Because of their almost magical life cycle from “lowly” caterpillar to inert chrysalis to stunningly beautiful adult, butterflies have long been a symbol of transformation. But as New York Times bestselling author Wendy Williams details in her new book, “The Language of Butterflies,” these ephemeral, winged creatures are much more than that. In telling the story, Williams touches on so many different areas, including fossil hunting, why we experience jet-lag, the contributions of women and even children to the advancement of science, how the human eye sees, our addiction to color, and so much more. Woven through all of that, of course, is the story of how butterflies actually work.
Butterflies are delicate creatures, so only tantalizing bits of them are found in the fossil record, typically just fragments of wings and scales preserved in amber. That is, except for a single, 34-million-year-old, nearly-perfect fossil that is so detailed, it’s possible to see the scales and veins under a microscope. (Do a search for “prodyas persephone” and see for yourself. The images are stunning.) The realization that one tiny butterfly out of many was so beautifully preserved is amazing by itself. The fact that someone found it is nearly incredible.
The honor of discovering this one, near-perfect specimen goes to Charlotte Coplen Hill, a housewife and mother who collected the fossil in 1878 in the Florissant valley in Colorado, an area that has yielded “nearly one-third of the world’s described fossil butterflies.”
Hill’s story alone is a fascinating read, but Williams also tells the story of Maria Sibylla Merian, a 13-year-old German girl who, in 1660, fell in love with caterpillars. Today, that wouldn’t sound newsworthy, but the 1600s were a far different time and little was understood about how things in nature work. Says Williams, “Charles Darwin,” she says, “was certainly not the only person to conceive of the importance of partnerships among our planet’s plant and animal species. Indeed, that concept — now called ecology — was first discovered not by Darwin, or by any other famous Victorian man, but by a seventeenth-century teenage girl.”
Williams goes on to describe an age when people, even educated ones, believed in spontaneous generation, the idea that creatures could be generated from something totally unrelated. People also believed in the “scala natura,” the “ladder of nature,” in which living things were classified from lowest to highest. Insects ranked “quite low” on the ladder, but butterflies were highly revered: they were beautiful and seemed to appear spontaneously. Except for silkworms, the connection between caterpillars and butterflies had not been made.
Merian, as we would say today, “blew the doors off” these misperceptions. The daughter of an artist/printer, Merian worked in her father’s shop, creating illustrations for flower catalogues. Combining her keen observations with her artistic skills, she made meticulous drawings and paintings of what she saw. “Merian’s renderings of caterpillars were unsurpassed,” Williams notes. Finally, at thirty-two, Merian decided to publish her work. People were enthralled, and “the 1679 book was a smash hit. Readers clamored for copies.”
The story of the iridescent blue morpho butterfly, perhaps the most beautiful butterfly on the planet, is so intricate that it would be impossible to encapsulate it, even if I devoted this entire column to it. All that I can do is encourage you to read this book if only just for that section (found in Chapter 4). It is so fascinating! And not just for the incredible mechanics of the structure of the scales on a butterfly’s wings, but for also showing some of the ways in which humans are inextricably linked to the rest of the natural world.
My recommendation is to put this book under the tree for some of the people you love, and make sure to read it yourself. I guarantee that you won’t look at butterflies, or the world, in quite the same way again. (The Language of Butterflies, Simon & Schuster, Hardcover, $17.95)
Pam Baxter is an avid organic vegetable gardener who lives in Kimberton. Direct e-mail to email@example.com, or send mail to P.O. Box 80, Kimberton, PA 19442. Share your gardening stories on Facebook at “Chester County Roots.” Pam’s book for children and families, Big Life Lessons from Nature’s Little Secrets, is available on Amazon, along with her companion field journal, Explore Outdoors, at Amazon.com/author/pamelabaxter.