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Butterfly People

An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World

by William Leach

Hardcover, 388 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $32.50 |


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An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World
William Leach

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This chronicle of 19th-century America's fascination with butterflies traces the achievements of six naturalists who identified countless new species and unveiled the mysteries of their existence.

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Racing Hearts, Fluttering Wings: American 'Butterfly People'

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Butterfly People

Butterfly People

An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World

Random House, Inc.

Copyright © 2013 Leach William R.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-375-42293-5



"The beauty of the world,” wrote America’s greatest theologian, Jonathan Edwards, in 1725, “consists wholly of sweet mutual consents, either within itself or with the Supreme Being. . . . This beauty is peculiar to natural things, it surpassing the art of man.” In the nineteenth century, many Americans, including Edwards’s great-grandson William Henry Edwards, encountered the butterflies, among the most evolved in terms of beauty, by some accounts, of all creatures. By beauty here is meant not merely the wings, however beautiful they may be, but the metamorphosis (from the Greek for “changing form”) and life history of the insect, from the egg and caterpillar to the pupa and adult, as well as the butterfly in relation to a world full of other life. The encounter took place first with native American species, then with foreign or exotic ones, moths as well as butterflies, the “night” and “day butterflies,” as they were called—or, collectively, the Lepidoptera, the order’s name referring, in Greek, to the scales covering the wings. By the 1880s, it seemed as if everyone in America was chasing “flying flowers,” to quote Augustus Radcliffe Grote, an American expert on moths. People from all walks of life—sheep farmers, shopkeepers, barbers, lawyers, actors, drugstore clerks, housekeepers, wallpaper hangers, priests, Wall Street brokers, glassblowers, miners, and mine managers—had taken up the butterfly net. At the end of the century a new kind of beauty would assume prominence, human-made and artificial; seen especially at the spectacular world’s fairs of the age, from Philadelphia to San Francisco, it would expand the world’s aesthetic palette, while at the same time challenging the “beauty peculiar to natural things.” For a fleeting moment, however, the reign of the butterflies, and of all similar natural life, held sway in the imaginations of many American men and women.

Two phenomena were responsible, in particular, for this history, each ushering people into the natural world with unsurpassed effect. The first was economic and technological and was connected to the rise of capitalism; the second was cultural and institutional and was exemplified by the tradition of Enlightenment natural history, having at its heart a passion for the diversity and beauty of natural forms. One was extractive, the other adoring, and both derived from the thousands of years of experience the Europeans and English imported with them to America. Both existed in the same country and the same people, from Thomas Jefferson to Theodore Roosevelt and beyond. America was founded as a kind of European achievement, the beneficiary, as it were, of centuries of struggle, at once armed with the brilliance to build a new economic empire and endowed with the heritage to understand and protect the natural world.

The American economy had many aspects dependent on nature as landed wealth or property, and that brought Americans close to nature. No economic system had ever done this more thoroughly or swiftly. In what seems a twinkling of historical time, it carried people across the continent in search of land, minerals, virgin forests, and fossil fuels, a situation speeded up by a remarkable series of land surveys and revolutionized by the railroads, which by the 1880s had bound the country into a single market, condensing into only a few decades the expropriation of nature it had taken the Europeans and English many hundreds of years to carry out. As a fortuitous blessing, Americans experienced the country’s flora and fauna, its native species of butterflies and moths. Later in the century, the United States joined other Western countries, England and Germany especially, in worldwide commercial trade and butterfly collecting, driven by imperialism and the spread of railroad lines from Canada and Argentina to East Africa and the Asian subcontinent, thereby putting Americans in touch with the foreign parts of the globe. Many individuals made a living finding and selling butterflies on the world market. Most tragic and complex of them all was Will Doherty of Mount Auburn, Ohio, who spent most of his brief life in pursuit of the rarest of species. Extraordinary collections of butterflies in America issued from this descent below the equator. The biggest private one was cobbled together by Herman Strecker of Reading, Pennsylvania, a poor stonecutter with a wild yearning for the “things of endless joy,” as he called his insects.

