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They are set apart from other winged life by their colors and graceful flight; they are the closest thing the natural world offers to our idea of the spirit. To a variety of cultures from ancient times to the near-present, butterflies have represented the visible part of the human soul. It turned out to be a Skipper, a moth-type butterfl "Artists have long seen something spiritual in the butterfly. It turned out to be a Skipper, a moth-type butterfly. I learned soon after that they are known to be a symbol of departed souls and great transformation. I will always be grateful to that little Skipper!

I would say "butterfly enthusiast" for Marren would be an understatement! He takes us not only through his private, personal passion for the butterfly and the natural world, but through the history of butterfly collecting, and the butterfly as a meaningful creature and symbol in our culture and literature.


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Many probably don't know that Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, had a crazy passion for butterflies and was an avid collector. Butterfly collecting was en vogue for several hundreds of years, reaching a maddening frenzy during the Victorian age, and then suddenly dropped as a respectable hobby in some instances it is even illegal! For instance, at the time I was reading this book, the rare Large Blue, one of the author's favorite butterflies, known for its beauty and expansive blue wings, was featured on the front page of The New York Times with the title "Justice for Large Blue. On a separate note, yesterday was National Library Workers Day so I also wanted to acknowledge all of those amazing librarians and their staff that bring change through books every day!

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The first part of this book goes into the collecting of butterflies as an activity. Marren relates to his own experience as a boy and many others growing up during the same or earlier eras of butterfly collecting as a past-time, as a hobby, as any other collecting or for grander ideas such as the development of science through the study of butterflies.

At least a third of the book is given over to butterfly collecting followed by a discussion on the study of butterflies which understandably goes hand in hand. A second part of the book goes into the meaning of butterflies, the symbols of butterflies in literature, art, and history. What purpose have they served for us humans, what significance do these flying creatures of color represent to us? One of the people mentioned within this part is Nabokov, also known as a butterfly collector, and some parallels are made to the way Nabokov writes especially in his novel 'Lolita', using butterfly metaphors.

The idea of butterflies as representing the soul is another interesting discussion that for me gave light to many other works of art or media, in the way butterflies have been used as the soul or as the essence of life. The last part of the book focuses in on the conservation of butterflies, the ongoing battle in trying to save, protect, and in some cases re-introduce species of butterflies already or on the point of extinction.

As a bonus, this part of the book raises questions of the way humans and butterflies have and can co-exist and co-habit the world, and what that really means in concrete terms.

I was a little skeptical about reading an entire book on an insect, my interest in predators I felt has been fairly well-established for most of my life but insects just hasn't grabbed my attention the same way. Butterflies have sort of been the exception, although after having read this book I'm on the look-out for more entomological nonfiction, I definitely haven't had enough! That said, there's a lot to find of interest in Rainbow Dust even if you're not necessarily an animal lover or a lover of butterflies in particular.

As mentioned above, a great part of this book focuses on the scientific development of the study of nature, of animals, and how the study of butterflies lead to some interesting and important break-throughs in other parts of scientific research. One aspect of butterflies that has been of particular interest is the process of evolution, from larvae to a full blown butterfly.

Another aspect of butterflies that is possibly a greater reason for butterflies' popularity is the colors and intricate patterns on their wings. How can one not feel in awe of these specimen? One of the main deciding factors it seems for such a role were first and foremost money and independence, second an profound admiration and interest for the species. One such person mentioned is Miriam Rothschild who Marren also writes, was part of his inspiration to write this book in the first place.

I would gladly read an entire book on her alone. I really enjoyed the discussion on the butterfly as a symbol for other things, like the soul, or even the mythology surrounding certain butterfly species or the animal on the whole. For example Marren mentions a few specific paintings where the butterfly is supposedly used as a symbol for temptation, others where it's used as a symbol for death. While much of the discussion on butterfly collection, study, art and symbolism, even the conservation, was fascinating and rewarding, I would say the portrayal of butterfly collecting isn't exactly balanced.

I felt like much of the reason this part got such a large section of the book wasn't completely because of its importance for the study but largely due to Marren's wish in justifying the practice, showing it's positive sides so that a lack of such positivity wouldn't lead the reader to lean towards the negative.

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While I wouldn't say butterfly collecting was a practice of evil or anything of the like, nor would I say the book falls because of this particular bias, but I would just like to bring it to light for future readers. If you're looking for a more balanced view of butterfly collecting, its role in the loss of butterfly species, extinction and the like, this isn't it. Another thing I'd say as a complaint of the book is again not necessarily a deciding factor against it. As I've said, the book focuses heavily on the human's of the stories even though the butterflies are clearly acting their parts in the book.

From the title "Three centuries of Delight in British Butterflies" you might get the impression, as I did, that there would be more discussion on the actual butterflies, and towards the latter third or so this is certainly true. I suppose I felt like the book had less of a strict intent throughout, so that instead the book would shift between points of subjects all circling around butterflies and human's relationship with them, but not quite getting to the butterfly nature until the last part.

In fact the natural history in terms of butterfly behavior and eating habits, sleeping habits, etc. But again, I wouldn't say it's necessarily a make-it-or-break it sort of situation, more that it wasn't quite what I was expecting although I ended up enjoying it all the same. The appendix made up for the lack of direct description of butterflies, and I'm sure there's many other books that go into butterflies nature and behavior in more depth, just that this book doesn't serve that purpose. Lastly I'll say the main problem I had, which did in fact take away from enjoyment and appreciation for it but that wasn't so much Marren's fault: the lack of illustrations throughout the book.

The chapter headings each had an illustration of a butterfly but the name of the butterfly included wasn't given so as a reader unfamiliar with different butterfly species it was hard to keep track of different species.


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If not possible for butterfly illustrations for each mention of a species or the first mention of it in ongoing text at least the appendix could've had an illustration for each species that is described as a sort of encyclopedia to flick back and forth while reading. It's possibly a small detail but it would've made such a difference for me.

One design thing this book does have in its favor though is an extensive index, almost 20 pages long. Hooray for publishers realizing indexes are invaluable! All in all, not the be-all-end-all of butterfly nonfiction but nevertheless an interesting exploration of human's relationship with butterflies both past and present, and where we'll go from here.

Sep 06, Mark Avery rated it it was amazing. This is, for me, the very best natural history book I have read this year. Peter Marren wri This is, for me, the very best natural history book I have read this year. Peter Marren writes so well, and he knows so much, and he is generous with his knowledge — in person as well as in the pages of this book.

What might a Red Admiral signify in a medieval painting? And what might its pattern signify to an attacking bird? The answers to both questions are fascinating — and unexpected. The lovely jacket is by Carry Akroyd — a slightly different style from her usual, but no less perfectly beautiful for that.

I could tell you more about things that are in the book but all I really need to say is that you will probably enjoy it immensely. Laila Berzins's official Instagram. Retrieved 29 January Showbuzz Daily.

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