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Posts Tagged ‘butterflies’

Mad Dog Killers: The Story of a Congo Mercenary, Ivan Smith (Helion / 30° South Publishers 2012)

War is one of the most intense experiences a human being can undergo. Films or computer-games might give you a good idea of what war looks like and sounds like, but they can’t yet tell you what it feels like. This book can. Ivan Smith is a natural story-teller but not a polished writer. That adds to the authenticity of Mad Dog Killers. He’s an ordinary man who saw, did, heard, felt, and smelt some extraordinary things.

But that suggests he’s not so ordinary after all. He had to be tough to fight and survive in the Congo as a mercenary in the Armée Nationale Congolaise during the 1960s. But he isn’t a psychopath, because he’s still haunted by some of the deaths he dealt out or witnessed. Many of his fellow mercenaries were definitely psychopaths. On his own account, he owes his life to one of the worst, a “nerveless and totally ruthless man” called Boeta, who befriended him and watched his back in the barracks and on the battle-field. Boeta comes alive on the page thanks to death. He enjoyed dishing it out and was never happier than in the middle of a fire-fight. He could make night-clubbing go with a bang too:

Boeta eventually signed up for four contracts in a row and on the second one, some months after I had returned to a normal life, he visited a nightclub in Leopoldville [now Kinshasa]. The jazz band refused to play the music he requested. It was in the early hours of the morning so he would have been very drunk. He opened fire on the offending band with an FN [machine-gun]* on automatic fire and killed them all, as well as a couple of other patrons. The one band member turned out to be a relative of a high-ranking government official so Boeta was arrested, tried and sentenced to death. A week later he was back with his Commando; the funds he had accumulated from looting had allowed him to buy his way out of it all. (ch. 4, pg. 43 – *FN = Fabrique Nationale, the Belgian arms-manufacturer)

Later in the book, Boeta makes a visit to a “tatty café” go with a bang too: “The pistol came up and stuck in the waiter’s ear. The shot was muffled and blood and brains sprayed from the exit wound and splashed the wall and roof.” (ch. 11, pg. 155) What had the black waiter done? He’d jokingly claimed to be a “Simba”, or one of the rebels against whom the mercenaries were fighting. So Boeta casually murdered him. Earlier, he and another mercenary had casually murdered a black stranger because no-one could understand what he was saying after he was left with them by some white soldiers from an unknown unit:

“Hey, Harry, you speak Frog, what is he saying?” I asked.

“No, man, it is not French. The bugger is giving me a headache. Wish he would shut up.”

“Good idea. Watch this. Stupid Simba, you should have been quiet.” Boeta got up and beckoned the loudly complaining man over. “Stand over there, you dumb fucker.” He pointed to the edge of the bridge and waved the man to stand there.

Pete, one of the commandos who happened to have been at school with me, but was two years my junior, got up and went to join Boeta.

“Man, I can’t believe that nutcase. Surely the bloke can see it coming?” Harry puffed blue clouds of smoke.

“Don’t think they will do it, will they?” was my anxious complaint.

Boeta and Pete suddenly put up their rifles and fired from the hip, on automatic, long bursts. The complaining man was smashed forward and then lifted by them and thrown over the edge into the swift water below.

“Is that not better?” Boeta called. “No more fucking whining.” (ch. 10, pg. 137)

As Smith notes wryly at the beginning: Boeta became a mercenary because “in the Congo there was no law.” Did the two of them become friends because there was some echo of Boeta’s psychopathy in Smith? I’d assume so, although Boeta nicknamed Smith “Smiler” because of “my sometimes fixed smile” when frightened (pg. 44).

