The life of Fred­er­ick Parkhurst Dodd, the Nabokov of the north

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - writes Ni­co­las Roth­well

The swift, elec­tric blue Ulysses, soar­ing, swoop­ing, its irides­cent wings flash­ing and gleam­ing like elu­sive por­tals to a brighter world; the Red-Bod­ied Swal­low­tail, solemn, pon­der­ous, grandiose in bear­ing, all crim­son discs and black vel­vet gloss, drows­ing away on its host plant’s leaves as if day­time in the wet trop­ics would never end; the gi­ant Cairns Bird­wing, bright green and gold, flut­ter­ing rhyth­mi­cally to keep its bal­ance on a hang­ing gre­vil­lea stem; and the moths, too, in their un­counted pro­fu­sion, cam­ou­flaged so per­fectly that they re­sem­ble leaves, and twigs, or tree-bark stri­a­tions, or de­bris in the deep shad­ows of the rain­for­est floor — who writes of them, who ad­mires them, and makes art of them, and pays trib­ute to these most strik­ing of na­ture’s Aus­tralian crea­tures? Where is the Nabokov of the trop­i­cal North?

On rare oc­ca­sions, it is true, a lone but­ter­fly may flap vaguely through the back­drop of some do­mes­tic drama set by Thea Ast­ley in the damp Queens­land rain­for­est, or close in­spec­tion of a draw­ing by Don­ald Friend will re­veal a stylised lep­i­dopteran form sketched in the mar­gins of the work. There is a brief, ma­jes­tic poem imag­in­ing the thoughts of a but­ter­fly in Les Murray’s Trans­la­tions from the Nat­u­ral World, but even spe­cial­ists and ob­ses­sives in the field are forced to con­cede the point: few of Australia’s es­tab­lished writ­ers or artists have been strongly drawn to the jewel-like but­ter­flies of the re­mote north, where light and colour lend na­ture the look of art.

Their names alone are enough to con­jure up a ta­pes­try of moods and shift­ing pat­terns, a novel’s worth of tones and vari­a­tions: there’s the Ha­madryas and the Union Jack, the Pur­ple Azure, the Ghost Moths and Lacewings, the Evening Brown. The drama of their con­tin­u­ous move­ment, the fine de­tails of their coloura­tion, the brief span of their ex­is­tence and the in­tri­cacy of their re­volv­ing life cy­cle, which seems like a strange al­le­gory of man’s stum­bling progress on the earth — what are these but in­vi­ta­tions to imag­ine and set the mind to roam?

Yet the record is clear: very clear. It was men of sci­ence who first re­sponded with strong emo­tions to the wild di­ver­sity of far north­ern moths and but­ter­flies — and one par­tic­u­lar sci­en­tist above all, a most un­usual fig­ure, a pre­cur­sor in his spe­cial field, the driven, aus­tere and con­tentious-minded “But­ter­fly Man of Ku­randa”, the pi­o­neer who saw the pri­mal beauty alive in­side the rain­forests: Fred­er­ick Parkhurst Dodd. His story has the shape of an in­di­vid­ual life-quest; it is also a chap­ter in the slow dis­cov­ery of the Aus­tralian trop­ics.

Dodd was born in 1861 in tiny Wick­liffe, a stage­coach stop be­tween Ararat and War­rnam­bool in Vic­to­ria’s south­west, and started off in work­ing life in Stawell as a bank clerk. He was cricket mad, and dreamed of get­ting to Mel­bourne to prac­tise with the lead­ing play­ers of the day, but those dreams died when he was trans­ferred north to Townsville, then a fledg­ling fron­tier port, no more than a few rows of cot­tages spread be­tween Cas­tle Hill and the Ross River mouth. Thick, lush veg­e­ta­tion still pressed in on all sides of the lit­tle set­tle­ment. It was here that Dodd’s great epiphany took place.

“It seemed that fate had some­thing bet­ter for me to hunt than the leather ball. A fel­low-lodger, a young English­man, who was a but­ter­fly col­lec­tor, asked me to ac­com­pany him into the bush, and, some­what amused, I joined in the chase. It was not long be­fore I con­tracted the fever, and, whilst his at­tack passed off in time, mine in­creased in in­ten­sity.”

