July 4, 2013 11:00:54 AM
Who is not cheered by the sight of a butterfly? Other insects pain, impoverish, or sicken us, but butterflies are "flying flowers" or "winged jewels," or at least those are a couple of the ways eighteenth-century butterfly enthusiasts referred to them. Alfred Russel Wallace was the co-discoverer of evolution, and he appreciated butterflies as examples of descent with modification, but he also said that the use of the butterfly's colorful wings was "to add the final touches to a world-picture, calculated at once to please and refine mankind." Indeed, he found collecting one specimen so thrilling that he wrote, "On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt more like fainting than I have done when in apprehension of death. I had a headache the rest of the day." That's the sort of passion that inspired many others, and in Butterfly People: An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World (Pantheon), historian William Leach tells how Americans were afflicted with the butterfly madness during the nineteenth century. Leach is a butterfly enthusiast, and that is one reason he wrote the book. If you don't share that passion, don't worry; there are enough odd characters and backbiting here to keep things interesting, plus plenty of insights into insect science, ecology, and the mindset of American entrepreneurs of the time.
Butterfly nets, Leach points out, often used to be part of a home's hardware during the heyday of natural history. "In the earlier age, Americans chased butterflies and butterflies coaxed them on, improving their minds, altering the way they lived and what they lived for, weaving into the American cultural fabric yet another thread of democratic life." It was a way of knowing science and nature, but it was more than that. "Collecting exposed a hidden generative realm, shared by both human beings and butterflies, that imparted to many an overpowering feeling of being alive and of knowing that this is who you are and why you are." It is surprising how common such impulses were; a druggist's assistant in Georgia, for instance, wondered at the splendor of the butterflies in his collection and wrote that they were "something to live for." American collectors were carrying on a tradition brought from Europe, but they had relatively high education and income levels. Such collectors were ready to spend time and money on their passion, to meet in clubs and libraries to swap lore and specimens, and to invest in identification books. The landscape itself helped collectors; though the forests were starting to go, they were being replaced by family farms of the fields and meadows where butterflies could thrive. Leach even credits the railroads as being "avenues into nature" by which collectors could get to new regions and new specimens.
Though it would seem that almost everyone was running around with a butterfly net, Leach of course concentrates on those who made the biggest of collections, or had the biggest business in selling or trading specimens, or did scientific research or published guides to butterfly identification. One was Herman Strecker, born in Philadelphia and adept at his father's trade of carving memorial stones, at which he worked all his life. Butterflies were his passion, though, and he amassed a collection of 200,000 specimens, now held by Chicago's Field Museum. There was William Henry Edwards, who also took on his father's job, but his was an inherited coal mining operation. He had studied natural history in one of the first schools to include it in its curriculum. He was a collector, for sure, but he also emphasized that to know a butterfly species from egg to caterpillar to pupa to adult (and sometimes different forms of adult in the same species), you had to raise it yourself. He had jam jars and kegs in his home, housing pupae that would be heated by the fireplaces, and butterflies would flit from room to room. Edwards learned to draw in pursuit of the secrets of metamorphosis, and in so doing incorporated art and beauty into scientific study; Leach says that this was part of a pattern of increasing "the observer's sensitivity and responsiveness to the aesthetic character of nature." There was Harvard-trained entomologist Samuel Scudder who named the monarch butterfly, and was to publish in 1889 the three-volume, 1,500-page The Butterflies of the Eastern United States and Canada, with intricate drawings and poetic allusions. (Vladimir Nabokov, a butterfly hunter of a later generation, said the book "inaugurated a new era in lepidopterology," and named one of the species he discovered for Scudder.) There was the bilious Augustus Grote, who besides expertise in butterflies and especially moths was a self-taught composer and a historian of religions. He was the co-founder of the New York Entomological Society. And besides these main characters, there are plenty of collectors who did their bidding, as well as the illustrator Mary Peart, who was able to convey some of the beauty of their prize specimens into print.
The butterfly people may have been inspired by the highest ideals of nature and beauty with their study of these gentle creatures, but they often descended into cranky complaints about each other, even to character assassination. Even readers who aren't especially interested in butterflies will find amusing the teapot tempests which engrossed these lepidopterological giants. Some of the conflict was scientific. As was the pattern for natural history at the time, enthusiasts might have started their collections as a way of praising the complex works of God, but then wound up finding more and more evidence that species were the product of evolution. Edwards was, for instance, a staunch advocate of evolution, which he thought accounted for his observations in his butterfly-raising experiments. Scudder started out believing that every species was created immutably by God, and only after many years of argument came around to the scientific view. That isn't to say that the two agreed; they had huge arguments over taxonomy. When Scudder proposed a new scheme of classifying species, Edwards called it one that "only Alice in Wonderland would understand," and asserted it was his mission to keep everyone from its "bogs and pitfalls." There were inevitable arguments about credit for discovering species, or payments for specimens. Grote accused Strecker of stealing specimens from the Museum of Central Park, and continued the accusations for decades. He called Strecker "that entomological spider!" Grote and Edwards disagreed on much, but Edwards joined in the calumny, calling Strecker "an illiterate, uneducated man who could not possibly identify all the insects he collects. He is a maniac." The antagonists enjoyed calling each other in print fools, liars, clowns, and (unkindest cut) "a classificator without ideas." Even Edwards wondered, "What is there about our science that makes one type of men so inflammable, and another rascals and thieves?"
The arguments presented afresh here are long over, and alas, so is the degree of passion for the lovely insects. Part of the change came from changes in ecology; you can read here about collectors eager to net specimens from the woods and fields of Brooklyn or Staten Island. The railroads that had made it easier for collectors to get into the pristine landscape also degraded the habitat of the butterflies, as did the rise of the suburbs, the decline of family farms, and the boom in industrial logging. Pinned specimens became less important when researchers could easily review inexpensive and accurate color images. The butterfly people were on an aesthetic quest, valuing the ineffable beauty of their specimens, as well as a scientific quest for hard data and microscopic examinations. Beauty merged with science for them, but lepidopterology is now firmly in the scientific realm. Leach has given a thoughtful review of a way of thinking about nature that is no more, in a book with splendid reproductions of butterfly pictures out of the volumes the butterfly people produced. The book is an extended look at a tiny realm of American entomological history, but with insightful views of larger historical, scientific, and ecological issues.