Smith was frightened a lot at the beginning and you can understand why. His childhood and education in South Africa had taught him to shoot and his work in a copper-mine had taught him to face violent death. Or so he thought: “This memoire is … a brief record of a few months in the life of a cocky young man who thought he was afraid of nothing, but who soon learned all about fear.” (Introduction, pg. 6) If the Simba had been better shots or less superstitious, he might not have got out alive. But they were bad shots and reckless fighters, because they often believed that the spells of “medicine-men” had rendered them invulnerable to bullets. Big mistake. In The Godfather (1969), men “sleep with the fishes”. In Mad Dog Killers, they lie with the butterflies:

At the scene of the first contact with the medicine man and company, a fluttering vibration filled the air over the bodies, which were oozing dark blood from multiple gunshot wounds. Busy clouds of brilliant butterflies were whirling over the scene and dense concentrations of the insects sat sipping the oozing blood. The salts in the blood attracted them and the green flies. The butterflies always appeared in a very short time after blood was spilt in the tropical forest. The still moist air quickly took up and conveyed the smell of fresh blood. That cloying scent along with the sharper reek of cordite was filling my lungs as I watched the fluttering insects; they took me back to childhood, to the happy hunting of the earlier days. Then it was back to here and now. (ch. 5, pg. 55)

That’s a surreal description worthy of J.G. Ballard. Africa is a cruel and beautiful place, and the Congo is the dark heart of Africa. The mercenaries often behaved badly in the Congo, but the Simba and the black soldiers in the official Congolese army were usually far worse. Both the Simba and the Congolese army routinely “liberated” towns and villages by murdering the men and raping the women. As Smith says, he spent only “a few months” fighting there, but they’ve stayed with him for the rest of his life. Regrets? He has many. Killing in the hot blood of a fire-fight was one thing, but killing in cold blood was another. Sometimes he’s not sure why he remembers some deaths and not others: “Whatever it was that bothered me about that line of running men still haunts me more than fifty years on. Yet they were just a few of the many I killed.” (ch. 8, pg. 99) Unlike Smith, Boeta enjoyed killing anyone anywhere anytime. That’s why he stayed in. Smith got out.

At least, his body got out, but his mind has often returned. Decades later, he written this book about it, trying to exorcise his demons. The old black-and-white photos add to the sense of another place and another time, but the Congo is still at war and horrors are still taking place there. First come the bullets, then the butterflies.

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Butterfly, Thomas Marent (Dorling Kindersley 2013)

The best book on butterflies and moths I’ve ever owned was The World of Butterflies, a translation from the Italian Il Mondo delle Farfalle (1984). It was illustrated by hand and had a lot of serious science in it. This book by the Swiss author Thomas Marent is very good too, but in a different way. It uses big photographs taken by Marent and doesn’t have much text. The photographs are spectacular: far larger than life. And many of them definitely put the λεπιδες into lepidoptera.

That’s the lepides, the “scales” after which this group of insects are named. The colours and patterns of the lepidoptera, or scale-wings, are formed like mosaics, by the arrangement and structure of tiny scales on their wings. Or mostly like that. Some butterflies and moths have transparent wings, like the wasp- and bee-mimics shown towards the end of the book. Before that, Marent covers all the most famous and beautiful varieties of butterfly, from the peacocks and swallowtails of Europe to the birdwings of Asia and the morphos of South America.

There are many obscure ones too, plus some beautiful moths. But a large section of the book is given over to colours, patterns and shapes that aren’t beautiful. Instead, they’re strange or grotesque, because they belong to lepidopteran larvae, not adults. Caterpillars can be garishly coloured or subtly camouflaged. They can have spikes, knobs, horns or irritating hairs. They’re often poisonous and when they are, it pays them to advertise. In some ways, they’re the most interesting part of a lepidopteran’s life-cycle and it’s good that they get a lot of attention here.

For one thing, it heightens the beauty of the adults and of the pupae and chrysalids from which the adults emerge. A double-page is given over to:

The gleaming, mirror-like sides of the orange-spotted tiger clearwing pupa (Mechanitis polymnia) in Colombia[, which] provide camouflage by reflecting the light and colours of the surrounding rainforest. After rainfall they seem to disappear among the glistening wet leaves. (pg. 140)

Thomas Marent has travelled the world to photograph specimens for this book and his work has definitely been rewarded. And there is some serious science in the captions and the introductions to each section: “Identity”, “Anatomy”, “Transformation”, and so on. A lot of people like lepidoptera and a lot of books get published about them, but this stands out in a crowded field.

