Butterflies and Darwin

5 April 2011

My butterflies arrived on Saturday.  Well, ‘Butterflies and Moths of the Basque Country’ to be exact.  There are about seventy of them in a flat display box all pinned neatly to polystyrene.  There is a sheet of hand-ruled paper in the lid of the box with notes about the poor victims in the box, in blue ink. There is no date on the study, but it looks a little like a school project, 60s or 70s by the style of handwriting.  There is a little pencil-drawn map of the Spanish/French border showing the Bay of Biscay and a few of the coastal towns.  An arrow points to St. Jean-de-Luz with the note and an arrow: ‘we stayed here.’

It seems fitting that these creatures were lured to their death in a place called ‘light’.  It’s a strange hobby  – killing enough things so you have a full compliment to make a sizeable collection.  I guess people have collected things for years though.  I am fascinated by the fashion of collection during Victorian times – the need to pin something down, to claim it and own it as empirical hard evidence.  In their book on Darwin, Desmond and Moore write of his uneasy relationship with nature, referring to his letters they talk of his striving to maintain proper scientific detachment, yet he cannot look outside his study window without being reminded of “The dreadful but quiet war of organic beings going on in the peaceful woods and smiling fields.”  It seems they point to a way of stilling the fear of the unknown.

The first butterfly listed is “Brimstone” and the note tells us “It haunts its favorite flowers like clover, knapweed and bramble.” On the Butterfly Conservation website, it says that “there is a view that the word ‘butterfly’ originates from the yellow ‘butter colour’ colour of male Brimstones” so here I have it – the original butterfly!

So what do I want with them?  I think I want them as metaphors.  It is important somehow that they have been part of somebody’s collection and they have already been transformed into objects before I get my paws onto them.  I have spoken before here about objects as words and words as objects, and it seems as if I am still playing at the same thing…..plus ça change….