A prizewinning British wildlife writer reveals the special place of butterflies in our imagination and cultural life.
Marren (Bugs Britannica, 2010, etc.), an “authority on invertebrate folklore and names,” begins with his own childhood obsession with butterflies, sharing the moment when, at age 5, he saw the “rainbow dust” left on his fingers by a painted lady’s wing. As he makes clear, those innocent days of butterfly hunting and collecting are long gone, given way to efforts to conserve these creatures in a deteriorating environment. Marren has a firm grasp of history and biology, filling his narrative with vivid accounts of interesting events and encounters with writers, illustrators, hobbyists, and scientists. With an easy style, the author considers butterflies in art and literature—from ancient manuscripts to Vladimir Nabokov and John Fowles—and even advertising. Butterflies sell, with their images on products suggesting such positive ideas as freedom, beauty, joy, and purity. This is not a field guide or a natural history but rather a celebration of butterflies with a note of sadness over the decline of these creatures. Marren notes that the joy that butterflies brought to previous generations is now tinged with apprehension over their future. Each chapter opens with a drawing of a butterfly; unfortunately, all are in black and white. Although this is not meant to be a field guide, it does have reference value: an appendix provides thumbnail sketches of British butterflies from the most common to the rarest. Unfortunately, these lists point up one of the book’s weaknesses, at least from the point of view of American readers: its focus on British butterflies.
An erudite, engaging book that will find the broadest readership among nature lovers on the other side of the Atlantic.