Saturday, June 09, 2007

Mistress of Metamorphosis

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, naturalists, artists

In Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis, Kim Todd revives a nearly-forgotten hero of the Renaissance, someone whose amazing work did much to dispel the old notion of spontaneous generation. I obtained this illustration of a butterfly whose larva feeds only on Amaryllis from the Hippeastrum page of a French horticulture website. They obviously have more interest in the flower than the insect, as it isn't mentioned.
But generations of printers have reprinted, revised, edited, and frequently nearly destroyed, the work of Maria Merian, who published six lavishly illustrated books of the natural history of caterpillars in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Three books are based on her work in Surinam in 1699-1701. The earlier three were of European species.

The biography chronicles her life as a gifted artist and printer's daughter, who grew up illustrating flower books and others of a genre we'd call "coffee table" today. But from age 13, when she first watched a moth emerge from its cocoon, her lifelong love was caterpillars, the eggs they hatched from, the pupae they formed—cocooned or not—, the butterflies or moths that they produced, and the plants both larva and adult fed on.

She, more than any other of her generation, patiently gathered the evidence to show that a particular caterpillar always produced a particular adult, even though certain caterpillars have several color phases and certain adult insects have color variations of their own. She struggled with the red-herring depredations of parasitoids that confused the evidence by causing many pupae to emit clouds of flies or wasps rather than the expected insect.

Author Todd traces her life, and the career of her work over the three centuries following her death. Merian was an extraordinary woman in an extraordinary time, a great among greats. Simply being able to work in her chosen field at a time that Galileo was forced to recant that "the Earth moves", and that Newton felt compelled to write more of alchemy and theology then of science, is a marvel in itself. We are all richer for her vision, diligence, and passion.

No comments: