V.G. Dethier, entomologist

Dethier, Vincent G.  1992. Crickets and Katydids, Concerts and Solos. Cambridge MA. Harvard Univ. Press. 140 pp.

A wonderful little book, recounting his summer as a field assistant to G.W. Pierce, who studied the acoustics of insect songs. Also gives keys to both the orthopterans discussed and their sounds as well as a bibliography. Lovely pen and ink illustrations by Abigail Rorer .

The chapter entitled The Shield Bearers (p. 100) begins as follows: “The stereotypical entomologist is an odd character, long of nose, short of vision, adorned with Ben Franklin spectacles, and given to dashing madly o’er the lea, with net and beard streaming in tandem in the breeze of his pursuit.” The chapter epigraph is a quote from John Phillips’s “Cyder.”  which advises catching wasps that swarm on ripe apples by hanging up vials of “Moyle,” a kind of cider made from Moyle apples, “Mum,” a type of beer, or “Treacle’s viscous juice,” that is , blackstrap molasses. Just about the formula we still use today for moth bait.

Vince Dethier (1915-1993) is a writer every aspiring entomologist ought to read, especially his To Know A Fly [1962. Holden-Day. 119 pp] or for the serious student, The Hungry Fly [1976. Cambridge MA. Harvard Univ. Press. 512 pp. His writing is humorous, lucid and just fun.

Image: male macropterous form of Russel’s bush cricket – Flickr

For the Love of Leps

bflyLeach, William. Butterfly People. An American Encounter With the Beauty of the World. Pantheon. New York. 388 pp. 2013.

This book, beautifully illustrated, is a history of the discovery and documentation of the butterfly fauna of the United States and of the entomologists, amateur and professional, who fed the public fascination with butterflies in the 19th century – Samuel Scudder, William Henry Edwards, Herman Strecker, Augustus Grote, W. J. Holland, and many others. The author has many reflections on the importance of both Darwin and Romanticism (especially German) on the interpretation of the biology and meaning of butterflies. There is also a lot on the collectors, scientific and commercial, who travelled throughout North America and the rest of the world to satisfy the demand for specimens, often at considerable risk and always with much hardship. Butterflies and moths were much more than a scientific concern: there was a great deal of commerce in specimens, as many, if not most, young men of middle class aspirations had a Lepidoptera collection, even if few collected themselves. It is strange to think in our day of fancy cars, world travel and electronic devices, how much one’s status might have been tied up in various collections, whether, insects, stamps, shells or books.

Leach mentions George Santayana’s The Sense of Beauty several times as a perspective on the 19th-century’s fascination with natural form and color. As well as commercial specimens, large format books with color plates were an important part of the butterfly business. He talks about the illustrators and the changing technology of color reproduction.

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia was one of the repositories of collections, including the very early and important Titian Peale collection, which was to have formed the basis of a never-completed series of books by that second-generation Philadelphia artist. The American Entomological Society, founded 1859, played a role as well. The society’s book collection, still housed at the Ewell Sale Stewart Library of the Academy, includes many of the most attractive 19th-century publications.

This is a fine account of what natural history meant to Americans in the first century and a half of the nation and of the friendships and rivalries among these early naturalists.

Neotropical travellers

Essay on the Geography of Plants, by Alexander von Humboldt, and Aimee Bonpland. 2009 (1807). Edited by Stephen Jackson. Translated by Sylvie Romanowski. University of Chicago Press. Chicago. 274 pp with tableau in pocket
This book is pure descriptive natural history, with almost no speculation or discussion of causes. It is divided into Humboldt’s Essay of some 30 or 40 pages and the longer Tableau Physique prepared by Humboldt and Bonpland. Some of Von Humboldt’s fascinations, like barometric pressure, which he includes along with temperature, humidity and “electrical tension” as factors influencing plant distribution, seem peculiar to me, but I have to remember that he was much more limited in what he could measure than we are today. Another peculiarity is his notion of “social” plants, by which he seems to mean those that form dense monocultures as opposed to mixed stands. He says these live “in organized society, like ants and bees…” His examples include mangroves, Cladonia lichens and pines, but also Vaccinium. He notes that such plants are more common in the temperate regions than in the tropics. Mexico is an exception, harboring many temperate species, like pine, oak and sweet gum, which he attributes in part to the vast geographical expanse of the northern part of America, narrowing southwards. Somehow this causes Mexico to be colder than similar latitudes elsewhere. Then there is his idea of “subterranean vegetation,” which seems to mean fungi in caves and mines. He treats these “cryptograms,” alongside lichens and mosses. How aware was he of the fundamental distinction between autotrophs and heterotrophs? Photosynthesis was barely beginning to be understood in his time.
He also lacked a clear notion of geologic time, referring only to remote ages, but with no sense of the scope and significance of the fossil record. Only the epoch of human spread across the earth is accessible to his reflections on the distribution of plants. When compared to Graham’s Natural History of the New World, he has far less to go on, and barely any sense of the potential of fossils to shed light on modern plant communities and their distributions. Yet Graham clearly is following in the footsteps of von Humboldt and Bonpland.
One advance he makes is to point out the importance of physiognomy alongside taxonomy in describing communities of plants (another of his ideas) what we today commonly call life forms or growth forms.
The main thing, though, is the Tableau Physique, the profile of the Andes, using the volcano Chimborazo thought, at the time, to be the highest peak in the world. The detailed data packed into a single illustration is startling and quite beautiful. The other wonderful part is his concluding reflections in the essay on the value of natural history writing and artwork in elevating and liberating our understanding, even if we cannot experience these amazing places directly.