March 2007

Colleen Mondor


Sky Time in Gray's River: Living for Keeps in a Forgotten Place by Robert Michael Pyle, and Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis by Kim Todd

I first discovered Robert Michael Pyle through Milkweed’s fascinating Credo series which focuses on the works of authors and the natural world. Pyle is a lepidopterist and has written an enormous amount on that subject. His latest book, Sky Time in Gray’s River covers a much broader subject matter, however. In this title he looks at life in his small town of Gray’s River, Washington, and the comings and goings in both the natural world and human one. He blends both small town memoir and intense observation of area birds and wildlife in a delightfully quirky manner that gives equal time to town meetings and neighborly visits and the seasonal arrivals of various flora and fauna. Although he is candid about the region’s difficult climate (42 inches of rain in 25 days) he clearly understands the risk he is taking by publicizing its more pleasurable aspects. “Please don’t move here because of this book!” he writes in his final notes. “Believe me on this -- you won’t like the rain! Instead of luring you to some idealized bucolic hideout that would almost certainly disappoint in the end or rot your heels, may this little book assist you in finding the heart of your own home, which lies in the lives and skies of every place.”

It is easy to understand why readers might feel compelled to move all and everything to Gray’s River, when Pyle can not contain his own deep felt enthusiasm for the place and its people. But the appeal of Sky Time is not just the Walton’s Mountain nature of the town’s populace (odd, amusing, and partial to potluck gatherings), but also Pyle’s knowledge of literary natural history which allows him to call upon references and reflections that perfectly complement his observations. On writing about trails near his home, he segues into thoughts of friends in rural Connecticut, Charles Darwin’s Sand Walk, (“I have walked there and imagined Darwin ambulating his way out of his current conundrum or ailment, trying out his thoughts, as he rounded the walk again and again while noting the slow shift of the Worm Stone, by which he measured the earthworms’ reconfiguration of the landscape with their castings.”) and Henry Thoreau. Every part of living provokes the same careful consideration; the same thoughtful reflection upon those who came before and have known nature elsewhere.

One of the things I most enjoy about Pyle’s writing is that while he observes and records the arrival of Swainson’s thrushes, “…we begin to hear the song itself -- two, three, five introductory notes followed by an ascending series of silver hoops: Dee dee dee deeoo deeoo DEEOO!”, he also wonders just who Swainson was that the bird was named for. When other writers might leave the thought there -- idly passing off the question to the reader for possible future study, Pyle tells us that William Swainson was a biological illustrator in early 19th century England. He became friends with Audubon and traveled with him for a time but was apparently a less than friendly individual. “By all accounts he was full of himself to an irritating degree,” writes Pyle, but he does not let this diminish his appreciation for the bird that utters such a “glorious voluntary.” And so now the reader knows about a bird and a man, and can wonder just how one has been immortalized by another.

In the midst of birds and cats and the wonder of rivers, Pyle does not stray far though from his first love, butterflies. In fact, while discussing early field guides and phenology -- “the progression of the seasons as told by its animal and plant appearances,” he mentions author Moses Harris who in 1775 wrote The English Lepidoptera: Or, the Aurelian’s Pocket Companion: Containing a Catalogue of Upward of Four Hundred Moths and Butterflies, the Food of Their Respective Caterpillars, The Time of Changing into Chrysalis, and Appearance in the Winged State: Also, the Places Where They Frequent and Are Usually Found with a Concise Description of Each, and Their Dimensions. Harris, whose book Pyle’s credits as providing a “sense of the Georgian English seasons passing in a parade of colorful flying insects” is also mentioned in Chrysalis, Kim Todd’s new biography of late 17th century naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian. Living centuries apart and worlds away from each other (Merian lived in Germany and the Netherlands), Merian and Pyle have little personally in common. But their love and respect for butterflies and other aspects of the natural world see them as distant kin, and reading the two books in tandem is an excellent way to see just how much the field of natural history has changed, while also remaining remarkably the same.

Todd’s curiosity for Merian was initially stirred by a box of notecards of all things, which portrayed moth images from Merian’s book on Surinam insect metamorphosis. Born in 1647 and died in 1717, Todd could not reckon Merian’s work with the societal constraints of her time. “When she was born,” writes Todd, “Shakespeare had been dead only thirty years. Galileo stood trial a mere thirteen years before for suggesting the earth moved around the sun. My image of an eighteenth or nineteenth naturalist/explorer was a wealthy, university-educated young man seeking adventure or a ship’s surgeon picking shells off the beach in between treating cases of scurvy. If I had a picture of a naturalist/explorer earlier than that, which I didn’t, it surely wasn’t a fifty-two year old German woman with little formal education. What was Merian doing drawing insects in South America three hundred years ago, I wondered. How did she get there? What did she hope to find?”

