Wednesday, September 27, 2006

An Obsession With Butterflies by Sharman Apt Russell

"Butterflies add another dimension to the garden," Miriam Rothschild wrote, "for they are like dream flowers - childhood dreams - which have broken loose from their stalks and escaped into the sunshine. Air and angels. This is the way I look upon their presence, not as a professional entomologist."

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.

A bag of goo crawls on a leaf, obsessed with eating. It hangs upside down. It becomes something else. A butterfly is born, a bit of heaven, a jazzy design.
It is a gesture of beauty almost too casual.

After World War II, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross visited the barracks of a Polish concentration camp and saw hundreds of butterflies carved into the walls by Jewish inmates. "Once dead, they would be out of this hellish place," she wrote. "Not tortured anymore. Not separated from their families. Not sent to gas chambers. None of this gruesome life mattered anymore. Soon they would leave their bodies the way a butterfly leaves its cocoon . . . It is the emblem of escape from the greatest sorrow the world has ever known."

More than any other group of animals, butteflies look as if they were designed in art school.

Sharman Apt Russell's An Obsession With Butterflies is neither an identification guide nor a scientific tome, but one writer's look into the life cycles of butterflies, the world of lepidopterists, the butterflies they love, and her own obsession with these beautiful insects. Russell's writing is poetic and fluid, eminently quotable and sometimes even humorous. Butterflies and those who love them have an interesting history. The varieties of butterflies are many, their adaptation ability surprising, the differences in their mating rituals and territorial zones immense. At some stages, or instars, the larvae of butterflies can be pretty revolting.

I absolutely loved this book. Even though the author occasionally had me cringing at certain graphic descriptions - for example, at the thought of predatory wasps who lay eggs that hatch inside a caterpillar and eat it from the inside out, ugh - there were innumerable surprises and the book was quite illuminating. Russell's writing is light and fun. Read, for example, this passage about a butterfly searching for the right place to lay its eggs:

Patiently, you fly above the grasses, herbs, and shrubs, looking for the leaf shape you like best and smelling for the odor of your host plant with your antenna, with the top of your head, with parts of your wings. Over and over, you land on a broad oval leaf. You tap the leaf with your foot.

You are proud of your feet, too, which have taste organs that can zero in on sugar as quickly as a third grader.

I smiled a lot while reading this book. Occasionally, I'd stop to look up an image of one of the butterflies described. I marked so many passages with post-it notes that this diminutive book became a fat with scraps of yellow sticking out, willy-nilly. You won't learn to identify butterflies by reading An Obsession With Butterflies, but you will learn something about their life stages and the history of those who study them, as well as the sad fact that their host environments are fragile and many species are dying out.

An engrossing read, especially for those who are fascinated by butterflies.



  1. I better watch out for this one - sounds great.

  2. I really enjoyed it, Booklogged. I've always had a fascination for butterflies, but this year I've got a new camera and I've been trying to photograph as many as possible. Easier said than done! LOL I need to plant more vegetation to attract them, next year.

    I found a great website for identifying the butterflies in your region, if you're interested:


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