Sharman Apt Russell again blends her lush voice and keen scientific eye in this marvelous book about butterflies. From Hindu mythology to Aztec sacrifices, butterflies have served as a metaphor for resurrection and transformation. Even during World War II, children in a Polish death camp scratched hundreds of butterflies onto the walls of their barracks. But as Russell points out in this rich and lyrical meditation, butterflies are above all objects of obsession. From the beastly horned caterpillar, whose blood helps it count time, to the peacock butterfly, with wings that hiss like a snake, Russell traces the butterflies through their life cycles, exploring the creatures' own obsessions with eating, mating, and migrating. In this way, she reveals the logic behind our endless fascination with butterflies as well as the driving passion of such legendary collectors as the tragic Eleanor Glanville, whose children declared her mad because of her compulsive butterfly collecting, and the brilliant Henry Walter Bates, whose collections from the Amazon in 1858 helped develop his theory of mimicry in nature. Russell also takes us inside some of the world's most prestigious natural history museums, where scientists painstakingly catalogue and categorize new species of Lepidoptera, hoping to shed light on insect genetics and evolution. A luminous journey through an exotic world of obsession and strange beauty, this is a book to be treasured by anyone who's ever watched a butterfly mid-flight and thought, as Russell has, "I've entered another dimension."
As she did in Anatomy of a Rose, Russell focuses on the natural world here, now concentrating on insects that have long fascinated humans with their beauty, grace and magical ability to transform themselves from lowly caterpillars. According to the author, there are about 18,000 species of known butterflies, varying in color, mating behavior and migratory patterns. Russell merges wit, knowledge and poetic language in this engaging scientific rumination, recounting the stories of several obsessed collectors, including Eleanor Granville, who, in the early 1700s, was declared insane because of her hobby. Vladimir Nabokov is known to entomologists as the man who not only discovered several butterfly species, but reclassified North and South American blues. Russell provides many interesting anecdotes about butterfly mating practices and explains the difference between moths and butterflies. The monarch, for example, drops on the female and forces her to the ground, while a male queen butterfly more sensitively attracts his mate by the scent of the alkaloids he has ingested for this purpose. Some species, like male Apollos, are able to glue a sphragis, or shell, over the female's abdomen that functions as a chastity belt to prevent her from remating and losing the original male's sperm. Russell has produced a well researched and beautifully written natural history of these colorful insects.