Remarkably, Merian’s life started out with the same innate curiosity as Pyle’s. She spent her childhood exploring the natural world, harboring an intense interest in knowing and understanding more about insects that while no one in her family could understand, they did not actively discourage. Like a far more proper Gerald Durrell, Merian was permitted to pursue her endless fascination with silkworms and caterpillars as she sought to find the secret of metamorphosis. Her artistic talent was certainly due in no small part to coming from a family of engravers which also permitted her to be exposed from an early age to many printed works on natural history. In spite of her times, though Merian found herself caught up in a lifelong pursuit of eternal questions about growth, development and reproduction that other naturalists of her time were also actively pursuing. All of them were largely self taught, just as she was, and heavily dependent upon personal observation and recordkeeping. It was a solitary pursuit and one that did not offer larger prospects for fortune or fame, but regardless Merian had a compulsion to understand, to know. With her obvious gift as an artist she became one of the preeminent naturalists of her time, culminating with her daring trip from Europe to South America in 1699. The resultant book from her time there, and the color pictures that accompanied it (several of which are reproduced in Todd’s book), proved Merian as a woman far beyond her times. It was also the peak of her naturalist career and over time, sadly, the source for a centuries’ long derision of her work.

Impeccably researched and footnoted, Todd used Merian’s own letters and study books to infuse Chrysalis with the measured voice of her subject. As close to an autobiography as Merian will ever have, the book does not seek to understand why Merian was drawn to her subjects but rather, how she accommodated her overwhelming desire to study them in a time that did not welcome such unseemly curiosity. Through marriage and babies, in and out of religious conversion, even while navigating her way through divorce, Merian’s compulsion to investigate, draw and record the lives of insects never wavered. Ultimately her trip to Surinam, then part of Dutch territory, is less of a surprise then readers first might think. Of course she would travel with her daughter halfway across the world and enter the jungles to learn more about insects; of course she would find a way to fund such a trip. This was not an idle curiosity for Maria Merian, it was her very life. And that is what makes her such a fascinating subject for her biographer. “Although I want her contributions to science to be recognized,” writes Todd, “sometimes I think her biggest gift was the way that she lived. Any life, of course, is messy, filled with rationalizations, contradictions, episodes best tucked away out of sight. But there is a boldness at the heart that won’t be chipped away.”

That boldness is what sent Merian on her great adventure and then kept her alive in the years that followed as she set about recording what she learned in Surinam and also making the necessary professional connections to see to it that her discoveries would be respected and remembered forever.

Todd could have ended her biography with Merian’s Surinam book, or even her death a few years later. But she herself was curious as to why Merian seemed to be relatively unknown even within the smaller academic circles that should keep her name and work refreshingly alive. What she found was that as the study of nature and the natural world gained in respect and popularity, the very people who had nurtured it and kept it in the public eye lost the respect of those who followed. In the nineteenth century biology, zoology and chemistry came into their own as college academic departments. Governments began to sponsor the establishment of fishery and entomology bureaus. The sciences embraced the natural world and made it their own, thus effectively pushing out the many amateurs who had dedicated themselves to it without any interest in academic acknowledgement. “Merian didn’t have a formal education,” writes Todd, “she talked to and trusted the reports of those who lived with the insects for thousands of years; she was a woman.” Over time, very easily and quite insidiously, Merian’s work was disparaged, attacked and ignored. And even though fairly recent discoveries of her original work have reappeared in Russia, where they were bought and sheltered by Peter the Great in the years after her death (and where her daughter and son-in-law settled), academics still are slow to acknowledge her contribution to the field. It is too hard for students and professors to believe perhaps that a middle-aged woman hundreds of years ago could study so deeply the worlds that they must take classes and labs in order to understand. How could she know in her kitchen what they must rigorously pursue in hallowed halls of learning? How could she dare to know?

And yet I think Robert Michael Pyle, Yale trained ecologist that he is, would understand Maria Merian in a moment. He would invite her to peek out his kitchen window and see the wandering rustic bunting that had miraculously decided to visit his yard one winter (only the fourth recorded sighting of such a bird in Washington State). Pyle would know that Merian could appreciate such a surprise for what it is -- another mystery of the natural world that reveals itself only to those who watch and wait. In a classroom you can make anything happen, anything, like magic, can appear on the computer monitor or video screen at will. But for those who relish the spontaneity of nature you must be willing to go outside and see what is there; you must be willing to let it all unfold before you. Three hundred years apart, the works of Robert Michael Pyle and Maria Sibylla Merian echo with the same wonderful discoveries. How fortunate we are that Pyle is willing to share his home in Gray’s River with the world, and that biographers like Kim Todd are dedicated enough to rescue the life of someone like Merian. They give hope to the amateur naturalist within all of us; they give us reason to look twice out our windows. 
Sky Time in Gray’s River: Living for Keeps in a Forgotten Place
by Robert Michael Pyle
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN 039582821X
256 pages 

Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis by Kim Todd
ISBN 0151011087
284 pages