I used to live not far from a small but lovely botanical garden, overlooking the waters of The Narrows in Brooklyn. My favorite section was lush with Buddleia shrubs, whose nectar is irresistible to the monarch butterfly. Here in the play of late summer light, a quiet spectacle would unfold daily. Monarchs, their black and orange wings beating with ceaseless energy, flew in helter-skelter patterns, en route to their southern wintering grounds in Mexico.
The simple yet magical beauty of this scene is one familiar to the historian William Leach, whose new book, “Butterfly People,’’ was inspired by a lifelong love of these winged creatures. Looking at the lives of several 19th-century American naturalists who chased, named, and collected butterflies from the Rockies to the White Mountains, Leach tells us that the pursuit of butterflies — monarchs, swallowtails, the wonderfully named Baltimore checkerspot, among others — was central to the study of the natural world, “not merely at the margins of inquiry, but at the very core of it.”
Charles Darwin and other European naturalists, Leach writes, “dwelled on butterflies as a way to illuminate the origin and evolution of species, and Americans, too, were at the forefront — leading all the others, in fact in the depth and range of their insights.”
Leach is at his best describing the lives of such American “butterfly people” as Samuel Scudder, who bestowed upon the danaus plexippus the regal appellation “monarch.” (Famed literary lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov, in turn, named a rare blue species Lycaeides melissa samuelis in honor of Scudder.) This pioneering Bostonian, “[o]ne of the finest all-around naturalists in America,” made enormous contributions to the study of butterflies. He trailed his quarry in favorite Berkshire locales and scampered up and down the White Mountains no matter the season. Besides his butterfly efforts, Scudder founded mountaineering clubs and served as president of the Boston Society of Natural History.
In 1889, Scudder published his masterpiece, the three-volume “The Butterflies of the Eastern United States and Canada.’’ Largely self-financed, this 1,500-page work, writes Leach, “is awe-inspiring, unlike any work ever published.” Bursting with poetic allusions and Scudder’s intricately wrought drawings that illustrated every stage of butterfly life — eggs and larvae, shapes and forms — these volumes, Nabokov later wrote, “inaugurated a new era in lepidopterology.”
Through figures like Scudder, and his rival William Henry Edwards — who himself wrote a three-volume magnum opus and disagreed with Scudder on most everything — Leach tracks heated debates that erupted over taxonomy, evolution, and the butterfly’s role in the natural world. But it was beauty above all that cast its spell over those who studied these insects and their infinite hues. “What could be the use of the butterfly’s gaily-painted wings,’’ the great English naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace mused, “except to add the final touches to a world-picture, calculated at once to please and refine mankind?”
Whatever the differences between Edwards and Scudder, they shared a similar vision. Theirs was an aesthetic and scientific quest, one that offered the beholder ineffable beauty to ponder and hard data to analyze. But as science became more professional around the turn of the century, it also became more narrowly focused, shoving aside art, leaving behind questions of beauty. Leach laments such developments, as he does changes in the American landscape. The coming of the railroad, for example, allowed for easy access to butterfly habitats, but it also hastened their destruction.
Beautifully printed, bound, and packed with stunning color reproductions of prints from works of Scudder and Edwards, “Butterfly People’’ nonetheless presents challenges for the general reader. Those who are less than avid students of lepidoptery may find Leach’s level of entomological detail off-putting; despite the author’s evident passion for his subjects, debates from such journals such as Canadian Entomologist are a hard sell.
Leach is in pursuit of big ideas about art, science, evolution, collecting, economics, and technology. Yet insight often proves elusive. Try wading through this thicket of verbiage: “Recognition of beauty had probably done more than anything to deepen the human attachment to butterflies and to the nature they inhabited. It was in the interest of natural science, therefore, to remain aware of it, sensitive, to it, steeped in it, whether as something to understand for its own sake (what is natural beauty?) or as a humanizing force or presence, a counterweight or antidote to an analytical science that reduced animals to pieces or parts or particles — a process, indeed, very often indisputably beneficial to human purposes but, on its own, degrading for humans and animals.”
Such deformations detract from a book that otherwise pays fine homage to the great butterfly works of the past.
Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.