Family farming, America’s most widespread economic activity, also exposed Americans to butterflies, even while the majority of farmers had little interest in insects other than to eradicate them. As all the butterfly people came to realize, America had various natural landscapes, from the remote alpine meadows of the Rocky Mountains and the vast blooming prairies of the Midwest to the deserts of the Far West, the freshwater marshes of Connecticut, and the semitropical forests of Florida, alive with “flying jewels,” to cite Augustus Grote again. But family farms, much nearer at hand and not fundamentally dependent on the railroad, did perhaps more than any other landscape to convert Americans into butterfly lovers. Farms were distributed throughout the country, and while they sacrificed virgin forests and ecosystems in the short term, they contributed over the long term to nature’s vitality. Their distinguishing features were not just plowed fields or barns or silos but also ponds, woodlots, hedgerows, stone walls, open fields along roadsides, and meadows by streams or riverbeds for grazing cattle, all created for human purposes but also serving as likely habitats and hideouts for animals. Renewed by repeated mowing, the meadows, especially, teamed with many kinds of birds; sweet-smelling flowering plants, intoxicating in the summertime, such as milkweed, joe-pye weed, thistle, and clover; and butterflies. Black swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes) and monarchs (Danaus plexippus), among the most common and handsome of American butterflies, actually rose in number in direct relation to the spread of small farms. So did the pretty inch-wide meadow fritillary (Boloria bellona), first named by the pioneering butterfly man Samuel Scudder, in the 1870s, because it so often flew in the meadows of New England, and nowhere else. Authorities on butterflies today call these insects “pasture species.”

A hallmark of this hybrid rural landscape (hybrid because it intermingled human nature with wild nature), was its “walking through” character, existing before property lines rigidly divided farms from one another, and making nature readily traversable by anyone interested in knowing it. Alpine or mountain meadows of the country’s wilderness areas, carpeted by flowers and sometimes staggering in their array of butterflies, were often too far away or frightening for most Americans to visit, but this agrarian tapestry, resplendent with “winged wanderers on clover sweet,” was everywhere and usually inviting. Just as the railroad drew people over the horizon to unusual insects, family farming performed a captivating magic of its own. The farm landscape was easily navigated. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, a French immigrant and farmer, took delight in it in the 1790s, as, decades later, did the English explorer and collector Edward Doubleday, who witnessed “in Ohio literally tens of thousands” of painted ladies (Vanessa cardui), a lovely, wide-ranging species with an intricate lacework of color and design on the underwing, fluttering “on the thistles by the road sides.” The writer and reformer Thomas Wentworth Higginson remembered “vividly” as a boy in Massachusetts in the 1830s, “walking along [a] breezy, upland road, lined with a continuous row of milk weed blossoms and white flowering alder, all ablaze with butterflies. I might have picked off hundreds, so absorbed were they in their pretty pursuits.” Forty years later, Walt Whitman walked his farm lanes in Camden, New Jersey, and in Brooklyn, New York. “As every man has his hobby-liking,” he noted, “mine is for a real farm-lane fenced by old chestnut-rails,” along which he saw “butterflies and butterflies, all sorts, white, yellow, brown, purple—now and then some gorgeous fellow flashing lazily by on wings like artists’ palettes dabb’d with every color.” “In the lane as I came along just now I noticed one spot, ten feet square or so, where more than a hundred had collected, holding a revel, a gyration-dance, a butterfly good-time, winding and circling, down and across, but always keeping within the limits.”

Most of America’s principal butterfly people would find many new species of butterflies in ecologically wild, relatively pristine places, but they also encountered butterflies living near or in nature that had been modified in some way by farming. Herman Strecker wrote wittily about this environment in his 1878 catalog, Butterflies and Moths of North America: “The best time to give [butterflies] chase and try to run them down is under a July sun, with the occasional slight obstacles of fences, creeks, rocks, logs, farmers’ dogs and farmers’ boys (just as bad)” blocking entry to “a grain or clover field” or to “gardens, marshes and meadows along edges of woods, and above all where plenty of thistles and sumac are growing.”

