boxes of butterflies are now, in the words of Professor Beth Tobin from the University of Georgia, “suspended somewhere between memorabilia and rubbish”.
In 1963, John Fowles published his first novel, The Collector. He wrote more famous works—notably The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman— but his debut was especially personal. It told the story of a sadistic butterfly obsessive called Frederick Clegg who kidnaps an art student, Miranda Grey, sedating her with chloroform. For Fowles, a repentant collector himself, there was a clear metaphor: the unforgiveable compulsion of some individuals to take a thing of beauty, deprive it of freedom and finally kill it.
The Collector would subsequently prove popular with serial killers: Leonard Lake, who along with Charles Chi-Tat Ng, is believed to have killed 25 people in California in the 1980s, loved the novel; Christopher Wilder, aka The Beauty Queen Killer, was found with a copy of the book when he was gunned down by police in New Hampshire in 1984 at the end of his six-week, crosscountry killing spree.
The link between collecting and psychopathy is well trodden both in fiction and reality. In The Silence of the Lambs, serial killer Buffalo Bill stuffs moths into his victims’ throats as a calling card. Again, the insects are a metaphor for dispatching living things silently, dispassionately. The film poster featured a death’s-head hawkmoth, which has a distinctive white skull on its back. Among 400 pieces of correspondence confiscated in the 1995 case of the three Americans found guilty of flouting the Endangered Species Act, there were repeated references to their status as outsiders. Kral, a man responsible for the death of around 80,000 butterflies, signed off one letter to Skalski, “Yours in mass murder, Tom.”
It’s worth reminding ourselves—lest we become carried away by stories of genuine monsters—that we are not necessarily talking about an illegal activity. Back on the collectors’ forums, there is the strong feeling, discussing the Cullen case, of a stitch-up. Anyone, they huff, can happily slaughter spiders, wasps, even moths, but touch a butterfly and you become an outcast. In this reading, writes dp1965 on The Insect Collectors’ Forum again, the reintroduction of the large blue was “an ego trip for a handful of selfrighteous, self-styled, self-proclaimed conservation gurus”. He goes on to claim that charitable groups such as Butterfly Conservation “post lies galore in order to further their cause which is to put a stop to this ‘barbaric and Victorian pastime’ that we call a hobby and brainwash their followers like lobotomised sheep who don’t have one original thought of their own.”
The peculiar thing is that almost all of the entomologists and butterfly fanciers that I did meet started out as collectors. One said that when he first became interested, far back in the early 1960s, it was impossible to imagine how anyone could study butterflies and moths and not also pin and preserve them. Sir David Attenborough, an official national treasure and the world’s most beloved naturalist, once said his most profound embarrassment was that he used to be a collector. He had huge numbers of South American blue morphos and Queen Alexandra’s birdwings, the largest butterfly in the world, that he captured in Papua New Guinea.
On Green Down, everyone seems content to track the large blues with their cameras these days, but it’s a similar story. “When I was a kid, I collected butterflies,” says David Simcox, who is in his 60s. “Everyone did. I can remember in 1980 being at a big international symposium with Jeremy called the ‘Biology of Butterflies’ at the Natural History Museum. There was a lot of talk then about the impact of collecting and right at the end of this quite fierce debate, somebody stood up and said: ‘Could everyone who started their interest in butterflies as collectors, as children, stand up?’ And about 95 per cent of the audience stood up.
“But that was then,” he continues. “And times have moved on. There’s no excuse to do it now. Whatsoever.”
In the closing scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Ark of the Covenant, so painstakingly earned, is packed in a crate and deposited in the bowels of Hangar 51, a storage facility for the US military. The city of boxes is a clear nod both to Area 51 in Nevada and Hangar 18 in Ohio, where conspiracy theorists believe that UFO remains and US military secrets are hidden away from view.
Leaving the Natural History Museum, after Guildford had dropped off the Cullen specimens, it’s hard not to think of the collection, now swollen to 8,712,100 slightly shameful, slowly disintegrating bodies lined up in their mahogany trays, stacked up in cabinets, waiting for the moment they will see daylight again, which may never come.