From about age nine through thirteen I collected and studied butterflies. My interest was intense; I might well have grown up to be an entomologist. Each summer I visited my father and stepmother, wherever they happened to be; one summer that meant going to Rushford, a little town in upper New York State, to stay with my father Phil, my stepmother Ricky whom I adored, and Ricky’s mother, Jennie Ballard. Mrs. Ballard was very critical—a mean woman, my aunt Verona once said—but I don’t think she was mean, just outspoken. I was 12, and at the height of my powers as a butterfly collector. I was always out in the Ballard gardens and fields with my net and killing jar (a Kleenex soaked with carbon tetrachloride was the agent that instantly suffocated any insect dropped into the jar).
Little brown butterflies, the wood nymphs, were abundant in the hay meadows. I noticed something odd about them. They all had ocelli—circular patterns or eyespots—on the underside of the wings, but in different numbers and arrangements. Some wings had one ocellus, some had four; some spots were big, some little, and so on. I wanted to see if there was any kind of pattern or consistency to this irregularity; it didn’t seem right to be completely random, but it was certainly striking.
I didn’t have room to mount all the wood nymphs, wings spread, so I could compare them, nor did I have any way to carry them, mounted, back to my mother’s house in Ivoryton, Connecticut, after my visit. I knew how to protect them, though, dried with wings folded upward in the normal at-rest position, in little triangular waxed-paper envelopes the butterfly books had shown me how to make. So I collected and killed about 40 wood nymphs, let them dry in their natural state with wings folded, made little envelopes for them, and packed them in a Mason jar to take them safely back to Ivoryton. My intention was to then moisten them as instructed in the books, mount them all on one piece of beaverboard upside down so the undersides of the wings were showing, and have a good look at those ocelli.
Mrs. Ballard stated her disapproval publically, at the dinner table. Her daughter Emmaline (Ricky’s sister) had collected butterflies as a child, but she just took one of each kind; she didn’t kill dozens! I was powerless to argue; I just shut up. My grandson Max Leabo, finding himself in that situation at age 12, would have spoken right up that this was a research project and explained at great length about the curious variations in the eyespots, but I didn’t have that kind of courage. I knew what I was doing and thought of myself as a scientist in the making, but I didn’t know how to explain. Nor did I have any justification to go with an explanation—no school project, for example. And now I’d been rebuked and ridiculed for it. So I said nothing.
I packed up my butterflies and went back to Ivoryton. Of course, I did not find the time or energy in the rest of the summer to soften and mount all those butterflies. I left the jar on a shelf in the pantry. Some years later, when I was in college, my mother Sally asked me if it would be all right to throw them out. Yes, I had to agree that would be okay.
Recently my author/scientist friend Alexandra Horowitz gave me a wonderful book, James Elkins’ How to Use your Eyes. There’s chapter in it on looking at butterfly wings. It turns out that both pairs of wings on any given butterfly are identical. Alas, it had not occurred to me at age 12 to look and see if left and right sides were alike! That was an oversight; a better observer than I would have checked that out. I would not have had to mount my wood nymphs spread out; just one side of each dried, wings-folded-upward butterfly would have served. Heck, I could have laid them all out on wax paper on Mrs. Ballard’s dining room table, grouped by pattern similarities or differences, right there in Rushford. Phil and Ricky, and probably Jennie Ballard too, would have found that interesting.
So the question remained: are there patterns to the variations? And why? I wondered if anyone else did anything about it. Perhaps I should ask Elkins. He’s easy enough to reach; he’s a professor at the Art Institute in Chicago. And then, looking for a photograph of my little brown butterflies online, I discovered that my wood nymphs belong to a group of butterflies that are outstanding for their curiously variable ocelli. Whew, I am not alone after all.
It’s really the curse of the naturalist: trying to explain what you’re doing and why. Darwin probably had trouble explaining to visitors the many years he spent preoccupied with gall wasps. Even now, I repeatedly get asked the old traditional question, by friends and colleagues, by my literary agent, (not by family, my family is used to me): “Why are you doing That? Isn’t That a waste of time? You could be making more money doing something really important! No one’s interested in That.” Oh well. Like Kipling’s Elephant’s Child, I might get thumped for my insatiable curiosity, but I’m not going to stop.