Fea­ture

Esquire (Singapore) - - Mahb -

pre­ferred now. Death takes place in what’s called a killing jar.

Some es­sen­tial kit is re­quired. You need en­to­mol­o­gist’s for­ceps—sharp­pointed tweez­ers, re­ally—to un­furl the wings with­out rip­ping them. Then in­sect pins and a spread­ing board on which to dry out the but­ter­fly. Af­ter a few weeks it will be brit­tle and ready to dis­play in a cork-lined wooden box, ide­ally made from ma­hogany. His­tor­i­cally, these would have been fu­mi­gated with naph­tha­lene, the main in­gre­di­ent of moth­balls, an­other dan­ger­ous car­cino­gen, but now freez­ing the spec­i­mens for three days is the pre­ferred method to re­pel the no­to­ri­ous an­threnus muse­o­rum, or mu­seum bee­tle. You will also at­tach a la­bel in neat cur­sive de­tail­ing where and when you found the but­ter­fly. Then they are metic­u­lously filed away. No se­ri­ous col­lec­tor would dis­play a case on the wall, as the spec­i­mens would mot­tle and de­te­ri­o­rate very quickly. They need to be kept in dark­ness, and taken out only oc­ca­sion­ally to be ad­mired.

What in­spires a hu­man be­ing to kill a but­ter­fly? For non-col­lec­tors, it might be hard to fathom, but the im­pulse must be sim­i­lar to the one that ex­ists be­hind most hob­bies. It is a pur­suit to swal­low up spare hours and it al­lows you to spend sat­is­fy­ing sums on spe­cial­ist equip­ment. Col­lect­ing gets you out of the house, of­ten to bu­colic spots, and you are left with an ex­otic keep­sake to re­mind you of sum­mer as the nights draw in.

Still, but­ter­fly col­lect­ing does seem a strange way to spend your days; an ac­tiv­ity so ar­cane it wouldn’t to­tally sur­prise you if it was re­claimed by hip­sters in Hack­ney. The golden age of lep­i­doptery—as the sci­en­tific study of butterflies and moths is known—was around the turn of the last cen­tury in Bri­tain. Rich men (and it was al­most ex­clu­sively a male pas­time) would travel around the UK and the em­pire hunt­ing for tro­phies. Their at­tire, typ­i­cally, was tweed suits; one ac­ces­sory du jour was a top hat lined with cork, so that the insects could be pinned im­me­di­ately. These chaps would leap around fields swip­ing at the air with a fine-meshed net or they would en­gage lo­cal chil­dren to do the work for them for a mod­est fee.

Over the past 300 years, huge num­bers of the great and the good have been col­lec­tors. While bombs fell dur­ing WWII, Win­ston Churchill planned a sump­tu­ous but­ter­fly gar­den at Chartwell, his coun­try house in Kent. Bri­tain’s wartime leader started at the age of six, and his draw­ers were filled with ex­otic spec­i­mens picked up on mil­i­tary cam­paigns in Su­dan, Pak­istan and South Africa. His dream en­clo­sure was to fea­ture foun­tains of wa­ter and honey, and he even wanted to rein­tro­duce a large but­ter­fly called the Black-veined White, Apo­ria crataegi, which had be­come ex­tinct in Bri­tain in 1925. It was never re­alised in his life­time, but to­day 20-odd va­ri­eties of na­tive butterflies can be found in Chartwell’s gardens.

Nabokov is the great chron­i­cler of butterflies: both di­rectly in po­ems and au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, and more obliquely in his fic­tion, in­clud­ing Lolita. He ac­tu­ally dis­cov­ered some new species and named one Nabokov’s Blue, although it was lat­terly de­moted to a sub­species. More re­cently, butterflies have been a leit­mo­tif of the Bri­tish artist Damien Hirst’s work. When asked in 1997 why they re­curred so of­ten in his art, he ex­plained: “You have to find univer­sal trig­gers: ev­ery­one’s fright­ened of glass, ev­ery­one’s fright­ened of sharks, ev­ery­one loves butterflies.”

Where there are butterflies, death is never far away. Hirst’s work ‘In and Out of Love’ (1991) was an in­stal­la­tion in which trop­i­cal butterflies erupted out of chrysalises, pinned to boards, leav­ing be­hind a pink and gold fluid that some thought to be but­ter­fly “blood”. In a 2012 ret­ro­spec­tive, the work took over two rooms of the Tate Mod­ern. An­i­mal­rights cam­paign­ers were fu­ri­ous when it was re­vealed that more than 9,000 Heli­co­nius and Owl butterflies, which usu­ally have a life­span of nine months in the wild, died dur­ing the 23 weeks that the ex­hi­bi­tion was open. An­other Hirst piece, ‘I am Be­come Death, Shat­terer of Worlds’ (2006)—a riff on the Bha­gavadgita scrip­ture quote made fa­mous by J Robert Op­pen­heimer, fa­ther of the atomic bomb—was made en­tirely from a kalei­do­scopic ar­range­ment of thou­sands of but­ter­fly wings, cov­er­ing more than five me­tres across and two me­tres high. It sold at Christie’s Lon­don auc­tion house for SGD4.4 mil­lion in 2010.

But­ter­fly col­lect­ing, as na­ture writer Patrick Barkham once noted, is in­vari­ably “a male, if not es­pe­cially mas­cu­line, pre­serve”. In the early days, Aure­lian (lit­er­ally “the golden one”) so­ci­eties were only open to men, much

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