What about Maria Sibylla Merian's story spoke to you?
Maria was such a remarkable person on so many levels—naturalist, artist, explorer. That she faced extraordinary obstacles during her lifetime, particularly the real possibility of being sentenced to death as a witch for her interest in insects, only further underscored her courage, strength and accomplishments. She’s a real inspiration.
Why is Merian significant?
Maria was first to reveal through visual means the process of metamorphosis in butterflies and moths. She also noted that butterflies and caterpillars rely on specific plants at different life stages and that other insects and animals, such as beetles and frogs, undergo metamorphosis, too. In the process, she helped disprove the theory of spontaneous generation, the longstanding belief that butterflies generate from inanimate matter like mud, and false metamorphosis, the inaccurate idea that species such as bees could arise from a different species like cows. By observing animals in their natural environments, she helped introduce an ecological approach to science.
Q&A Regarding 'Emerging Butterflies:
The Story of Maria Sibylla Merian'
(Cricket, April 2013)
“Maria was such a remarkable person on so many levels—naturalist, artist, explorer. That she faced extraordinary obstacles during her lifetime, particularly the real possibility of being sentenced to death as a witch for her interest in insects, only further underscored her courage, strength and accomplishments.”
Photography had yet to be invented during her lifetime in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, but Maria was able to communicate her ideas through her beautiful yet accurate artwork. Her breathtaking watercolor paintings are considered genuine works of art and are admired today for their intimacy, sense of wonder and lifelike energy. I was gratified that Cricket was able to print so many of her wonderful art pieces with my story. The digital edition showcases several additional paintings.
A photo I took of one of the many beautiful butterflies I saw the day I first visited the live butterfly exhibit.
How did you first learn of her?
I’ve been asked whether I got the idea for my piece from an exhibit about Maria and her daughters’ work at the wonderful J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 2008. Though I love the Getty and have been there several times, I missed that exhibit. Some of the materials produced for it, though, were helpful to me in my research. (See the website below.) What first inspired me was a live butterfly exhibit I visited one summer at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. (See the photo above.) Walking among so many beautiful butterflies flitting about was a delight, and I wondered if some person had done anything significant in relation to them. When I found Maria, I knew her story was one I wanted to help tell.
How did you write her story?
Maria’s story grabbed me, and I researched and wrote it rather quickly, in a few bursts of inspired energy. Oddly enough but rather appropriately, much of it was written while on vacation in the country of Panama. The vibrant colors and cacophony of bird squawks from the nearby jungles, as well as the plethora of info on butterflies there, entranced me. I devoured research materials and wrote by pen in a green notebook. At the time it didn’t feel like work. It was fun and absorbing and helped connect me even more to the place I was visiting.
Does Merian’s story hold important lessons for us today?
Yes, I feel Maria’s story is quite relevant today on more than one level. A couple scientists have thanked me for sharing her story, explaining that wildlife conservation is important to ensure a diversity of life survives. Unless kids understand the natural world around them, they tell me, their own work in this field is ultimately futile. We all need to care a little more about species other than our own. They add greatly to the richness and beauty of our world.
In addition to her pioneering work as a naturalist and artist, Maria also blazed an early path for women. She didn't allow the constrictive customs of her day to stop her from doing the work she wanted to do and contribute in a meaningful way. Girls and women have valuable gifts and insights to share, and they shouldn’t be held back from learning, growing and working. Everyone benefits from their contributions.
How can someone learn more about Maria Sibylla Merian?
Two grown-up books that spring to mind are the well-researched and definitive Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis by Kim Todd (Harcourt Books, 2007) and Katharina Schmidt-Loske’s beautiful, art-rich Maria Sibylla Merian: Insects of Surinam (Taschen America, 2009). An excellent book focusing on metamorphosis that’s accessible to middle-grade kids is The Life Cycles of Butterflies by Judy Burris & Wayne Richards (Storey Publishing, 2006). A website from the previously mentioned exhibit at the Getty Museum, “Maria Sibylla Merian & Daughters: Women of Art and Science” (Summer 2008), showcases some of Maria’s artwork and story, and a well-produced YouTube video presents a range of her paintings and drawings.
March 24, 2015