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AN OBSESSION WITH BUTTERFLIES by Sharman Apt Russell

AN OBSESSION WITH BUTTERFLIES

Our Long Love Affair with a Singular Insect

By Sharman Apt Russell

Pub Date: June 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-7382-0699-7
Publisher: Perseus

Consider the butterfly, says Russell (Anatomy of a Rose, 2001, etc.), and it will expand your appreciation of the natural world just as it has, for centuries, expanded our souls.

Start with the simple truth of the butterfly’s beauty—in fact, start with color, to which all creatures have a response, from butterflies to apes (“Look, the gibbon says, I have a big blue bottom”), and then go deeper. Butterflies, indeed, are an ideal introduction to the natural world. They have the requisite slimy beginnings as bags of goo that “spit acrid vomit and emit poisonous gas,” which will appeal to one set of people, then undergo their amazing metamorphosis into radiance, which will appeal to another. There are the mayhem, trickery, and tribulations of their youth—“For a caterpillar, it never ends. There is always one more thing to worry about”—the parry and thrust of survival, when even the leaves have it out for them: “In one passion vine plant, the larger instars of the caterpillar are caught and held on small hooks. The scene is medieval.” Russell speaks clearly and enticingly about butterflies’ close friendship with ants, the adaptiveness of these beautiful insects, the flexibility of their brains, their patterns of migration, and also about the work of various lepidopterists (Henry Bates, Alfred Russell Wallace, Martha Weiss, Vladimir Nabokov). And don’t forget cultural symbolism. Russell takes the insects’ eye-popping decorative excess—all mirrors and prisms—and makes more of it, explaining coloration’s role in distraction, camouflage, and mimicry, commenting that it can serve the same role as the skull-and-crossbones on a bottle of poison. Not only do butterflies possess cultural power, but they now have political power enough to stop a highway or, just imagine, a golf course, from being built.

Highly enjoyable: a modest lepidopterous encyclopedia that piques and prods the reader into wanting to know much more. (Illustrations)