Fea­ture

Esquire (Singapore) - - Mahb -

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.

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