Butterfly People

A hundred and fifty years ago, when such things found encouragement, butterflies were referred to as “winged wanderers on clover sweet.”  More recently, an unsparing essayist called them “the bimbos of the natural world,” all vacant splendor—a little harsh, since they didn’t have any say in how they looked. That was natural selection’s doing and plenty of scientists still wonder, Why? Probably something to do with sex. What a surprise. Even the butterfly’s collective name can’t control itself: kaleidoscope, as in “a kaleidoscope of butterflies.” Perhaps you have seen a kaleidoscope of butterflies gathered around a puddle. It is an impressive sight, a gorgeous, pulsing fairy ring. William Leach tells a story in this gaily painted, comfortably owlish history of American butterfly collection’s heyday, Butterfly People, of a kaleidoscope of butterflies congregated around a puddle of spilled schnapps. They were drunk, a kaleidoscope of crapulous bimbos.

Also back 150 years, you couldn’t throw a brick—if you happened to be near a pond or woodlot, a meadow or stream or hedgerow or stone wall—and not hit an amateur or professional lepidopterist, giving chase, net in hand. They might have been wearing long dresses, but more likely long beards and the style of spectacles that would command big bucks for today’s optometrists. These were the few short decades, from the Civil War to the First World War, when Americans came to know their native butterflies, acquainting themselves with an exemplar of beauty at a time when industrial-artificial beauty was likewise being set loose on the cultural landscape. Leach suggests this weave found its greatest expression at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, with its bright lights and chemical rainbows, its bountiful displays of plants and animals, feats of engineering, railroads, color photography. It was not an altogether happy marriage, for behind the artifice were “the means to despoil, even devastate, nature”;  industry brought us color photography and affordable nature guides, but industry brought us Dam #6 on the Kanawha River as well, and so disappeared the Baltimore checkerspot and its riverine habitat.

Mostly, this is a story about collectors, and like all serious collectors, they are a company of oddballs, moonstruck by hairstreaks and question marks, skippers and fritillaries, elfins, satyrs, and the blues, liable to break out into some Shakespeare—“How would, I say, mine eyes been blessed made / By looking on thee in the living day.” —after having netted a wood nymph.. There is much gratifying beard-pulling and name-calling: Theodore Mead wrote to a friend that William Henry Edwards was “‘a charlatan,’ and a ‘Coalburgh Ass’,” while Augustus Grote noted that Herman Strecker was “that entomological spider!”  Fighting words. These vest-pocket biographies have concision yet shoulder room enough to get to know the characters. They are a cast of tough Romantics: “He stared collecting when he was five. His father tried to beat it out of him with a strap, but he stood his ground,” then he (that is Strecker, one of the great lepidopterists) went on to suffer all the mortifications of fieldwork and professional innuendo. Leach profiles a dozen more—including Will Doherty, Henry Edwards, William Henry Edwards, Grote, Samuel Scudder, and the peerless illustrator Mary Peart—giving the evolution of American lepidopterology full exposure.

But Leach has a rangy curiosity. He pokes with a progressive’s bend into the role of class in collecting, how the age of imperialism influenced the age of collecting, and how a sixty-four-mile road from Irrawaddy to the Burmese ruby mines made for the pillage of two quite different bijouterie. Leach also has a way with the butterfly’s beauty. Its flashing iridescence is no simple matter, but a work of smoke and mirrors; not pigment, but prisms. It is a trick of light—here now, but not if you change your angle of approach—capturing beauty’s heavenly complexity, and the way it touches on human longing, on—as Aristotle thought when he called butterflies psyche—our soul.