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Butterfly People: An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World Kindle Edition

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Length: 449 pages Word Wise: Enabled Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
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Editorial Reviews Review

Guest Review by Robert Michael Pyle

Bob Pyle

Robert Michael Pyle is the author of The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies .

Butterfly People is the most exciting butterfly book I have read in years: open it anywhere, and the pages spread to reveal stories, spangles, and mysteries as beguiling as any butterfly's pattern. Bill Leach takes us on an extraordinary flight among the collectors, scientist- artists, and other pioneers of butterflies who gave us their names, first studied their lifeways, and otherwise brought them to public attention in America and abroad. Everyone who suffers from an unquenchable love of Lepidoptera will find deep delight and endless fascination in Bill Leach's masterful history of this universal human passion for the most beautiful of insects. Dead and dry in books, the names of people intimately associated with our beloved butterflies—Edwards, Scudder, Strecker, Holland, many more— live and breathe in these enchanted pages. After fifty years of butterfly study, I feel as if I finally know the great and very human lepidopterists I have idolized since boyhood. Nor are they lives of monotonous ecstasy in the Elysian fields—ecstasy there is in plenty, but it is set among scenes of salty struggle, venal ego, mortal drama, and heroic striving that, taken altogether, made for the greatest century of butterfly art and understanding ever achieved. I know no better window into the exciting era of Darwinian encounter with novel life forms than this--to be sure, a thrilling read for all contemporary Butterfly People.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Historian Leach (Country of Exiles, 1999) was wild for butterflies as a boy, and he now turns his exuberant joy in their winged beauty into a unique celebration of nineteenth-century American butterfly fanatics. Naturalism was all the rage, fueled by Darwin’s discoveries, and butterfly people collected, bred, and studied vast numbers of the resplendent butterfly species that then flourished on the land’s “agrarian tapestry.” With scintillating precision and original, paradigm-shifting interpretation, Leach tells the intriguing, delvingly researched life stories of such lepidopterological trailblazers as William Henry Edwards, a coal-mine manager who wrote the landmark, three-volume Butterflies of North America, and stone carver Herman Strecker, whose father tried to beat his youthful obsession with butterflies out of him but who persisted and amassed America’s largest butterfly collection, now housed at the Field Museum in Chicago. Leach astutely considers how pursuing butterflies “placed people inside the fullness of nature,” engendering crucial ecological understanding, even as escalating industrialization caused environmental destruction. Replete with forays into the creation of butterfly guidebooks and art, the mania for exotic specimens, and a history of the butterfly net, Leach’s astute and exciting inquiry into a time of heightened awareness of “the beauty of the world, in both its natural and its artificial forms,” delivers new understanding of our past and present. --Donna Seaman

Product Details

  • File Size: 76014 KB
  • Print Length: 449 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0375422935
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1 edition (April 9, 2013)
  • Publication Date: April 9, 2013
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B009Y4I4PQ
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,105,682 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By David B Richman on May 3, 2013
Format: Hardcover
While browsing in a bookstore in Edmunds, Washington, I came across this very specialized history of butterfly and moth study in the United States during the Nineteenth Century. Certainly in "Butterfly People: An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World" William Leach has created a most attractive tome. The book is worth the cost just for the beautiful reproductions of Nineteenth Century plates of butterflies and moths. However the casual reader might be tempted to think that this is a book full of dull facts about a very narrow field in a rather uninteresting historical period. In this they would be in error, as the study of the Lepidoptera gave exciting insights into evolution, genetics (eventually), distribution and ecology, as well as behavior. Not only that, but the lives of the lepidopterists makes fascinating reading. Most of the people involved, such as William Henry Edwards, Theodore Mead, Henry Edwards, Samuel Scudder, Augustus Grote, Holland, and others, led lives that were not isolated from the events of the day and in very human fashion they had their disagreements, which could become quite bitter. Leach has well captured the excitement of natural history as practiced by the best in the field, some of whom studied not only the adults, but the immature stages, from egg to pupa, as well. These were for the most part experts in their areas and they contributed to numerous areas of biology, not just limited to butterflies and moths. Among other contributions they were early pioneers in the study of the entire life cycles of their organisms, and these researches led to a much deeper understanding of the butterfly and moth fauna than just collecting (although important in its own right) did.

I have two, very minor quibbles. On pp.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Art Shapiro on May 25, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Technically it may be an ethical violation for me to review this book, since I was consulted regularly by the author, read the MS and offered detailed feedback, and blurbed it on the jacket. So naturally I think it's wonderful. Objectively, it is. But to pique the interest of potential readers, I will mention something that isn't obvious: the great butterfly workers of the 19th and early 20th centuries may have been splendid scientists, but they were often prickly and difficult people. There's more fussin', fightin' and feudin' in here than in a history of the moonshining industry. And it's fascinating stuff that sheds light on how science actually gets done and evolves over time...which one would expect, given that the author is a distinguished historian, not a pulp writer. As they say, it's a great read. Check it out.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Jerry on August 30, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Admittedly, this book could not have been titled "Nineteenth century Lepidopterologists", however, it does provide a window into the science of Lepidopterology (the study of butterflies and moths) through the people who were acquirers, field collectors, and/or scienctists. Everyone is 'trapped in their time,' Leach's book gives us a glimpse into the life and times of middle and upper classes in 19th century America via the butterfly people. With quotes from preserved correspondence we are shown such things as how railroads, and later roads allowed access to new wilderness, how industrial practices benign by today's standards had effects on local butterflies, how the postal service affected lives and influenced scientific progress and also but not least, how collectors willingly suffered hardship and privation to procure specimens whether for their beauty, for the thrill of discovery, or for simply making a living at a time when all of natrure was still held to be an inexhaustible source of wonder and wealth. This reviewer sees three reoccurring themes: 1) The environs of 19th century America as described by the butterfly people, 2) the degree to which and at what point in their careers these early workers recognized (or not) the impact of economic development on the butterflies they found, and 3) The gradual disarticulation of a natural philosophy that united art, wonder, and science and the grasping and pulling hand of economics behind it.

I read an e-additon of "The Butterfly People" which had outstanding good points and one glitch. Good points were the copious referenced footnotes and the perfect (I checked them all) links between footnotes and text as well as the fully interlinked index.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on July 4, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Who is not cheered by the sight of a butterfly? Other insects pain, impoverish, or sicken us, but butterflies are "flying flowers" or "winged jewels," or at least those are a couple of the ways eighteenth-century butterfly enthusiasts referred to them. Alfred Russel Wallace was the co-discoverer of evolution, and he appreciated butterflies as examples of descent with modification, but he also said that the use of the butterfly's colorful wings was "to add the final touches to a world-picture, calculated at once to please and refine mankind." Indeed, he found collecting one specimen so thrilling that he wrote, "On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt more like fainting than I have done when in apprehension of death. I had a headache the rest of the day." That's the sort of passion that inspired many others, and in _Butterfly People: An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World_ (Pantheon), historian William Leach tells how Americans were afflicted with the butterfly madness during the nineteenth century. Leach is a butterfly enthusiast, and that is one reason he wrote the book. If you don't share that passion, don't worry; there are enough odd characters and backbiting here to keep things interesting, plus plenty of insights into insect science, ecology, and the mindset of American entrepreneurs of the time.

Though many families had butterfly nets, Leach of course concentrates on those collectors who made the biggest of collections, or had the biggest business in selling or trading specimens, or did scientific research or published guides to butterfly identification. One was Herman Strecker, a memorial stone carver with a collection of 200,000 specimens.
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