Fly­ing in­sects had be­gun their takeover of Dodd’s life. He mar­ried and found him­self trans­ferred by his bank to Brisbane, but this was his great op­por­tu­nity to meet North Australia’s lead­ing en­to­mol­o­gists and sci­en­tific am­a­teurs. One af­ter­noon he was gaz­ing at the Queens­land Mu­seum’s but­ter­fly dis­play cases and care­fully com­par­ing their spec­i­mens with his own from Townsville when a stranger came up to him. This was Reg­gie Rel­ton, gen­eral man­ager of the Perkins brew­ery and an insect en­thu­si­ast, who promptly in­vited Dodd to join the newly formed Nat­u­ral His­tory So­ci­ety. There he could rub shoul­ders with Al­fred Jef­feris Turner, a pae­di­a­tri­cian who de­scribed 3500 new moth species; with Toowong’s but­ter­fly-fan­cy­ing first mayor, Wil­liam Henry Miskin; and with Thomas Pen­ning­ton Lu­cas, in­ven­tor of the fa­mous Paw­paw oint­ment.

Dodd plunged ea­gerly into this sci­en­tific mi­lieu, and learned, and flour­ished. Pro­mo­tion in the world of fi­nance, in due course, came his way: af­ter six years he was a bank pro-man­ager, and was trans­ferred up north once more, to Char­ters Tow­ers, then in the throes of a min­ing boom. But he was weary of rou­tine and of­fice work, and a mys­te­ri­ous sick­ness had be­gun to plague him. Dodd’s ded­i­cated bi­og­ra­pher, the rain­for­est insect ex­pert Ge­off Mon­teith, sus­pects this was an ill­ness of the “heart and spirit”, and also the sig­nal of a new stage dawn­ing in Dodd’s life: his re­birth as the “but­ter­fly man”.

Here is Mon­teith’s pic­ture: “In­sects are fa­mous for their me­ta­mor­pho­sis — that sud­den change in midlife from one life­style to an­other. Thus, a cater­pil­lar be­comes a moth, a mag­got be­comes a fly and a grub be­comes a bee­tle. In 1895, a se­ri­ous young man in Char­ters Tow­ers, Queens­land, un­der­took a me­ta­mor­pho­sis equal to any in the insect world. At the sen­si­ble age of 34, with a wife and three chil­dren to sup­port, he sud­denly quit a suc­cess­ful bank­ing ca­reer to de­vote his life to the study of in­sects. He was de­ter­mined to make an in­de­pen­dent liv­ing from his raw en­to­mo­log­i­cal wits and his abil­ity as a col­lec­tor.”

Dodd’s tim­ing was per­fect. It was the great age of pri­vate sci­en­tific col­lec­tors, and North Aus­tra-


lia was vir­gin ter­rain. But­ter­flies and moths had been col­lected from the re­gion ever since Cook’s first land­fall, but the full scale of the won­ders to be found in the coastal ranges of far north Queens­land was only just be­com­ing known. He set him­self up as a pur­veyor of ex­otic spec­i­mens, and quickly gained im­por­tant back­ers.

There was the Bri­tish par­lia­men­tar­ian Lord Thomas Wals­ing­ham, a cham­pion grouse­shooter who, over the decades, bought more than 18,000 moths from Dodd; there was the French pub­lisher Charles Oberthur, who pub­lished his own se­ries of sci­en­tific mono­graphs; there was James John Joicey, who went bank­rupt col­lect­ing orchids and switched to but­ter­flies and moths in­stead. But all these were eclipsed by the prince of pri­vate col­lec­tors, Lord Wal­ter Roth­schild, who bought from hun­dreds of ex­pert spec­i­men-hun­ters all around the world, and first sent Dodd north into the wet trop­ics to track down the cater­pil­lars of a strik­ing new species of moth. Roth­schild’s mu­seum, at Tring Park in Hert­ford­shire, was filled with rare Aus­tralian spec­i­mens: it was a marvel, the ul­ti­mate pri­vate trea­sure hoard. His niece, the cel­e­brated nat­u­ral­ist Miriam Roth­schild, de­scribes the but­ter­fly

dis­play in words that con­jure up a work of art. “There is also an in­de­fin­able fac­tor about these col­lec­tions, a Wal­te­rian fac­tor — call it what you will — a whiff of zest and won­der, which must some­how have been pinned in among the but­ter­flies. Sud­denly the out­look broad­ens, the hori­zon ex­pands — a penny drops, new ideas ma­te­ri­alise, the mind takes off.”