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british-butterflies-by-david-dunbarBritish Butterflies: A History in Books, David Dunbar (The British Library 2012)

This isn’t a book about British butterflies, but a book about books about British butterflies. There have been a lot of them and David Dunbar does a good job of providing a comprehensive guide for collectors. He begins with the Insectorum sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum (1634), the Theatre of Insects or Tiny Animals, which is based on a manuscript by Thomas Moffet. Was Moffet the father of Miss Muffet of nursery-rhyme fame? Maybe. He was certainly a pioneer of British entomology and “the original Latin edition of Insectorum Theatrum must be regarded as the cornerstone of any collection of early entomological books”.

If you want that cornerstone, you’ll have to be rich: it was listed for £4,141.72 at Abe Books in 2016. I would be happy with a facsimile myself. I used to own a facsimile of perhaps the most famous book discussed here: Moses Harris’s The Aurelian (1766). Dunbar discusses the original, mentions the facsimile, and reproduces some of Harris’s beautiful illustrations showing butterflies and moths with their food plants. He explains the book’s puzzling title too: “Aurelian” is an old word for a lepidopterist and comes from Latin aurum, “gold”, referring to gold spots or colours on a chrysalis (from Greek khrysos, “gold”). The metamorphosis of lepidoptera from ugly or strange larva to inert chrysalis to light-winged adult is a large part of their appeal. Lepidoptera can be like flying flowers and have attracted artists for millennia.

For example, Hieronymus Bosch gave “the wings of meadow browns and small tortoiseshells” to demons in his painting The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1490). There’s nothing as strange as that here, but there are a lot of illustrations: almost every page has something attractive or interesting to look at, as Dunbar traces butterfly books from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first. He discusses artists like F.W. Frohawk (1861-1946) and scientists like E.B. Ford (1901-88), but he concentrates on bibliography, not biography. You’ll have to look elsewhere to learn that butterfly-fanciers have a lot in common with orchid-fanciers: they can be strange and obsessive people.

But then butterflies are Ballardian: they combine beauty with strangeness. On page 111 you’ll find the beauty in the colours and patterns of the Large Heath buttery; on page 110 you’ll find the strangeness in a series of “line drawings of butterfly genitalia” from The Genitalia of the British Rhopalocera and Larger Moths (1941).

The genitalia look like spiky seed-pods or torture instruments for aliens. They are still best represented as line drawings, but photography has gradually begun to dominate butterfly books, as you’ll see here. I prefer paintings and drawings myself. There’s a magic to art that resonates with the magic of butterflies, and true art has survived better in natural history illustration than it has in many other places. And Dunbar even has space to discuss butterflies on cigarette cards and wall-charts. He knows his subject inside out and this book about butterfly books proves it.

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19186368.jpgA Buzz in the Meadow, Dave Goulson (Jonathan Cape 2014)

A book that is both a rhapsody and a threnody: Dave Goulson celebrates nature and laments what we’re losing of it. This is what he says in the preface:

In 2003 I bought a derelict farm deep in the heart of rural France, together with thirteen hectares of surrounding meadow. My aim was to create a wildlife sanctuary, a place where butterflies, dragonflies, voles and newts could thrive, free from the pressures of modern agriculture. In particular I was keen to create a space for my beloved bumblebees, creatures I have spent the last twenty years studying and attempting to conserve. (pg. ix)

Bumblebees were the subject of his previous book, A Sting in the Tale (2013). I haven’t read that, but if it’s half as good as this I will certainly enjoy it. Perhaps it’s better: Goulson is a biologist who can both educate and entertain. Expect the unexpected here: he writes about bumblebees and wild-flowers with the same enthusiasm as he writes about cheese and wine.

He’s also good at using the particular to illustrate the general. You’ll learn a lot about science and the scientific method here, from the “robotic beetle drum” he used to study death-watch beetles to the creation of “mathematical models” for predicting outbreaks of flies at a landfill site. Biology is full of puzzles and solving one often creates another. Not that they are always easy to solve: failure and frustration are part of science too and Goulson is happy to admit his own.

