The Dangerous World of Butterflies: The Startling Subculture of Criminals, Collectors, and Conservationists by Peter Laufer. Lyons Press, 2009.
We heard about it from our friend Sarah (this Sarah), who correctly supposed it might be interesting to Jane and me. Jane read it first and loved it. Of course, her fascination with butterflies goes way back. I’m about a third of the way through the book and had to stop and jot down some notes. It’s that kind of read. (My favorite kind.)
Peter Laufer is a journalist and the author of several books about serious, even grim topics: Americans in overseas prisons, immigration, the Iraq War. During a Q-and-A period following the publication of his book on the latter, someone asked him what topic he was going to tackle next. Joking, Laufer suggested he might take a break with something less weighty: “butterflies and flowers,” perhaps.
An American ex-pat in Nicaragua saw the exchange on CSPAN and emailed Laufer an invitation to visit her butterfly reserve; she thought it might be a peaceful respite for him. And thus it came about that Laufer’s lighthearted remark became reality: he became interested in butterflies and the lively subcultures they have inspired—the collectors, the breeders, the “butterfly huggers,” even butterfly smugglers.
A few quotes:
Heading down the mountain [after a butterfly-spotting hike] I realize I’ve gone native to a certain extent. It was exactly what Glassberg suggested it would be: a Zen-like moment in the now. Nothing else was going on for me while I was searching for the Golden Hairstreak and spotting the California Sister. There was something pure about not chasing them with a net, just searching and observing. It reminded me of the license plate game my sister and I played while driving with my family across America. Look! There’s one from North Dakota! Rare is valuable, but not vital. If you’re in North Dakota, there’s another and another. But the sightings still can amuse those of us lucky enough to be in touch with the childlike parts of our minds.
The excitement was real. It was impossible not to be seduced by the focus of the moment, the pristine beauty of the rushing Cedar Creek with its towering pines and the burly oaks. The satisfaction of seeing the fluttering rare Golden Hairstreak and the glamorous common California Sister was real. I was an observer in this odd subculture but at the same time an active player delighting in the moment, not just observing as a news reporter.
Another passage quotes a Robert Graves poem:
The erratic-looking flight of the common Cabbage White butterfly can be attributed in part to buffeting from the wind. However, Professor Dudley [of Berkeley] says when researchers fly Cabbage Whites in still air, the erratic patterns do not disappear and are used for defense. “If you swing a net at them and miss, they’ll start doing it faster. That’s an intriguing feature that distinguishes butterflies essentially from all other flying insects, the high degree of erratic, seemingly unpredictable flight.”
That lack of predictable pattern adds to their aesthetic appeal to us, he and I agree, and inspired Robert Graves when he wrote his ode to the Cabbage White, the poem “Flying Crooked…”
And here’s that:
by Robert Graves
The butterfly, a cabbage-white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
Yet has—who knows so well as I?—
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the acrobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.
Here’s something I did not know:
Inside the hard chrysalis the transformation is in progress. “All of their body parts, every cell, liquefies.” It is, as [biologist Rachel Diaz-Bastin] said before, science fiction. “This is weird stuff. All of their cells differentiate and begin forming the adult butterfly. It’s basically this big butterfly soup inside.”
Were you to cut the chrysalis at this stage, you would find nothing resembling a caterpillar and nothing resembling a butterfly: only liquid…What exactly goes on in the soup to make the change remains an unknown to scientists…
Only LIQUID, seriously? Who knew! I think I’d always supposed it was more of a tadpole-to-frog gradual transformation.
That’s as far as I’ve gotten. More to come, I’m sure.