We are all familiar with the process of metamorphosis, if only vaguely. But to watch a butterfly emerge from its papery chrysalis, its still-wet wings painted with liquid color, its jet-black proboscis probing for nectar, is to understand transformation on a different level — from that of true wonder.
In a new biography, Kim Todd writes engagingly of Maria Sibylla Merian’s fascination with and discovery of one of the first concepts in biology: the development of one form into another. Merian’s lifelong study of this remarkable phenomenon provides the basis for Todd’s captivating portrayal. Here was a woman who laid the empirical groundwork for Linnaeus’s taxonomy and Goethe’s ecological reasoning, and who radically revised the prescientific worldview of spontaneous generation (where insects were “born of mud”) to one informed by the existence of lifecycles.
Merian lived a life of surprisingly creative enterprise in seventeenth-century Europe. Amid her family’s productions of illustrated books and maps of the newly explored Americas, she became a botanic artist and a zealous observer of the natural world, where she found herself compulsively drawn to insects. Unlike other painters of her time, who randomly settled beetles on tulip petals, she studied the lives of her subjects and recorded the life history of hundreds of creatures while creating art for wealthy patrons. Merian’s work, with titles such as Hyacinth with Ichneumonid Wasps and Garnet Anemones and a Twist Moth, aptly reflects the blend of art and science that she ably embodied.
Todd reveals both Merian the artist, her studio crammed with larvae and mixing pots of paint, as well as Merian the naturalist, who hungrily pursued explanations of life’s diversity in a pre-Darwinian time. When Merian, at fifty-two, travels to Surinam to further satisfy her curiosity about metamorphosis, Todd’s vivid writing takes us with her and allows us to marvel at the pattern of metamorphosis so apparent in the tropics: leaf cutter ants carrying pupae in their mandibles; iridescent morpho butterflies that begin life as daintily spotted eggs. What makes Chrysalis such a pleasure is that our awe is guided by Merian’s discoveries. Her life was dedicated to understanding and depicting the science of transformation, yet she never lost her enchantment with what few of us could deny is also miraculous.