Thursday, July 9, 2009

#91 - "The Dangerous World of Butterflies" by Peter Laufer

I hate moths. Apparently Colorado is quite a haven for miller moths, and they have harassed me for much of my life. Although I have recently managed to turn a rather debilitating phobia into an uncomfortable unease, I still hate them. It's just that now I'm calm enough to kill them when they come into my apartment rather than freak out and run away. So you might wonder why I would choose to read a book about butterflies, The Dangerous World of Butterflies (2009) by Peter Laufer, especially considering that I have just learned that moths and butterflies are basically the same, except moths fly at night and butterflies during the day. I have to strongly disagree with this theory, however: I have never found a butterfly in my home or bedroom; butterflies have never dive-bombed me like miniature kamikazees; butterflies have never woken me up in the middle of the night banging repeatedly against the ceiling, walls, and windows of my bedroom; and butterflies have never come back to life like some demented zombie-moth after you slam them with a flyswatter (I'm not sure if this last one is actually true, since I've never tried to kill a butterfly).

Yet, I still voluntarily picked up The Dangerous World of Butterflies, and despite some shuddering when they talked about the butterflies' bodies, enjoyed reading it. The book caught my attention when I saw Peter Laufer on The Daily Show, promoting his new book. I've never read anything by Laufer before, but he told the story of how he had just finished writing an intense and depressing book on soldiers in the Iraq War. While doing some publicity, someone asked him what he was going to write about next, and he jokingly answered, "butterflies." A viewer in Nicaragua saw this and invited him to her butterfly reserve in Nicaragua. I enjoyed Laufer's banting with Jon Stewart, and I loved the idea of picking an almost random topic and finding the story within it.

And I learned that there's a lot going on in the world of butterflies. The North American Butterfly Association (NABA) bickers with collectors and breeders because they are against releases of butterflies for events such as weddings and funerals (apparently, this is becoming more popular) as well as the collecting of butterflies. Granted, I find it awfully creepy that breeders wait until the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis and then they put it immediately in a freezer to kill it before the wings can be damaged. And then collectors or artists take the dead butterflies and pin them, pull them apart, and use their parts. Ugh. It reminds me of some (obviously unforgettable) children's science-fiction books I read in grade school--The Tripod Trilogy, or something, where the aliens took the most beautiful girl from each village every year...and then killed her and stored her in a collection of drawers. But as much as it doesn't appeal to me, they're still insects. They're never going to have more protection than, for instance, livestock.

In the world of butterflies, common controversies that often surround bigger (and seemingly more important) animals still abound. Fish and Wildlife Service Agents hunt down poachers who capture, sell, and trade endangered species of butterflies. It appears that scientists and researchers sometimes think themselves above these laws, and often get away with it. Some butterflies are struggling to survive for a number of reasons, including the spraying of pesticides and loss of habitat. Two of the most interesting facts I learned were how the insect turns from a caterpillar into a butterfly. Apparently, the bug completely decomposes into a liquid before emerging as a butterfly. If you cut open the chrysalis in the middle of the process, you'll just find liquid goo. Kind of amazing. The other is the Monarch's multi-generational migration. One generation of butterflies is born in Mexico and they fly to Texas, or somewhere, where they lay some eggs and die. The next generation continues the journey north, dying and laying more eggs along the way. Three or four generations later, the monarchs are in New England. Yet somehow, this generation born in the middle of the United States gets back to Mexico, its winter grounds, even though they've never been there. Again, amazing.

There were a couple of problems with this book. The writing wasn't always super-impressive; some of the sentences felt awkward, and Laufer used a ton of long quotations from his subjects. I sometimes felt as if I were reading an interview. Laufer also jumped around a lot. A chapter about the environmental effects on butterfly habitat from building the wall between the U.S. and Mexico turned into a couple of pages about eating insects.

I also got the feeling that Laufer is pretty partisan (in a liberal kind of way, which makes it slightly more tolerable for me), and that he jumped at the chance to throw in a couple of punches on his favorite subjects. Creation v. Evolution got some attention because the owner of a butterfly farm in Florida was super religious, but it seemed off-topic to me. And if you're going to name-drop Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly, you're just trying to stir people up. Coulter and O'Reilly have no place in any kind of civilized discussion. And it's not that I don't agree with Laufer politically, but blatant partisanship leads to people not thinking, which I find really, really annoying.

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