You’ve read about the spirituality and sexuality of birds and mollusks in “H Is for Hawk” and “The Soul of an Octopus.” Now, get ready for some butterfly lovin’.
Although “The Language of Butterflies” has been spoken of as that insect’s answer to Helen Macdonald’s “H Is for Hawk,” an even better comparison is to Mary Roach’s chatty science-based books such as “Gulp” and “Stiff.” Wendy Williams’ “Language” doesn’t try for the startling intimacy of Macdonald’s memoir; it’s more anecdotal, even more in love with its subject and, like Roach’s work, a whole lot funnier.
There’s a chapter called “How Butterflies Saved Charles Darwin’s Bacon,” for instance. And, having cited the 24-word title of a Darwin book about orchids, Williams wryly connects that to present-day trends in writing: “In those days, it was thought that titles should tell readers exactly — exactly — what they were paying for. No cheapening clickbait allowed.”
The comic asides are balanced by poetry, as when Williams concludes her book with a lovely new definition of “butterfly effect” or when she observes, “The language of butterflies is the language of color. They speak to each other using that flash and dazzle. I sometimes imagine them as the world’s first artists.”
Humorist and poet though she may be, you don’t need to read Williams’ author bio to know she’s really a journalist, because she has a clear, logical style and a reporter’s instinct for telling stories through the people. One of the pleasures of the book is how gracefully Williams shifts between mini-profiles of pioneering butterfly fans and experts, the majority of whom are female or children or both.
There’s the preteen Oregon lepidopterophile who was wandering in a meadow when he discovered a brilliant Fender’s blue butterfly, which had been thought to be extinct. There’s Miriam Rothschild, a butterfly lover who supposedly invented the seat belt and who once proclaimed, “I must say, I find everything interesting.” There’s the California 5-year-old who released a tagged monarch into the unknown, assuming she might be its last human contact, only to learn that it was recaptured — and studied — several times in the succeeding months.
Most vividly, there is “long-ignored genius housewife” Maria Sibylla Merian, a butterfly lover who was cut out of official study because of her gender and responded by putting together her own curriculum. Predating John James Audubon by a century, her gorgeous paintings of what Robert Frost called “flowers that fly” are still studied by experts, more than 300 years after she made them.
Many aspects of butterflies’ lives remain a mystery to us but Williams fills us in on what scientists know about how they’ve survived 200,000 years and how they manage grueling annual trips between Mexico and Canada, with pit stops at the vanishing milkweed fields they seek along the way.
It’s a charming, even suspenseful tale, courtesy of the sly cliffhangers with which Williams concludes most chapters. Those tempt us to stay up past bedtime so effectively that she doesn’t need the “more on that later” clunkiness she resorts to three times in the book’s first 20 pages alone. On the other hand, when this charming, too-brief book ended, that is exactly what I was thinking: More on that!
Chris Hewitt is a Star Tribune writer and critic. 612-673-4367
The Language of Butterflies
By: Wendy Williams.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 240 pages, $26.