Such were the col­lect­ing projects Dodd en­riched in his life’s new phase. He set­tled again in Townsville, in North Ward. From this base he could reach deep into the bush. He found 120 species of ants in the vicin­ity; there were wood moths to be en­coun­tered in the scrubs of Cape Pal­larenda, and also sting­ing trees. The se­ries of dis­cov­er­ies that made his name in sci­en­tific cir­cles fol­lowed fast. His early papers for The Vic

to­rian Nat­u­ral­ist ex­plored the nest-build­ing be­hav­iour of the green tree-ant, well known to ev­ery bush­walker in the north. It was Dodd who dis­cov­ered the ants carry their own lar­vae with them as “portable silk dis­pensers” to sew the leaves of their nests to­gether; Dodd, too, who dis­cov­ered in­side green tree-ant nests the ar­moured, lar­vae-eat­ing cater­pil­lar of Li­phyra bras­so­lis, the elu­sive Moth But­ter­fly.

Teas­ing out the brutal, op­por­tunis­tic life­cy­cle strate­gies of the Cy­clo­torna and the Epi- py­rops moths, whose cater­pil­lars prey on leaf­hop­pers be­fore switch­ing to meat ant lar­vae — these were the rather grim break­throughs that built Dodd’s rep­u­ta­tion. Then came the usual north Aus­tralian dis­as­ter: Cy­clone Leonta blew ashore in the day­light hours of March 3, 1903, and wrecked the fam­ily home. Dodd’s books and sci­en­tific cat­a­logues and papers were de­stroyed, the insect col­lec­tions as well.

“En­to­mo­log­i­cal pins of all sizes were scat­tered on the floor in thou­sands.” Time to move on — move fur­ther north, to Ku­randa, perched high above Cairns on the rain­for­est crest of the Di­vid­ing Range. It was a par­adise of gleam­ing, crawl­ing, fly­ing crea­tures. Here, as one young sci­en­tific trav­eller of the time wrote, “One’s ap­petite is whet­ted for all the rich­ness in plant and an­i­mal life that char­ac­terises the dense and com­pact rain­for­est belt.”

Dodd set to work, search­ing out his prize spec­i­mens, “of­ten climb­ing great heights to catch the in­sects that seek honey in the flow­ers, chop­ping tim­ber with the axe to se­cure the grand wood moth pu­pae, hunt­ing at night with lights and also col­lect­ing cater­pil­lars and keep­ing our breed­ing boxes full — we dis­cov­ered the lar­vae of al­most all the rarer and more valu­able moths and but­ter­flies.” His son and chief col­lect­ing com­pan­ion Wal­ter’s im­pres­sion­is­tic record of those days, Me­an­der­ings of a Nat­u­ral­ist, was only pub­lished in se­rial form much later, in the North Queens­land Regis­ter dur­ing the De­pres­sion years: it has an Elysian qual­ity of ret­ro­spect. Dodd’s own ac­count of his field ad­ven­tures was very dif­fer­ent. The Won­ders of

En­to­mol­ogy ex­ists only as a 135-page man­u­script, in­clud­ing cap­sule pre­sen­ta­tions of his favourite moths and but­ter­flies, along­side “a good deal of per­sonal his­tory and polemics”.

As Mon­teith re­ports, the work was re­drafted sev­eral times, but proved un­pub­lish­able, al­most cer­tainly be­cause of its vir­u­lent anti-smok­ing di­a­tribes. Dodd was cer­tainly com­bat­ive, as well as col­le­gial: he had a busi­ness to ad­ver­tise and a rep­u­ta­tion to ad­vance. Hence, per­haps, the fury with which he once fell on a pa­per by Sir Wil­liam Ma­cleay, the great pa­tron of 19th-cen­tury Aus­tralian sci­ence, whom he de­scribed as “an Aus­tralian Mun­chausen”, and the bit­ter feud he con­ducted over a fine point of de­tail re­gard­ing moth lar­vae in the tran­quil pages of The Ento

