates, Alfred Russell Wallace, Martha Weiss, Vladimir Nabokov). And don’t forget cultural symbolism. Russell takes the insects’ eye-popping decorative excess—all mirrors and prisms—and makes more of it, explaining coloration’s role in distraction, camouflage, and mimicry, commenting that it can serve the same role as the skull-and-crossbones on a bottle of poison. Not only do butterfliespossess cultural power, but they now have political power enough to stop a highway or, just imagine, a golf course, from being built. Highly enjoyable: a modest lepidopterous encyclopedia that piques and prods the reader into wanting to know much more. (Illustrations)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465071609
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 4/26/2004
  • Pages: 238
  • Sales rank: 997,129
  • Product dimensions: 4.06 (w) x 7.94 (h) x 0.54 (d)

Meet the Author

Sharman Apt Russell is the author of several books, including Hunger and Songs of the Fluteplayer, which won the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award. She has written for publications including Discover and Nature Conservancy, and currently contributes to OnEarth, the magazine for the National Resource Defense Council. Russell teaches creative writing at Western New Mexico University and at Antioch University in Los Angeles, California. She lives in Silver City, New Mexico.
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Table of Contents

A Note on Names
1 Obsession with Butterflies 1
2 Tough Love 17
3 You Need a Friend 31
4 Metamorphosis 41
5 Butterfly Brains 55
6 Butterfly Matisse 67
7 Love Stories 79
8 The Single Mom 95
9 On the Move 103
10 In the Land of Butterflies 119
11 The Natural History Musuem 137
12 Not a Butterfly 157
13 Timeline 167
14 The Business of Butterflies 181
15 Air and Angels 203
Selected Bibliography and Notes 209
Index 229
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