Butterfly art and conservationism

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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

Lolita and lepidoptera

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Vladimir Nabokov is one of those rare people who was so gifted in one field–that of literature–that his advances in another field were overlooked. Indeed, Nabokov was a self-taught lepidopterist who used proceeds from his fiction to finance butterfly-netting expeditions. He was the curator of lepidoptera at Harvard’s Museum of Zoology and cataloged hundreds of species. He studied and described one species in depth, the Polyommatus blues, and published an incredible hypothesis of how these butterflies evolved.

I’d heard of the book “Nabokov’s blues,” but assumed it was one of those subpar piggy-backers who either use a famous name to increase sales (Matthew Pearl has made his living on this type of fiction*) or speculate on the inner lives of celebrities (perhaps the authors imagined that Nabokov was saddened by the reception of “Lolita”?) In fact, the entomologist-authors of the 2000 book were stunned to find that Nabokov’s classification of the Polyommatus blues was accurate, and that there was weight to his belief that the species had migrated in five waves from Asia to North America across the Bering Strait.

To celebrate Nabokov’s 100th birthday, a Harvard biologist and curator of lepidoptera, Dr. Pierce, decided to test Nabokov’s ideas with DNA sequencing. Using genetics and computers, two devices Nabokov certainly did not have at his disposal, Dr. Pierce and her colleagues found that he was entire hypothesis was correct. Indeed, New World species share a common ancestor dating back 10 million years, but there are five distinct groups of mutations that proves Nabokov’s five-wave theory. In addition, the Bering Strait was much warmer 10 million years ago, thereby allowing the survival of this fragile creature as it migrated.

While Nabokov might have been vindicated by this research, his poem “On Discovering a Butterfly,” published in its entirety below, suggests that he needed no fame in the lepidopterist community beyond that of naming and being godfather to a new butterfly.

On Discovering a Butterfly

Vladimir Nabokov from a butterfly's point-of-view

I found it and I named it, being versed
in taxonomic Latin; thus became
godfather to an insect and its first
describer — and I want no other fame.

Wide open on its pin (though fast asleep),
and safe from creeping relatives and rust,
in the secluded stronghold where we keep
type specimens it will transcend its dust.

Dark pictures, thrones, stones that pilgrims kiss,
poems that take a thousand years to die
but ape the immortality of this
red label on a little butterfly.

Vladimir Nabokov


*Matthew Pearl’s titles include The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow, and The Last Dickens. His books are often sold from shelves labelled “If you liked The Da Vinci Code…” Piggy-backer extraordinaire. But take my disgust with a grain of salt: I met Pearl when he ostensibly came to Dartmouth for a reading but spent the entire time talking about how great it was to see someone reading his book on the subway and showing us the covers of his books from other countries. Sigh. I bet Nabokov wouldn’t have talked about his foreign-rights distribution…

Monarch swarms in Michoacán, Mexico

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Alfred Hitchcock would have had a field day with this…if butterflies were scarier, that is.

How to be a butterfly biologist

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What you’ll need: a net, a sense of awe

Songlist: Mason Jenning’s Butterfly, Iron and Wine’s On Your Wings

Further Reading: Chasing Monarchs: Migrating with the Butterflies of Passage by Robert Michael Pyle

A lone monarch I spotted in Michoacán

Some girls collected dolls, My Little Ponies, limited edition Beanie Babies (remember those things?!) My thing was butterflies. Cardboard butterflies stuck on my wall. My dad brought me a framed collection of butterflies from Nepal. I raised Painted Lady butterflies from a kit that I got on my seventh birthday, and was heartbroken by the one chrysalis from which a butterfly never emerged, and even more saddened by the Painted Lady that came out with crumpled wings that never fully unfurled.

I didn’t hesitate for a second, then, when the TA on my study abroad in Mexico suggested a trip to Angangüeo in the Mexican state of Michoacán our first weekend. A thousand times larger than the migration of American college students south–currently taking place at campuses near you!–is the strenuous migration of millions of monarchs from the northern United States to central Mexico. This migration is one of the great mysteries of the animal world, for the butterflies that leave my home state of Minnesota die well before the generation that arrive in the state of Michoacán. Research continues on how these tiny creatures know where to go, and how they have the stamina to get there.

To get from the city of Puebla, where I was studying, to the Valley of the Butterflies, my group took a two-hour bus ride up to Mexico City, and then a ten-hour ride to the tiny town of Angangüeo. We kept saying to each other, These butterflies better be damn cool.

Looking up in the Valley of the Butterflies

The next morning we piled into two Vietnam-war-era trucks; I was worried by the shattered window behind my head, but comforted (?) by all the smiling Jesus decals. The trucks took us into the high valley, barreling up washed-out roads and passing other trucks on curves cut into the mountainside. We held on to each other for support and tried not to point out the steep drop from the road to the lower valley. Then, looking through my cracked window, I saw one: a monarch flapping lazily over a field. I was thrilled and pointed it out to my friends, but I could read their tight smiles: We did not come all this way to get excited about one butterfly.

By the time we stopped we had seen maybe a dozen or two monarchs. As soon as we got out of the truck, though, things began to change. We entered the protected monarch habitat and started walking up a forest path. In a small, sun-lit clearing, we saw this:

For the monarch preserve in Michoacán this would be considered a small gathering

Awestruck, we kept climbing. At the top of the path was a wooden board that commanded, in several languages, to keep quiet so as not to disturb the millions of resting monarchs. And millions there were. The trees were coated with orange bodies, so much so that they dragged branches earthward and had even felled trees that weren’t strong enough to hold their aggregate weight. The whole scene was reminiscent of falling leaves in autumn, except these leaves stayed airborne, alighting on whatever space was available.

When we finally descended from this sanctuary, there was a consensus among us, quiet at first then growing louder: Yeah, this trip was worth it. These butterflies are damn cool.