mol­o­gist. One thing was be­com­ing clear: Dodd was very close to his work; in­deed it en­veloped him, it was all around him in his new home. He grew shel­ter­ing trees and lush blos­som­ing insect food plants in the gar­den of his house in Ku­randa, on the cor­ner of Thon­gon and Coon­doo streets, where the post of­fice stands to­day — and he had an end in view. The world’s largest moth, the Her­cules, is en­demic to Cape York, and the males of the species were rel­a­tively easy to find in Ku­randa by night; the fe­males, less so. This was a prob­lem. The fe­male moths, with their 29cm wing­span, are much larger than the males, and hence much more mar­ketable. What to do, given the im­mense ap­peal in those times of the Her­cules to in­ter­na­tional col­lec­tors, and Dodd’s need for a flow of funds to sup­port his fam­ily?

He sim­ply had to find a way of breed­ing them. Soon enough he had dis­cov­ered the moth’s cater­pil­lar and its pre­ferred food plant, the Bleed­ing Heart tree. Dodd ex­per­i­mented with a num­ber of con­trivances to fa­cil­i­tate mat­ing. Per­haps the most un­usual was his scheme to at­tract males by teth­er­ing a gi­ant fe­male by string to a shrubby branch of Bleed­ing Heart — it was ex­tremely suc­cess­ful, as a pho­to­graph, taken in 1912 by the Ku­randa sta­tion­mas­ter, the owner of the only cam­era in the dis­trict, at­tests. Her­cules moths aplenty, a good sup­ply of gi­ant wood moth cater­pil­lars, a range of pre­cious trea­sures found on var­i­ous field trips to the North­ern Ter­ri­tory, to New Guinea and to the forests of the Evelyn table­land — Dodd achieved all the suc­cess he could have hoped for as a col­lec­tor in his far north­ern life.

But the long, dreamy re­ces­sional of the Ed­war­dian era was com­ing to an end, World War I was draw­ing near, and the eco­nomic cir­cum­stances of Dodd’s great pri­vate clients were de­te­ri­o­rat­ing. He needed a new source of in­come.

Ku­randa, with its rail­way link to Cairns, its soft cli­mate and its spec­tac­u­lar moun­tain scenery, had gained a cer­tain ca­chet as a tourist draw. Dodd’s gar­dens were also be­com­ing well known. The next step was in­evitable. He fol­lowed the ad­vice of his friends and col­leagues, and be­gan to charge ad­mis­sion: a shilling be­fore the war, one and six­pence af­ter Ar­mistice Day.

At first, vis­i­tors were only shown the gar­dens and a few choice spec­i­mens from Dodd’s col­lec­tion. Even­tu­ally he hit on the con­trivance that would make his name in the wider world. He be­gan ar­rang­ing his dis­play cases in artis­tic fash­ion: he made them into a bi­o­log­i­cal equiv­a­lent of the Re­nais­sance “kun­stkam­mer” — he showed the forms of na­ture, but pre­sented them as art. The em­pha­sis was ini­tially on the fa­mous rar­i­ties: the gi­ant Her­cules moths and the big, bright New Guinea but­ter­flies. Soon, though, the cases were be­ing ar­ranged on purely aes­thetic prin­ci­ples. One of the loveli­est and most spec­tac­u­lar was a large ar­ray of bright-coloured Christ­mas bee­tles, flower chafers and stag bee­tles, shown in con­cen­tric cir­cles: it be­came known as “the Grand Pa­rade” for its re­sem­blance to live­stock be­ing dis­played in are­nas at ru­ral agri­cul­tural shows.

The touris­tic visit to the Dodd home grad­u­ally took on the qual­ity of the­atre, or rit­ual. Here is an eye­wit­ness ac­count: “Soon Mr Dodd en­tered, a tall gentle­man of spare build and grey­ish hair, el­derly and some­what frail … trim beard, quiet voice, gra­cious mode of speech and un­fail­ing courtesy all speak of re­fine­ment. Soon af­ter he seated us at the ta­ble in the cen­tre of the room. I no­ticed that he sat fac­ing the door, and that the light came over our shoul­ders. Then he be­gan to show us some of his choic­est of­fer­ings. He would pick up a but­ter­fly case and, with the back of the case fac­ing us, he would pre­pare us by giv­ing some in­tensely interesting de­tails about some of the spec­i­mens in the case. Then he would slowly turn the case over, and re­veal to us its con­tents. As he did so, the light com­ing in from the sun­lit gar­den out­side, would il­lu­mi­nate the gor­geously coloured wings in such a way that all we could do was gasp.”

