Maria Merian

One scientist, who would have taken issue with last week’s “ignorance is bliss” statement is Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717). This powerhouse of a woman, of whom I knew nothing until the recent fortuitous find of her 2018 biography The Girl Who Drew Butterflies  by Joyce Sidman, not only sought knowledge at every turn, it was insect knowledge she loved above all else, which led her to accomplish feats unusual for any human, let alone for a woman born in the 17th century.

Endpaper detail from “The Girl Who Drew Butterflies” by Joyce Sidman

Maria saw the light of the world in Frankfurt, Germany, on April 2, 1647. Her father, Matthäus Merian the Elder, an engraver and head of a publishing company died when she was only three. Her mother, Johanna Sibylla, remarried. From her stepfather, Jacob Marrel, a still life painter, Maria learned his craft, and she proved talented from an early age. Including insects on still lifes was popular, and Maria, utterly intrigued, began to observe them closely. Most of their life cycles were unknown (the notion of spontaneous generation was still widespread), and while watching and drawing their transformation from egg to caterpillar to moth or butterfly, she became aware of the process of metamorphosis, which was not common knowledge then.

Uncolored engraving of a garden tiger moth on a hyacinth flower from Maria Merian’s 1679 caterpillar book

Maria married at 18, as was expected of her. Her husband, Johann Andreas Graff, also a painter, was ten years her senior. The couple moved to Nuremberg, where they ran a printing and engraving shop. They had two daughters, Johanna and Dorothea. Unusual for the time, Maria published two books with engravings during her sojourn in Nuremberg, one about flowers, another about caterpillars and their remarkable transformation. Eventually, a second caterpillar volume was to follow.

Her marriage was unhappy, and when her stepfather died in 1681, Maria returned to Frankfurt, ostensibly to support her mother, but likely because she wanted to get away from her husband. Four years later, Maria, her two daughters, and her mother joined a religious community in Holland, where Johann sought her out, demanding her return. Maria refused, and they divorced shortly thereafter.

Maria Merian’s depiction of a frog’s life cycle, including eggs, tadpoles, and adults

Following her mother’s death, Maria and her daughters moved to Amsterdam, Holland’s capital and a thriving port city, where she had access to private curiosity cabinets, precursors to museums, with their plant and animal collections from across the world. Together with her daughters, both accomplished artists in their own right, Maria ran a business. They painted and engraved, and Maria taught fellow women artists, while continuing her scientific observations. No animal or plant was beyond her notice. She became particularly intrigued by specimens sent back from the Dutch colony of Surinam, also known as Dutch Guyana.

Maria determined to travel to Surinam to study its flora and fauna. Against all odds, she and her younger daughter financed their own journey, and, from 1699 to 1701, spent nearly two years in this exotic country at the northern coast of South America. Maria would have preferred to stay longer, but reluctantly returned to Europe because of ill health, likely the result of tropical diseases. They arrived with vivid recollections, volumes of notebooks filled with sketches, myriad animal specimens, as well as seeds, bulbs and pressed flowers.

It took four years, but Maria’s masterpiece, a book about the insects of Surinam, was published in 1705. Sixty gorgeous plates depict the different developmental stages of each species on the animal’s host plant. Critical acclaim followed, but not financial gain, as she barely recovered the cost of publication. The Royal Society of London praised Maria’s work, even if it did not offer her membership (the first woman member would not be admitted for another 250 years).

Banana flower, young bananas and saturnid moth from Maria Merian’s book “Metamorphis insectorum Surinamensium”

After her death of a stroke at the age of 69, Tsar Peter the Great bought nearly 300 of her watercolors for Russia’s first art museum, later to be curated by Maria’s daughter, Dorothea. She also published her mother’s third European caterpillar book posthumously. Carl Linnaeus, the “inventor” of the binomial nomenclature, cited her extensively in the 10th edition of his 1758 Systema Naturae. In subsequent centuries, Maria’s “amateur” accomplishments were largely forgotten, until she was rediscovered, and recognized as a trailblazer and scientist ahead of her time. Her portrait graced the 500 Deutschmark bill, before the introduction of the Euro.

Pineapple plant and tropical cockroach from Maria Merian’s book “Metamorphis insectorum Surinamensium”

I’m grateful to Joyce Sidman. Her The Girl who drew Butterflies acquainted me with a remarkable woman whose contributions to the life sciences should not be overlooked. 303 years ago to the day, Maria Merian passed away on January 13, 1717.

