15 April 2015

I can't recommend The Butterflies of Australia too highly

Illustrated by Albert Orr
(Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2011)

Ever since reading Fabre, my favourite writing has been not fiction, but the truly fantastic--natural history. Albert Orr and Roger Kitching (with beautiful and highly informative illustrations by Orr) have created a classic. I'm not ashamed to say that sometimes the beauty and accuracy of description has pricked my eyes with tears as only the finest (and most able to communicate) have. They almost excuse the book's usefulness and seduction by saying that Orr's daughter "had a brief enthusiasm for butterflies which she chased in the back garden...There being no suitable guidebook in print at the time, her father prepared a series of rough sketches of butterflies in life, with a short text to help her identify her catch. It was from these notes and sketches that this book was conceived. Although it has since acquired a mature scientific perspective, we hope it retains its germinal spark, first ignited in the soul of a child racing across the lawn with a net almost her own size, excitedly calling out slightly unorthodox Latin names."

There is another Australian natural history book I treasure: Life Stories of Australian Insects by Mabel N. Brewster, Agnes A. Brewster, and Naomi Crouch (Dymock's Book Arcade, Sydney, 1946). Written for children and illustrated internally with simple line drawings, I've found it very useful over the years, because the authors were such great observers that the life cycles of insects deeply interested them, far more than just identifying 'that'.

The Butterflies of Australia contains and transmits that excitement, in such lucid text that it's a joy to read. This book alone could launch any number of children of all ages into a life of exploration--of the natural world. One of the most important aspects of this book is the emphasis it places on describing the lives of butterflies and portraying them in a kind of Frans Hals snapshot--caught in a moment of real life (in addition to the equally excellent line drawings when necessary, of their structure throughout their stages of life).

My only regret is that this book, which should be sold in the likes of London's Natural History Museum shop, might well be overlooked by people outside Australia. It has worldwide relevance, so much so that I hope to see a book by these two, for the world.

Finally, in a practical sense, this large-format book is not just a coffeetable beauty. The authors call it a handbook and wish it to be dog-eared, and they're so right. It used to be a joke that every brown butterfly I saw had to be a 'common brown', but within one day, I'd gone beyond, and not only that, but that gorgeous dead thing I found on the beach was, I found within moments of opening this book, a.... well, I'm not going to say because this book opened up much more than just the name bestowed upon it, but the door to its life.

I cannot recommend The Butterflies of Australia too highly.

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