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An Obsession with Butterflies—and This Book

Simmons B. Buntin reviews An Obsession with Butterflies: Our Long Love Affair with a Singular Insect by Sharman Apt Russell

An Obsession with Butterflies, by Sharman Apt Russell.Sometimes the best ‘field guide’ for an animal or habitat isn’t an Audubon or Peterson or Golden guide—though these are all fine interpretive publications. Sometimes, rather, it’s the narrative essay of a place, or a story of an explorer, or a natural history by a local resident. Such is the case with An Obsession with Butterflies: Our Long Love Affair with a Singular Insect by Sharman Apt Russell (Perseus Publishing, 2003).

While the mass-market field guides provide plates and plates of butterflies, organized by color and group, they don’t leave much to the imagination—either theirs or ours. Russell, however, does that and much more, blending scientific facts with eloquent and sometimes eloquently quirky stories and superb writing, as in chapter seven, “Love Stories:”

When he finds her, he will flutter, and she will flutter, and sweet pheromones will scent the air. Even a human passing at the right moment might pause and sniff, and sniff again. Honeysuckle? Lavender? Jasmine? The pheromones of butterflies have long co-evolved with the sexy scent of flowers promising food and drink (the flowers desiring sex, too) and we have long since taken these scents for ourselves, for our perfumes and our colognes, for our own longing.

Obsession is more than a collection of essays, and yet each of the fifteen chapters safely stands on its own. After an oft-referable “A Note on Names,” the book begins with “Obsession with Butterflies,” an overview of how humans have been obsessed with butterflies, which begins with a thesis: “Adding butterflies to your life is like adding another dimension.” By the end of the chapter, after the review and examples, we can only conclude, as Russell has, that:

There comes a moment in your life when you must look at what you love and think: Yes, I was right.

People who love butterflies have it easy.

Russell does a remarkable job, as ‘natural history’ writers like David Quammen have before, of weaving historical facts and persona, scientific research, and the personality of the subject (be it mineral, vegetable, or animal) without falling into the trappings of anthropomorphism or sentimentality. So it is in the third chapter, “You Need a Friend,” in which Russell presents the (usually) symbiotic relationships of some caterpillars with ants and other organisms, including humans like entomologist Philip DeVries and British novelist Sir Compton McKenzie.

At the same time we learn about metamorphosis—in the fourth chapter—we also learn about Vladimir Nabokov, who Russell notes may be the most famous lepidopterist of the twentieth century not so much for what he wrote or said about butterflies, but how. In a Cornell University lecture in the 1950s, for example:

Nabokov described the condition of the prepupal caterpillar, hanging upside down for hours at a time before it makes the final bid for pupation. At last, there is a wiggle, a working of the ‘shoulders and hips.’

As entertaining as the stories of butterfly collectors, scientists, and conservationists are, most of the book is appropriately dedicated to butterflies (and in one case moths, too) themselves. Chapters like “Tough Love” (two), “Butterfly Brains” (five), “Butterfly Matisse” (six), the previously mentioned “Love Stories” (seven), “The Single Mom” (eight) “On the Move” (nine), and “Not a Butterfly” (twelve) are when Russell’s writing is at its finest, as in the opening paragraphs of “Tough Love:”

A female butterfly lays an egg that looks like a miniature pearl, or a squashed golf ball, or a whiskey barrel. She might lay one egg or a clutch of many.

The danger begins at once. Viral, bacterial, and fungal infections can attack the egg. Tiny parasitic wasps or flies burrow into its tissue and lay their own eggs; when these young hatch, they feed on the embryonic caterpillar. In the adult female Owl butterfly, parasitic wasps ride on the mother’s hindwing and jump off like pirates as she deposits her treasure. An assassin bug passes by and eats the clutch for breakfast. A deer eats the leaf on which the eggs are laid. The possibility for disaster is high; the chances for survival are not.

In chapters such as “In the Land of Butterflies” (ten), Russell turns to the historical characters of butterfly collecting-and-protecting lore, like Henry Walter Bates, Alfred Russel Wallace, Walter Rothschild, and Lady Eleanor Glanville. She also explores places like the British Museum of Natural History in London, and—in perhaps the most powerful essay of the group—El Segundo, California.

In chapter thirteen’s “Timeline,” Russell introduces us to Arthur Bonner, a former gang member, drug dealer, and auto thief who, after being released from prison in 1993 (for shooting a security guard), decided to turn his life around and joined the Los Angeles Conservation Corp. The tale Russell tells of Bonner, zoologist Rudi Mattoni, and their work in protecting the El Segundo Blue is as brilliant and finely crafted in the mode of Aldo Leopold’s “February: Good Oak,” from the hallmark A Sand County Almanac.

Obsession concludes with the business-like “The Business of Butterflies” (fourteen) and the final chapter, “Air and Angels,” a full return to the near mysticism of chapter one with a short essay that simply asks: “Why do we love butterflies?” The answers are literal and symbolic and—well, you’ll just have to read the book yourself. We’ve given enough of it away already….

When you opt for An Obsession with Butterflies, be sure to get the hardcover edition—a 7.6-inch by 5-inch classically bound book with a lovely, expedition-inspired jacket and black-and-white illustrations by Jennifer Clark. It’s a little treasure that fits well into waiting hands; and though too big for the back pocket of your pants, it just might fit into the breast pocket of your coat or vest. Once there, it will make the journey often from pocket to palm, finally settling among your most cherished books on the hardwood shelf.


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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An Obsession with Butterflies: Our Long Love Affair with a Singular Insect

by Sharman Apt Russell

   Perseus Publishing
   May 2003
   ISBN 0738206997


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