Bitte verzeiht mir, daß es wegen der Länge dieses Beitrags heute keine deutsche Übersetzung gibt.

Goodbye Summer

Goodbye to summer heat.

You scorch the earth

And sap humans and animals alike.

Servus Sommer

Du versengst die Erde

Und laugst Menschen und Tiere gleichermaßen aus.

So long to colorful blossoms.

You delight the senses

And provide a feast to connoisseurs of nectar.

Auf Wiedersehen Ihr farbigen Blüten

Ihr erfreut die Sinne

Und bereitet ein Fest für Nektarfeinschmecker.

To enlarge a photo, click on it. To read its caption, hover cursor over it.

Zum Vergrößern, das Bild bitte anklicken. Um den Titel zu lesen, mit der Maus darüber schweben.

Adieu to gossamer-winged creatures.

You beautify any estival day

And enthrall by your fairy-like appearance.

Adieu Ihr zartbeflügelten Kreaturen

Ihr verschönt jeden Sommertag

Und bezaubert mit Eurer elfenartigen Präsenz.

Farewell to furry faces.

You incessantly labor in anticipation of winter

And your charm never fails to lift our sprits.

Machts gut ihr Pelzgesichter

Ihr arbeitet unermüdlich auf den Winter zu

Und Euer Charme macht immer gute Laune.

Adios also to some feathered friends.

You wake us with heavenly notes before dawn

And gladden our hearts all the livelong day.

Lebt wohl unsere gefiederten Freunde

Ihr weckt uns vor Anbruch des Tages

Und erfreut uns den lieben langen Tag.

Goodbye Summer—Welcome Autumn.

Auf Wiedersehen Sommer—Herzlich Willkommen Herbst.

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With apologies to my fellow bloggers in the southern hemisphere, who are currently reveling in vernal awakening.

Ich bitte meine Bloggerfreunde auf der südlichen Halbkugel um Verzeihung. Ich bin mir bewußt, daß Ihr momentan im Frühlingserwachen schwelgt.

Flying Jewels-Part 2

Who doesn’t like butterflies?! Lissome and lithe, their shiny, sparkling, shimmering bodies float from one nectar-filled goblet to the next on gossamer wings, sipping of the sweet life-sustaining syrup. Their habitat ranges from the mountains to the valleys, their sizes and shades cover a wide spectrum, and their metamorphosis from tiny egg to larva (caterpillar) to pupa (chrysalis) to adult is almost too fantastic to believe. While I am one of many butterfly fans, I do not know much about these lovely insects, a shortcoming I hope to remedy.

One person who knows A LOT about these winged wonders is one of America’s foremost lepidopterists and conservationists, Robert Michael Pyle. I first learned about him by happenstance when I came across The Thunder Tree at a bookstore in Moab, Utah, in 2011. A memoir of his childhood in a still-wild suburb of Denver before it ballooned into the behemoth that supplanted vast, vibrant stretches of prairie with dead deserts of concrete, it elaborates on his burgeoning passion for butterflies. His style and passion for nature compelled me to buy Mariposa Road, the story of his Butterfly Big Year, but, alas, my good intentions were sidetracked by lesser pursuits, and his 550 page oeuvre has been staring at me accusingly from the shelf for the last seven years.

To avoid a similar scenario, when I recently noticed an advertisement for his latest publication, I did not waste any time, and devoured Magdalena Mountain, his first novel, in a few days. Set in Colorado and full of alluring descriptions of its high country and denizens, the narrative revolves around the amazing life cycle of the Magdalena Alpine butterfly (Erebia magdalena). Natural history is interspersed and contrasted with an account of the political, religious, and social changes that influenced this state and country, and the author’s affirmation of life and love (sexual descriptions are not limited to butterflies) runs through the suspenseful, lyrical narrative like a common thread. One of many possible conclusions I carried away: Only when we cease to look at life in an anthropocentric way will humankind have a chance to survive, and to leave behind a livable earth.