And what trea­sures they were — gleam­ing, shin­ing shapes set sym­met­ri­cally against con­trast­ing back­grounds, their wings com­pos­ing arcs and cir­cle pat­terns, their colours har­mon­is­ing. There was a case of var­i­ous Ghost Moth species in dif­fer­ent hues, lime green, sage, burned gold, pale white; there was one crowded with del­i­cate, gos­samer-winged Ly­caenidae in a hun­dred vari­a­tions of mauve and azure and sky blue; there was a Cairns Bird­wing case with the bril­liant-coloured males danc­ing round a pair of larger, darker fe­males; there was even a dis­play of blue vari­ant Bird­wings from the Bis­marck Ar­chi­pel­ago, in­ter­spersed with smaller but­ter­flies shin­ing like mo­saic tesserae in ac­cents of yel­low, or­ange and late sun­set red.

Word of these trea­sures on view in re­mote, ex­otic Ku­randa fil­tered out. Dodd, who had a pro­nounced en­tre­pre­neur­ial streak, be­gan hatch­ing plans to mount a trav­el­ling show and tour his col- lec­tion to the cities of the south. He or­dered spe­cial zinc-lined trans­port crates from Eng­land, and wrote a brief cat­a­logue and guide to his col­lec­tion, not­ing with pride that it was all “the work of one fam­ily, and prac­ti­cally ev­ery spec­i­men has been set up by the one pair of hands”.

Early in 1918, he set off, tak­ing his el­dest son, Fred, as as­sis­tant, cart­ing 70 dis­play cases south, trav­el­ling by coastal steamer and by train. First stop, Townsville: “All who saw it were amazed.” Dodd had found a magic for­mula for the time — he was com­bin­ing in­struc­tion and vis­ual de­light, and pre­sent­ing to a wide-eyed pub­lic the won­ders of the un­known north. How hard it is to­day for us to re­alise the full im­pact such a spec­ta­cle could have, in a pe­riod be­fore tele­vi­sion, be­fore colour pho­tog­ra­phy and be­fore large-scale touris­tic air travel to the beaches and re­sorts sur­round­ing Cairns. The ex­hi­bi­tion wound its way to all the south­ern cap­i­tals, and on, to a se­ries of Vic­to­rian coun­try towns. Six years later, Dodd re­peated the tour. He died in 1937, ac­tive to the last. His col­lec­tion re­mained on dis­play in Ku­randa un­til the mo­bil­i­sa­tion of World War II.

His third son, Alan Parkhurst Dodd, had fol­lowed the fam­ily tra­di­tion, be­com­ing an en­to­mol­o­gist. Alan rose to fame as the sci­en­tist be­hind the land­mark cam­paign to con­trol the scourge of prickly pear in Cen­tral Queens­land — at that time the worst pest plant in­fes­ta­tion in the world. But the fa­mil­ial love of lep­i­doptera was still with him. In re­tire­ment he made col­lect­ing ex­pe­di­tions to New Guinea, among them a dash­ing 16-day pa­trol into wild coun­try that was filmed for Fox-Movi­etone. In due course, Alan ar­ranged the rarest and most spec­tac­u­lar of his finds in new dis­play cases, which were joined with his fa­ther’s, and even­tu­ally do­nated by the fam­ily, in per­fect con­di­tion, to the Queens­land Mu­seum.

What, though, to do with such a dated-seem­ing trea­sure? In 1991, the mu­seum pre­pared the col­lec­tion as a trav­el­ling ex­hi­bi­tion, and sent the cases off once more, to gal­leries and sci­en­tific cen­tres in the great cities of Australia and New Zealand. They were months on the road. Tens of thou­sands of vis­i­tors queued to see them, as did thou­sands more when they were shown again in Brisbane six years ago. The legacy was still alive. Even in the age of vir­tual re­al­ity im­mer­sion and end­lessly cir­cu­lat­ing in­ter­net im­agery, a sim­ple dis­play case filled with gleam­ing, irides­cent fly­ing in­sects could en­trance the eye and quicken the heart.