Just as family farms helped Americans see and come to know butterflies, so the natural history tradition created the cultural context for butterfly collecting and study. It gave Americans the means—the language, the interpretative methods and skills—to recognize and understand the living things around them, and, by validating collecting as the cardinal activity, it led curious individuals into a realm of unforgettable sensuous experience. In countries without such a tradition, little existed—save folk taxonomies—to explain what lay within nature’s kingdom or to promote collecting or to make of it anything more than a practical activity. In the West, however, natural history had a long lineage, dating from at least Aristotle, who inquired into all nature, from rocks and animals to plants and fossils. Between the late Renaissance and the mid-1700s, it entered a new phase, fresh with purpose and mission, and by 1800 had claimed many thousands of followers, reflecting the Western intrusion into the rest of the world. Natural history institutionalized collecting as a transcendent goal and invented the apparatus of collecting, from killing jars and nets to poisons, baits, and cabinets. It embraced, as well, a systematic approach to the study of nature, with two related aspects, each reliant on collecting. The first was devoted to taxonomy and nomenclature, or to the grouping and naming of organisms; the second, to the study of life histories and the interrelations of all organisms to one another and to the wider environment; this aspect came to be called ecology by the 1880s.

Carl Linnaeus of Sweden, Georges-Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon of France, Alexander Humboldt of Germany, and, later, Charles Darwin of England, major architects of modern natural history and all scientific autodidacts, commanded, in their books, healthy swaths of nature. Together they helped forge nature as a magnetic fulcrum of transatlantic Western culture, thrilling enough to keep people in its thrall for another 150 years.

Linnaeus was the great exponent of systematic order, establishing a binomial nomenclature, still standard today, that bestowed on all organisms two Latin words, one for the genus, or group, to which the individual organism belonged, the other for the species itself; the two words together represented the complete individual (thus, Homo sapiens for “wise man”). Early in his career, Linnaeus seemed to believe that every species was unchanging and God-created, although later he adopted “limited transmutation,” and he never failed to root his understanding of species in concrete natural evidence. He looked foremost at plants and flowers, identifying them partly by sexual characteristics, but he also named and described animals, including numerous lepidoptera caught by a brave cohort of young field collectors he sent around the world.

Born around the same time as Linnaeus (1707), the Comte de Buffon, famous for his spellbinding, multivolume Histoire naturelle, was determined to cover all animal and plant life, to a degree far beyond Linnaeus. He was critical of Linnaean systematics and of the early Enlightenment, which he thought viewed nature as too fixed in its forms and development. To Buffon, natural organisms or species flowed in “a progression” that changed constantly through almost imperceptible “gradations,” self-creating and self-propelled. He considered “Nature” an immense living empire, enfolding everything, animating everything, and urged naturalists to deal always with living organisms and to write their “life histories,” describing fully and exactly every feature of their existence: their distribution, their outside and inside anatomies, their peculiar habits and everyday activities, their relationships with the life histories of other beings and to the surrounding environment. Species could not be recognized, Buffon argued, only on the basis of single visible sexual features, as was Linnaeus’s practice.

Although historians have often seen these two sides of natural history as separate and even at odds, the two so often crossed as to form a whole perspective that grew ever more complex over time. Buffon and Linnaeus shared a belief that humans had a primary right to use nature, first and foremost, for their material benefit; each insisted upon the necessity of describing as well as naming and classifying; both saw the natural world as an interdependent whole; and each was awed by its profusion. “The starting point,” Linnaeus wrote, “must be to marvel at all things, even the most commonplace.” Still, rightly or wrongly, Linnaeus’s fame rested on his binomial nomenclature and Buffon’s on his descriptive talents, on the abundance of his engrossing life histories, and on his dramatic ecological vision, which addressed “the great operations of nature” and demanded a “quality of mind that permits us to grasp distant relationships, fit them together, and form a body of rational ideas.”

Buffon’s version of natural history reached a zenith of influence during the Romantic Enlightenment of the early nineteenth century, most memorably in the mind of Alexander Humboldt, a Prussian aristocrat and the premier explorer of the time, whose multivolume masterpiece, The Cosmos, written in his old age and probing nearly every aspect of the universe, had a more profound impact on American views of nature than any other book in the nineteenth century. Humboldt journeyed down the mostly unexamined (for Europeans) Orinoco River in present-day Venezuela between 1799 and 1804, launching the “cartographic penetration of the continental interiors of the Americas.” The trip culminated in Ecuador with Humboldt’s sensational ascent with his companions—the botanist Aimé Bonpland, his Ecuadorian friend Carlos Montúfar, and an Indian guide—nearly to the top of Mount Chimborazo, an Andean peak then thought the highest in the world. Besides harvesting a huge number of plants, Bonpland and Humboldt collected butterflies, including one delicate but hardy creature above the snow zone—a yellow or sulphur species one inch in diameter (Colias alticola)—and two new species later named and described in 1805 by the French butterfly man Pierre Latreille as Heliconius humboldt and Cethosia bonpland. Despite these discoveries, Humboldt, like Buffon, had no desire, as he put it, to unearth “new, isolated facts” but “preferred linking always known ones together.” Also, as with Buffon, he was convinced that “nature, despite her seeming diversity, is always a unity, a whole,” and that a “holy, creative, primary force” suffused all. Nature was no “inert mass” but “an inextricable network of organisms,” so gloriously fertile in places around the globe that it promised to endure forever.

