Friday, March 16, 2018

Nature Study as a Life: The Girl Who Drew Butterflies

by Joyce Sidman

I happened upon this book in a library search while searching for something else. Maria Sibylla Merian is not entirely unknown to me as we've read Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian. This book, though, is a much more developed biography which incorporates aspects of the culture, industry, and geography of the European world during her lifetime in order to understand her better. It's a biography, but one so bursting with other kinds of information it could fit just about anywhere in a homeschool curriculum (science, nature study, art, poetry, photography, history, and geography, to name a few subjects).

The story of Maria Merian's life is told in twelve chapters, each named after a phase in a caterpillar and butterfly's life cycle, beginning and ending with Egg. They parallel the periods of growth and change experienced by Merian. Throughout the book are maps, photographs, reproductions of engravings and paintings (many by Merian) and quotes from Merian's writings. While it's possible her art was not entirely responsible for changes occurring in scientific studies at the time, Merian's life was remarkable. At a time and in a culture where women were excluded from professional lives by law, she persevered in artistic and business pursuits.

Her personal life was not ideal. She leaves her husband, eventually seeking sanctuary from him in a religious community until he abandons his attempt to convince her to return home with him. He then divorces her and leaves her to financially support their daughters. Undaunted, she not only succeeds in supporting them, but travels to South America to study insects and create a stunning book of her observations.
But her extraordinary skills set her apart. She had the curiosity of a true scientist, the patience it took to raise insects, and the superb artistic skill necessary to share her observations. In short, she was quietly engaged in some of the finest insect work of her time.
This lovely book is going on our read-aloud schedule for next year, when Second Son will be in second grade, the year I order caterpillars we can watch turn into butterflies. I think much of it will go over his head (he'll be eight) but he'll understand enough, and the others will learn a great deal. I hope, too, they feel a little more inspired when we're on our nature walks and pulling out the nature journals.

There is another book on Merian, published just a week earlier. Our library doesn't have a copy and it has fewer pages (according to Amazon), but it might also be interesting: Maria Sibylla Merian: Artist, Scientist, Adventurer.

I checked this book out from the library to read it and received nothing for this review, but the links above are affiliate links to Amazon.

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