Butterfly People: An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World

  • William Leach
  • Pantheon Books
  • 416 pp.
  • Reviewed by Julie Dunlap
  • April 9, 2013

An engaging profile of the pioneering 19th-century naturalists who studied butterflies.

In a Malaysian rainforest in 1857, Alfred Russell Wallace glimpsed an unnamed, golden-orange birdwing butterfly and swooped it into his net. With heart hammering and blood rushing to his head, the explorer nearly fainted. “The beauty and brilliance of the insect are indescribable,” Wallace recalled, “and none but a naturalist can understand the intense excitement I experienced.”

Heart palpitations and similar vapors often afflicted the 19th-century naturalists profiled in a masterful and beguiling book, Butterfly People: An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World. Author William Leach, an eminent historian at Columbia University, may be best known for tracing the rise of American consumerism in Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. But Leach too was captivated by butterflies at age nine, when his father crafted a net from a coat hanger and cheesecloth, and nudged him outdoors.

A subsequent half-century obsession has resulted in Butterfly People, a literary cabinet of wonders packed with scientific discoveries, historic artifacts, and artistic revelations to delight scholarly and casual readers alike. No mere flight of fancy, the book is an original consideration of American science, economics and aesthetics set in a time of profound cultural change. Leach commences his story around 1830, when boys roamed the woods and fields of Brooklyn with nets in hand. But they could only approximate the identity of their captives with a German Lepidoptera text as no guide to natives yet existed. Three decades later, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species would rock American perceptions of nature. But as Leach reveals, it also provoked entomological research in the U.S. that would shape the theory of evolution. Butterfly People also shows that as the century closed, industrialization was eroding connections to local wildness even as American imperialism opened access to natural bounty around the globe. 

Keeping public views of nature as context, Leach focuses on the research, writings and expeditions of a half-dozen pioneer butterfly scientists, collectors and artists. Foremost among them was William Henry Edwards, who exemplifies for the author a typical American mix of utilitarianism and Romantic idealism. Edwards extracted a fortune from coal mines and expended it chasing butterflies in the same West Virginia hills. After a journey down the Amazon, his brilliant mind turned to the puzzle of butterfly systematics.

While contemporaries bent over pinned specimens, inhaling alcohol fumes and inspecting antennae and genitalia, Edwards examined the living organism — from egg to adult, often afield, to determine its classification. An international network of correspondents including Darwin and Wallace furnished him caterpillars, which the innovative Edwards learned to raise and breed. He had also learned to draw, a craft that trained his keen eyes to look more closely still. That the secrets of metamorphosis then unfolded before Edwards is no mere chance to Leach; he argues that the intimate act of drawing blurred the border between science and art in the 1800s, enhancing “the observer’s sensitivity and responsiveness to the aesthetic character of nature.”

Edwards adapted smoothly to Darwinian thinking, a dynamic view that nature, as Leach puts it, works “from within to create a new abundance of variable shapes, patterns, colors, and sizes.” Temperature experiments with swallowtails, for example, convinced Edwards that species appearance and distribution could be shaped by climate. It took years longer for his contemporary Samuel Scudder to accept evolution.

A Harvard-trained entomologist, Scudder’s zeal for insects was matched only by his devotion to God. As they worked on competing book projects, Edwards and Scudder clashed over taxonomy, with Edwards preferring a fluid conception of genera and Scudder striving through anatomical investigations to distinguish the immutable groupings presented at Creation. But evidence kept accumulating. Notably Edwards and others observed how predators disproportionately prey on some color forms and avoid others, exerting pressure on a species to adapt just as Darwin contended. By the late 1880s, Scudder had joined his peers in recognizing evolution through natural selection. Says Leach, “For the fully converted modern evolutionary biologist, beauty in nature lacked interest except as adaptation to change.”

Yet the scientists’ publications, lavishly illustrated with handcrafted color plates, belie their enduring appreciation for aesthetics. Edwards’ three-volume The Butterflies of North America and subsequent guidebooks in the 1880s kindled fresh interest in the most alluring of insects. A new breed of collector, a paid adventurer in pursuit of winged commodities, forayed into the wilderness. Their clients bought for innumerable reasons: curiosity, vanity, solace, even social status. For some, the hobby became a mania. Herman Strecker, a stonecutter, insect dealer and one of Leach’s most eccentric characters, accumulated more than 200,000 butterflies and moths. Perhaps only another fanatic could understand Strecker’s ardor; one of his customers wrote back that the iridescent Morpho cypris just arrived in the mail gave him “something to live for.”

Of all the butterfly people, one who seems to resonate best with Leach was Anna Botsford Comstock. Beginning as an engraver of illustrations for her husband’s entomological work, she became a leader in the early-20th-century nature-study movement. Comstock, like Leach, valued collecting, observing and, especially, drawing as means to connect humans with other life forms. “Nature-study,” she wrote in 1905, “is the effort to make the individual use his senses instead of losing them.” If a student will only keep “eyes open, ears open, and heart open,” Comstock insisted, nature will reveal “the marvels of life, the riches of the world, and the beauty of the universe.”

William Leach, too, sees natural history as a clear lens focused on universal beauty. His book, as scintillating as a Morpho wing, will likely send readers out on more than one sunny afternoon, sketchbook in hand, to seek butterfly encounters of their own.

Julie Dunlap is the author or co-author of award-winning children’s books, including John Muir and Stickeen: An Icy Adventure with a No-Good Dog (NorthWord, 2004), and co-editor of Companions in Wonder: Children and Adults Exploring Nature Together (MIT Press, 2012). 

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