Christopher Marley's beetle art

The summer I lived in Provincetown, Massachusetts, I frequently visited a store called Wa. This store features gorgeous antique furniture, often Oriental, stone fountains, intricate lamps. The first time I went in, I remember my eye being drawn to the back of the store where it looked like an artist had framed shiny beads. When I approached, I saw this was not the case at all: those shiny objects were the kaleidoscopic shells of rainforest beetles.

Wa displayed many pieces by the artist, Christopher Marley, including arrangements of exotic butterflies, gigantic stag beetles, fragile walking sticks. I was completely enthralled by this art, but also wary of its consequences. How had he collected all these lifeless bodies? Each framed insect was perfectly intact, suggesting that these creatures were not found expired on the rainforest floor.

A display of Cytheras butterflies from the Amazon

At the store and on his website Marley answers this concern. “Leading environmentalists and entomologists agree that insect collecting can actually aid in the preservation of insect species by offering an economic incentive to preserve the habitat in which this ‘sustainable rainforest crop’ thrives.” Marley’s guide in Amazonian Peru told him that indigenous tribes made enough money by collecting butterflies that they had no need to farm or ranch that land instead. Indeed, the guide asserted, they’d been collecting butterflies from the same small area for over a decade, and each year the butterfly population increased. The implication is that Marley’s art may have a stronger effect than all those “Save the Rainforest” bumper stickers–and their backing organizations–on actually saving the rainforest. In the end it always comes down to money, and Marley’s pieces sell for hundreds and even thousands of dollars (the Cytheras piece featured above retails at $1,100). And while all of the reasons seem completely valid, I have a lingering unease over killing in the name of conservation.

A beetle sunburst