Stunning 19th-Century French Natural History Illustrations of Beetles
By Maria Popova
“I prefer the time of insects to the time of stars,” the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska wrote in her stunning poem “Possibilities.” And why shouldn’t we? We are, after all, creatures pinned to scales of space and time far closer to those of the insects than to those of the stars.
I was reminded of Szymborska’s strange and beautiful line upon discovering a French natural history encyclopedia of beetles from 1884 — an era when astronomical art was of supreme enchantment. In its nearly 500 pages, the book synthesizes “the observations of the ancients and including all the modern discoveries up to the present day,” promising “a complete treatise on this science from the works of the most eminent naturalists of all countries and ages.”
These populist creatures of the order Coleoptera, which has inhabited Earth for more than 250 million years — the largest of all orders, numbering some 400,000 species and comprising a quarter of all known animal life-forms — seem to occupy a special yet ambivalent place in the human imagination: scorned and sacred, poisoned as pests and cherished as pets, collected as prized jewels and protected as vital linchpins of biodiversity, played as musical instruments by the Onabasulu of Papua New Guinea and used as inspiration for naming England’s greatest rock band. So unlike us in nearly every conceivable way yet made of the same stardust, their hard bodies radiate a shimmering reminder of Lucille Clifton’s splendid poem celebrating “the bond of live things everywhere.”
Long before photography came to capture the kaleidoscopic splendor of these species, the book’s black-and-white illustrations vibrate with aliveness as these creatures and their astonishing geometries bejewel the pages. What emerges is a catalogue of life, various and wondrous, and a testament to modern-day naturalist Sy Montgomery’s lovely observation that “our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom — and is far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.”
Complement with 500 years of rare scientific illustrations from the archives of the American Museum of Natural History and some striking 19th-century drawings of owls and ospreys, then revisit bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer on what mosses teach us about the art of attentiveness to life at all scales.
Published January 22, 2019