But he isn’t happy about the loss of wild habitats and the quickening pace of extinctions. Homo sapiens could also be called Homo exterminans:

New Zealand was colonised much more recently, about 1,000 years ago. As there were no mammals apart from bats, giant birds evolved there, including at least eleven species of moa, the largest of which stood 3.6 metres high, the tallest bird ever to live. They must have been terribly easy to track and kill, for carbon-dating of Maori middens suggests that all eleven species were driven to extinction within just 100 years of man’s arrival. (ch. 15, pg. 242; his emphasis)

It’s a long way from French meadows to Maori middens, as the crow flies, but similar themes apply: humans have exercised power over nature without proper thought for the consequences. Science is giving us more power all the time, but will it kill us or cure us? Dave Goulson is a scientist who increases my hope of the latter.

He also links apparently disparate parts of biology: parasites are part of both botany and entomology. Yellow rattle is a hemi-parasitic plant that exploits grasses and the bumblebees that visit it are parasitized by mites. The world is a web in more ways than one and many aspects of the web are described in this happy, hopeful and highly enjoyable book.

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Butterflies and Moths in Britain and Europeby David CarterButterflies and Moths in Britain and Europe, David Carter, designed by Roger Phillips (Pan 1982)

I like all the lepidoptera, but the butterflies in this book seem drab and uninspiring set against the moths, which are astonishing creatures visually, behaviourally and evolutionarily. Butterflies receive much more attention and they aren’t often presented beside their smaller relatives as they are here. In the tropics, they would meet the challenge better. In northern Europe, they’re second-best. Northern moths come in a huge variety of gorgeous patterns and shapes, but their beauty and interest suffer more when they’re dead and pinned in an entomological cabinet.

Comparing the dead specimens with the photographs from life, you can see that there’s an elegant self-sufficiency about a moth at rest. Many of them look like crosses between priests and dandies wearing richly embroidered cloaks, sometimes trimmed with fur, and either drawn close to the body or stretched wide in deltas and vees. Even their antennæ could be ritual hats and tiaras. But it’s hard to generalize about such a vast collection of genera and species and some moths look like clowns instead: the scarlet-and-black or yellow-and-black arctiids, whose colors warn predators off.

Their sounds warn predators off too. Bats don’t hunt by sight, so night-flying arctiids generate high-pitched sounds to advertise their inedibility. But just as some harmless moths have evolved to look like wasps, shedding scales on their first flight to leave suitably transparent patches on their wings, so some have evolved to sound like the arctids: there are sonic mimics as well as visual ones. Elsewhere evolution hasn’t added but subtracted: some female moths don’t have wings at all. The females of some species sit and wait for mates and look more like spiders than insects. One of my favourite moths, on the other hand, has multiplied its wings: the pure white Pterophorus pentadactyla, or large white plume moth, looks much the same when pinned to a collector’s board as it does resting on a leaf, because it holds its quintuply-split, silkily-fringed wings “at right angles to the body and folds its legs backwards so that it looks like a letter T.”

Other moths carry letters on their wings rather than in their postures: the wings of the silver y, or Autographa gamma, say something in both English and Greek, as its common and scientific names denote, but I can’t work out which “Hebrew character” the moth of that name is supposed to carry. Its scientific name, Orthosia gothica, isn’t any help. On the other hand, the Mother Shipton, or Callistege mi, really does seem to have two long-nosed, long-jawed crones looking at each other on left and right wings: Mother Shipton was a “famous Yorkshire witch”.

This species reminds me of the contrast between the beauty of moths and their very ugly and alien larvæ and pupæ, some of which can also generate sounds to warn off predators. Aesthetically and intellectually moths are worth investigating, and this book is an excellent place to start. It’s not only well-designed, well-written, and with some very beautiful photographs, it has a separate food-plant index too, running from Abies, or “fir”, to Vitis, or “vine”.

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