The life of Frederick Parkhurst Dodd, the Nabokov of the north
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-
KURANDA WAS A PARADISE OF GLEAMING, CRAWLING, FLYING CREATURES
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.”
A VISIT TO THE DODD HOME GRADUALLY TOOK ON THE QUALITY OF THEATRE
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