Lupercal’s book club is reading Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis. Kim Todd will be joining our meeting on Sunday, February 28th at 12:00 p.m. ET to answer questions. She graciously answered a few questions in advance of our book club meeting.
Merian's scientific accomplishments are tied to her artistic ones. Is there a painting of hers that appeals to you most? If so, which one and why?
Most of Maria Sibylla Merian's work fascinates me in its combination of beauty and rigorous science-minded observation. The sheer exuberance of her Surinam paintings, like the white witch moth with its delicate colors and patterns that almost look like language, draws the viewer in. This is the one that inspired me to start researching her life. But my favorite is much humbler--a picture from one of her books about the metamorphosis of European caterpillars. In it, a poplar branch is swollen with galls of different shapes that have tiny insects of multiple species inside them and around them, along with a much larger hover fly. She captures a whole universe of interrelationships on this little twig and, looking at it, you can see her mind at work. This is the one that hangs in my living room.
What similarities are there in the work Merian did as a scientist and the work that is being done now by modern scientists?
Merian's innovation was showing insects in all their life stages--caterpillar, pupa, moth or butterfly, and sometimes egg--on their food plants. She believed that in order to really understand an animal she needed to see it alive in its natural habitat rather than a dead specimen pinned in a collector's drawer. With these methods, she laid the groundwork for modern-day ecology. Contemporary scientists continue to uncover the ways that metamorphosis is affected by environment, whether insects grow into different colored caterpillars depending on their host plant, or display alternate wing patterns depending on which season they emerge from the pupa. Merian was intrigued by instances of what modern-day entomologists would term "phenotypic plasticity," and investigations of the significance of this phenomenon continue today.
What do you want readers most to take away about Merian after reading your book?
I wrote the book in the hopes that more people--readers, teachers, aspiring artists and scientists--would know Merian as not a botanical illustrator as she was often described, but as an investigator trying to figure out insect metamorphosis, making a contribution to knowledge of her day. This is the way she understood herself and her project. As I researched, I became aware that there were many amazing women living and working alongside Merian, equally overlooked and forgotten. It's a reminder that women, no matter the time period or the constraints society places on them, have always sought to live up to their full human potential.
Kim Todd is the author of four books about science and history, including Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis and Sensational: The Hidden History of America’s “Girl Stunt Reporters.” Her work has appeared in Smithsonian, Orion, and the Best American Science and Nature Writing anthologies, among other places. She can be reached at www.kimtodd.net.
Rachel Beth Cunning (she/her) is happiest exploring the Colorado mountains with her husband--and is lucky enough to live on one. When she's not hiking, she writes novellas and short texts in Latin, runs Bombax Press, and is a co-host of Bene Narras, which offers practical suggestions for writing novellas in Latin.