Butterflies are arguably the most poetic insect out there – those bright colors, those lighter-than-air bodies, those wings dreamily lifting them closer and closer to the heavens. So it’s no surprise the Sharman Apt Russell’s An Obsession With Butterflies is one of the most elegant, beautifully written nature books I’ve ever read.
Russell clearly has a passion – if not an obsession – for butterflies, which manifests itself in eloquent, compact chapters on such subjects as butterfly love, butterfly parenting, and that great butterfly pretender, the moth (about which, Russell wisely writes “Give them their due. Moths are beautiful. Moths are complex. But they are not butterflies.").
Into her tapestry, Russell weaves the history and geography of the butterfly, including how the insect’s evolution has impacted the world around it. This is most profoundly illustrated in a chapter tying together the tale of the near-extinction of the Palos Verdes Blue butterfly with that of a Los Angeles man named Arthur Bonner, a soldier in the war between the L.A. gangs the Crips and the Bloods who eventually became seduced by butterflies. Of the historic tales included in the book, this is the most fascinating and vivid, clearly illustrating how nearly all human beings are closely tied to nature, even those whom society has given up on.
However, Bonner is only one of the colorful characters who have given in to lure of the butterfly. Russell also introduces us to Eleanor Glanville, who, centuries ago, was so obsessed with butterflies that those around her thought she was mad. Then there’s Dick Vane-Wright, a Keeper of Entomology at the Natural History Museum in London, who tried to make eating the insect acceptable.
Russell keeps it all as light and airy as her subject and, at only about 200 pages, she doesn’t waste a word doing so. At last, butterflies have a work that is worthy of their beauty and grace. And you can thank Russell for that.