Inspired, I pulled the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies off the shelf where it had collected dust for even longer than Mariposa Road. My husband’s handwritten dedication indicated that this was a birthday present to me in 1998! It seems impossible that two decades have passed so swiftly, but I was equally as surprised to see that this tome was authored by none other than Robert Michael Pyle. Having come full circle, I finally leafed through its glossy pages and tried to identify some of the Colorado butterflies whose pictures I have taken throughout the years, Magdalena not (yet) among them. If I have erred, please correct me. I look forward to understanding more about these creatures who have been at the center of Mr. Pyle’s life, and long and luminous career.

Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus)/Gemeiner Bläuling

Sulfur (Colias ?)/Gelbling

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui )/Amerikanischer Distelfalter

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui )/Amerikanischer Distelfalter

Western Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio rutulus)/Westlicher Tigerschwalbenschwanz

Anise Swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon)/Anis-Schwalbenschwanz

Phoebus Parnassian (Parnassius phoebus)/Alpenapollo

Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa)/Trauermantel

Western White (Pontia occidentalis)/? Westlicher Weißling

Callippe Fritillary, female (Speyeria callippe)/? Perlmutterfalter, weiblich

Callippe Fritillary, male (Speyeria callippe)/? Perlmutterfalter, männlich

Weidemeyer’s Admiral (Limenitis weidermeyerii)/? W. Admiral

Click here for Flying Jewels-Part 1, my post about hummingbirds.

Click here for my post Monarchs and Milkweed, which shows the amazing life cycle of the butterfly shown in the topmost photo, and the many perils it faces.

Butterfly Fever

     Late summer and early fall brought an invasion of the Rocky Mountain region by legions of gossamer-winged Painted Ladies. Denver weather radar detected large swarms of these lovely lepidopterans undulating across the screen in what amounted to a seventy mile band. While this is not an unusual phenomenon in eastern states, it was a novelty for Colorado. Many were the reported sightings and resulting delight shared in newspapers, on television, and numerous blogs.

     Between the end of August and the latter part of October, Colorado Springs residents and guests were also treated to a winged visitation of another kind. Thanks to the 10th annual “Flight” event organized by the Rotary Club, twenty-four handcrafted butterflies landed on the lawn of our local Pioneers Museum, where they contributed color and whimsy to an active downtown arts scene. Those steely individuals with three foot wingspans alighted on seven foot tall poles after they were fashioned by Colorado artists. They were subsequently auctioned off at a special fundraiser and the proceeds will support arts and science programs in our largest school district, besides additional worthy causes.

     One of our incredible bluebird autumn days found me at my favorite museum. I benefitted from perfect climatic conditions and clicked away with my camera. Being encircled by a cloud of enchanting, enormous creations resulted in difficulty electing favorites. Each butterfly was named and each told its own story on its ventral and dorsal surfaces, the intricacies of which were impossible to capture. My photos show a small selection of these inspired labors of love.

Transformation-The Flight of the Phoenix

Tiger Passion

Sunset Silhouette

Harmonious Dream

Huichol Wilderness

Into the Light

Beauty and the Beast

The Four Seasons

The Four Seasons

     When, among those immovable creatures, I perceived the quivering of so many mobile wings, delicate in detail yet sturdy enough to convey their owners to distant lands, I was both humbled and exalted to witness this magical moment.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/11/09/schmetterlingsfieber/

Change

For weeks the unmistakable signs of approaching autumn have advertised the change in seasons, yet they coexist with vestiges of estival exuberance.

Still, butterflies drink deeply of the sweet nectar of friendly flowers whose vital force continues to pulsate.

Still, the sun warms the air and lights the days, though they are growing shorter. Birds wing southward to milder climes, and while one swallow does not a summer make, the absence of their multitudes signals summer’s end.

Barn swallows at the height of summer. Now they are gone.

The transformation of green foliage into hues of yellow, orange, and red, and of colorful blossoms into seed-bearing vessels is the most obvious harbinger of the earth’s ever-increasing distance from our solar orb. It is accompanied by a chill that rides on Aeolus’s wings, by leaves that tumble in his wake, and by the smell of composting vegetation on his breath.

It is a time of endings. The ending of vibrancy. The ending of the earth’s most productive period.

     A time of wistfulness.

     A time to reflect on goals unfinished.

     A time of regrets.

It is also a time of beginnings. The beginning of dormancy. The beginning of the earth’s most conservative period.

     A time of gratitude.

     A time to celebrate accomplishments.

     A time of hope.

Hope, that life will continue, that we will have another chance, that spring will once again spring.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/10/05/wandel/