A half century later, Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection and evolution (along with those of his countryman, Alfred Russel Wallace) would add a radically dynamic element to natural history thinking, conceiving of nature as an always evolving and unstable realm, working from within to create a new abundance of variable shapes, patterns, colors, and sizes: geographic, polymorphic (meaning many forms), and dimorphic (meaning double forms), and encompassing varieties, species, and subspecies—altogether a morphological spectrum never before revealed to naturalists in the same way or to the same degree.

The natural history of these men erected a route to scientific understanding and knowledge. At the same time, it occasionally mixed culture, fantasy, and myth with science; it sometimes treated nature anthropomorphically, told stories, and had literary as well as scientific content; and, most of all, it placed people in touch with the multifarious beauty of the world.

Throughout most of the nineteenth century, naturalists typically learned to draw or paint and, therefore, possibly to see and appreciate better the living beauty around them. We can trace this fruitful relationship to an abiding alliance between art and science, with roots in the late medieval period (if not earlier), when it was commonly held that the ability to pursue art or science depended on the same observational skills and perceptions, the same pair of eyes. This view can be seen in the work of Leonardo da Vinci, Robert Hooker, and William Harvey, among others, and found exponents in the late-eighteenth-century philosophy of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich von Schelling, and many of their contemporaries. It was an outlook, moreover, characteristic of a venerable tradition of artisan craftsmanship practiced by a large community of people outside the elite bastions of science who conjured up images with their own hands, a practice that helped increase the observer’s sensitivity and responsiveness to the aesthetic character of nature.

In its heyday, natural history unleashed a stream of pictorial books of insects and other species, with handcrafted plates notable for their costliness as well as for their lively colors, although these sometimes bore little relation to the actual colors of the butterflies and moths depicted. In the early eighteenth century, the German-born apothecary Albertus Seba, then living in Amsterdam, published the four-volume Cabinet of Curiosities, a great prototypic catalog, with hundreds of exotic butterflies never before seen. Almost all of the copies were printed in black-and-white; those few that used color were set aside for the tiny royalty of northern Europe who were Seba’s benefactors. Other contemporary works with plates, by such people as the Germans Maria Sibylla Merian and August Rösel von Rosenhof and the Dutchman Pieter Cramer, also served a small elite. By the early nineteenth century, both craftsmanship and natural science had overcome the obstacles of poorly executed shades and tints and of an exclusive market. Starting with the rise of lithography in the 1820s, artists and artisans began to depict the real thing in realistic color, and the audience was no longer elite.

Buffon, Darwin, and Humboldt themselves seemed indifferent to drawing lines between art and science. Their prose was often excellent and readable, so much so as to later seem unscientific. They often wrote on behalf of the artistic attractions of nature. “It is certain that natural history is the mother of all arts,” Buffon affirmed. “All ideas of the arts have their models in the productions of nature. God created and man imitates.” Although no naturalist had more faith in empirical science than Humboldt, he embraced “the ancient bond which unites natural science and artistic feeling.” He also rejoiced in the beauty of nature as perceived through the medium of human subjectivity: “For it is the inward mirror of the sensitive mind which reflects the true and living image of the natural world. All that determines the character of a landscape are in antecedent mysterious communion with the inner feelings and life of man.” Humboldt believed that anyone without the ability to see beauty would probably also be unable to see the chain of connections underlying nature.

Such a perspective on the natural world, lasting well into the nineteenth century, would be weakened by many changes, ranging from the professionalization of science and the attendant insistence on a rigid separation of art from science, to the invention of photography, which struck a blow at the human hand as the maker and shaper of images. Still, it held up (however hobbled) and finds advocates from all walks of life in the present day.