Monday, September 3, 2018

“The Caterpillars Marvelous Transformation…”

“Small, silent,
swelling to
I do not yet know
what secrets I hold
what marvels await me.”

Joyce Sidman’s poem is written from the point of view of a butterfly egg, the first chapter in The Girl Who Drew Butterflies – How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science.

Maria was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1647.  Her father ran a publishing shop until he died when Maria was only three years old.  Her mother married an artist who painted flowers and insects, which Maria often collected for him. No one knew at that time how insects grew. Some people thought butterflies flew in from somewhere else; others thought they emerged from dew, dung, dead animals or mud. Maria was fascinated.

She learned to paint and draw from her stepfather. But she also collected insects in glass jars to watch them grow and change – silk worms and then moths and butterflies.  Her interest in art and especially science set her apart from other girls in the 17th century. She was different – she had to be careful and clever about how she worked. 

In 1679, at the age of 32, she published a book with a long and fabulous title, typical of the time – The Caterpillars’ Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food. She engraved every print in the book herself and hand-painted many of them, like this title page. You can see her name in the branches at the bottom. 

First published 1679, digitized by the Universitätsbibliothek Erlangen-Nürnberg

Maria did not have a happy marriage, leaving her husband to live in the Netherlands with her mother and daughters. She even moved to Surinam, a South American country with Dutch colonists.

“She rented a house, cultivated a large garden, and plunged into the work of discovering and breeding caterpillars.”

When she returned to Amsterdam several years later, “Maria’s beautiful, accessible art and text electrified her fellow naturalists. Most of the species she discovered were unknown to Europeans at the time, and her observations were widely quoted and discussed.” 

Joyce Sidman raised caterpillars herself while she was writing about Merian and also read her books, including The Caterpillars’ Marvelous Transformation – a primary source for her research. Sidman wrote a short poem for each stage of a butterfly’s life, from egg to approaching death.

The Girl Who Drew Butterflies is the tale of a young woman who stepped far outside the typical world of 17th century girls to become a botanical illustrator and scientist who “saw nature as an ever-transforming web of connections – and changed our view of it forever.”

Here are several ideas to let Maria Merian’s work spark creativity in modern-day young people.

1.    Take a walk outside.  Ask students to look carefully at any living thing – plant, insect, bird. Write a short poem describing the plant or animal – or written from the point of view of that plant or animal, like Sidman’s poems.  Budding artists could instead draw their chosen creature or plant with all the detail of Merian’s illustrations.

2.    Maria Merian traveled to the Dutch colony of Surinam, also known as Dutch Guyana, and now spelled Suriname. Where in the world would you want to travel and why? What would you want to see or learn there?

3.    Are you passionate about something that you would like to make your career? It’s ok if you have no great passion yet, but if you do, write about why you would like to spend your life working in that field.

In her poem about a butterfly in flight, Joyce Sidman mused,

“How vast
the swirling dome
of the sky!
How strong the wings
I have grown
for myself!!”

Encourage young writers and readers to grow strong wings for themselves by writing, drawing and carefully observing the details of their world.

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