Dodd him­self never for­got the sense of won­der that first led him into learn­ing. But his most en­dur­ing gift to pos­ter­ity re­mains sci­en­tific, as he, at least on one side of his per­son­al­ity, would have wished. His role as res­i­dent but­ter­fly and moth ex­pert in res­i­dence on the high slopes of Sad­dle Moun­tain has been taken up by a se­ries of schol­ars and col­lec­tors. Ku­randa has be­come the un­of­fi­cial en­to­mol­ogy cap­i­tal of the north. The New Guinea Bird Wing guru Ray Straat­man lived just west of the town­ship for the last decade of his life; the “king of the crick­ets”, former CSIRO tax­onomist David Rentz, is now a lo­cal, and blogs pro­lif­i­cally on his rain­for­est dis­cov­er­ies and ex­pe­ri­ences; Alan Hen­der­son and his wife Deanna, both Mel­bourne Mu­seum vet­er­ans, run their “Minibeast Wildlife” en­ter­prise and write lushly il­lus­trated moth col­umns for

The Ku­randa Pa­per; there is a thriv­ing, much-vis­ited but­ter­fly sanc­tu­ary with its own guides and ex­perts at the top of the range.

But the fig­ure most at­tuned to Dodd’s re­lent­less pur­suit of sci­en­tific pre­ci­sion is the non­pareil of Aus­tralian hawk­moth spe­cial­ists, Max Moulds, who moved to a dis­tinctly Doddsian prop­erty on his re­tire­ment from the Aus­tralian Mu­seum nine years ago. “I came here be­cause there are bet­ter in­sects, and more interesting ones,” he ex­plains. “Ku­randa at­tracts re­tired en­to­mol­o­gists.” Dodd looms as a pre­cur­sor:

“He bred species no one had seen be­fore, species con­sid­ered rare, the rea­son be­ing that they were fly­ing in places where peo­ple didn’t see them, high in the tree­tops. He was a re­mark­able man, a good nat­u­ral­ist, he knew his en­vi­ron­ment and what in­sects did — which is why he was able to find so many of these species and breed them through.”

The ob­scure Moth But­ter­fly and its life cy­cle, the pur­pose of the pe­cu­liar curved horn pro­trud­ing from hawk­moth lar­vae, the fine dis­tinc­tions be­tween dif­fer­ent species of ly­caenids — de­spite vast ad­vances in the field, the same kinds of ques­tions that were in the air among spe­cial­ists a cen­tury ago are still cur­rent to­day. In­deed, Moulds’s li­brary, filled with rare en­to­mo­log­i­cal pub­li­ca­tions, a pile of plas­tic boxes in­cu­bat­ing hawk­moth lar­vae near the win­dow, a de­hu­mid­i­fier hum­ming qui­etly in the cor­ner, is prob­a­bly much like the study cham­ber a mod­ern in­car­na­tion of Dodd would keep. And the great pi­o­neer him­self is not far off.

Dodd lies in an im­pos­ing grave in Ku­randa ceme­tery, perched high on the bank of the Barron River, a short dis­tance from the plung­ing falls. The tomb­stone bears a telling in­scrip­tion, bor­rowed from the most fa­mous of his dis­play cases — the “Poem Case”, where sci­ence fi­nally meets and min­gles with art. Its gleam­ing but­ter­flies, in whites and or­ange-browns and blues and pur­ples, serve as mere dec­o­ra­tions; the chief pat­tern picks out the lines of a Longfel­low poem, with the let­ters made up from tiny yel­low pyralid moths. It is a hymn to Na­ture, Dodd’s great love, apos­trophised in cap­i­tals: “And when­ever the way seemed long, / Or his heart be­gan to fail, / SHE would sing a more won­der­ful song / Or tell a more mar­vel­lous tale.”


Dodd’s cir­cu­lar dis­play of bee­tles be­came known as ‘the Grand Pa­rade’

Fred­er­ick Parkhurst Dodd, known as the ‘But­ter­fly Man of Ku­randa’, and Queens­land Mu­seum images of some of the trea­sures he col­lected

Queens­land Mu­seum images of the Dodd insect col­lec­tion

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