July 2003

David Harris

nonfiction

An Obsession with Butterflies by Sharman Apt Russell

Books about butterflies don't usually open with a paragraph on string theory in physics. What does it have to do with butterflies after all? Considering the answer is "nothing," it is merely an analogy for suggesting that butterflies add an extra dimension to our lives, it is an even bolder move. Yet Sharman Apt Russell's unusual style and techniques remain engaging as her exploration of the butterfly's everyday invisible world takes flight in our minds. Her chapters flit from one topic to the next, each almost a standalone essay but all building a coherent and complex tale of the richness of a butterfly's world - and the analogy with extra dimensions makes good sense after all.

Never a lecturer, Sharman teaches us more about butterflies than we would ever retain in a biology class. She intertwines stories of butterflies themselves with the people who study them. This is a story of insects that is ultimately about humans.

Most people retain some very clear memories of butterflies flittering about. There is something entrancing about the gentle but haphazard flight of a butterfly. It is exactly this everyday experience that Russell evokes to bring us into the world of butterflies, cleverly connecting us with a subject through effective literary ploys.

Learning about the life cycle of a butterfly is a very dry subject: egg, larva, pupa, butterfly, mating, death. Russell avoids this rote delivery of facts by writing in second person. We become the butterfly, experiencing all it would, and understanding why the world works the way it does, with us at the center. It is a dangerous technique - anthropomorphism rarely succeeds - yet Russell has a deft touch. As she warns, "To exchange identity with a butterfly is radical. It is to be what you are obviously not."

Due to her keen awareness of the problem, the writing never seems too contrived. She keeps her sentences short, so we never need by troubled by whether a butterfly really thinks in sequences of secondary clauses. Nor does she overuse the technique, restricting it to where it is most powerful a device. Her projection onto us of a mother giving birth is masterly.

The behavior of butterflies is just as complex as our own, even without taking into account the vast variation between species. You can't help but be amazed at what butterflies get up to and you'll wonder what life would be like for us if we were like butterflies.

Russell has clearly done her research and she tells tales of the world's leading lepidopterists and the major collections throughout history. We wish we could lose ourselves, like she did, in the stacks of drawers, each tray a gift containing a true surprise.

The extra dimension of butterflies would be interesting enough on it sown, but a dimension is only significant if it interacts with all the others. Russell shows us the interaction by linking our world with theirs. She relates stories of dwindling populations and conservation efforts, how ordinary people can learn to care about something outside their insular nine-to-five lives. For some, the interest becomes obsession and those people go on to make it their livelihood through the butterfly industry, supplying specimens for butterfly houses, weddings and other special events.

Interesting characters have played important roles in the study of lepidoptera. Both amateurs and professionals have made their contributions and some of the key players are recognizable names that we don't usually connect with butterflies. Vladimir Nabokov, for example, published twenty-two scientific papers, performed a seminal reclassification of North and South American Blues and worked at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. Perhaps more importantly, he noticed butterflies everywhere and wrote about them in his work. He was prone to digressions about butterflies in his lectures, especially when speaking of Kafka's Metamorphosis and Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

As Russell says in her opening paragraphs, "All this existed before, has always existed, but you were unaware. You didn't see. At various times and places, in winter, or on a busy street, the air is still and butterflies are impossible. Yet their presence remains, like on of those other ten dimensions. You've added this to your life."

An Obsession with Butterflies by Sharman Apt Russell Perseus Publishing ISBN: 0738206997 238 pages