Maria Sibylla Merian was, by almost any account, an unusual woman. From her earliest years of childhood, Merian demonstrated an obsession with the tiniest, some would say creepiest, creatures in the animal kingdom. As a young girl living almost 400 years ago in what is now Germany, Merian’s constant attention to anything that crawled on garden plants was a fascination one biographer suggested was born from Merian’s mother’s viewing a collection of bugs while Merian was in utero. Relating her colleague’s commentary in Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis, Merian’s latest biographer, Missoula science writer Kim Todd, adds her own remark: “Sensitive and porous, the pregnant body let in all sorts of impressions.”
Reading this, and knowing that Todd was herself pregnant with twins as she pored over Merian’s life, letters and illustrations, one wonders what sort of impressions Merian’s life may have left on Todd’s children, since Merian’s early interest in metamorphosis was merely the most obvious of her eccentricities.
Though she married, Merian spent much of her life as an independent woman in pre-Enlightenment Europe. In her 30s, while mothering two children, Merian published a groundbreaking volume on metamorphosis. Not long after, she moved to the rural retreat of an ascetic Christian sect, staying five years before leaving for Amsterdam, arguably the most metropolitan city of her times. There she worked as an illustrator, eventually amassing the funds to finance an excursion to Surinam, a Dutch colony on the tropical north coast of South America, where Merian would again turn in earnest to the study of metamorphosis. The migration was a daring feat for anyone in 1699; for a woman more than 50 years old living by her own means and accompanied only by her 21-year-old daughter, it was nearly without precedent.
For all that is unusual about Merian’s biography, however, it’s her bibliography that is most remarkable. Her sketches and watercolors exhibit an ecological perspective even further ahead of its time than the autonomy of Merian’s personal life, and that’s what arrested Todd’s attention when she first encountered Merian’s work almost a decade ago.
“I was at Rockin Rudy’s,” says Todd, who holds a master’s degree in environmental studies and an MFA in creative writing from UM. “[I was] just wandering around, and picked up a notecard that had [Merian’s] illustration on the front of it. It was incredibly beautiful but also had this scientific sense to it…not just a butterfly on a leaf but all the life stages of the butterfly, the leaves all chewed up and very beautiful in their own way. Then when I turned it over and saw that it was a woman painting so long ago—and in South America. It just seemed like there was a story there.”
There was. But for Todd—whose first book, 2001’s Tinkering With Eden: A Natural History of Exotics in America, won several awards for nonfiction—it took some time to connect that first notion of writing about Merian to Chrysalis’ publication this year.
“I originally conceived of the book as very different,” Todd says, “with fewer elements of a traditional biography and more about me searching for [Merian] in Surinam and a lot more first person.”
During her research, however, Todd discovered Merian to be someone about whom little was known. Furthermore, what was known was often a misunderstanding based on criticism of posthumously published and degraded facsimiles of Merian’s work. At the same time, Todd’s esteem for Merian only grew as she immersed herself in Merian’s illustrations. The result, Todd says, is “I ended up coming up feeling this huge sense of responsibility to [Merian]. She needs a biography in English. People need to know about her in this sort of traditional way…and give her the place in the sun she deserves.”
And while Chrysalis is more traditional than Todd first imagined, it still breaches what might be called the fourth wall of biography with references to her subject’s experiences that invite inferences about Todd’s own experience. For instance, comparing Merian’s pregnancy with the development of the insects she studied, Todd writes, “Her pregnant womb had the tightness of a chrysalis, and the same buried movement.”
Todd initially resisted acknowledging her own pregnancy in the book, fearing that the knowledge would distract readers. Todd also debated how much Merian’s motherhood should enter the narrative.
“I didn’t want to be dwelling more on [Merian’s] physicality than I would have on a male character’s physicality,” Todd says, “because I think that’s something people do to women a lot…But metamorphosis and reproduction were so intimately intertwined, at least at that point, that it seemed important to mention that she was actually going through it while she was thinking about all these things.”
Something like the same calculation must have gone into Todd’s remark in Chrysalis’ conclusion that her own pregnancy, giving birth to twins and writing Merian’s biography “unavoidably, wove together.”
Applying ecological criteria to the illustration of natural phenomena is another feature of Chrysalis that goes beyond basic biography. It’s made sensible in the way Todd contrasts Merian with a contemporary, Rachel Ruysch: “One of [Ruysch’s] canvasses shows, clustered at the base of a tree, a pumpkin, peaches, an ear of corn, translucent grapes, flowers, snails, a nest with eggs, and a lizard licking out the center of a broken one…These odd, imaginary grottoes…have no more sense of place than a painted backdrop. The insects and reptiles, while accurately represented, have little relationship to one another.”
By comparison, Todd references Merian’s 1679 book on caterpillars—the title of which reads like a poem, beginning, The Caterpillar’s Wondrous Metamorphosis and Par-ticular Nourishment from Flowers…and continuing for scores more words. “The pictures,” Todd writes, “are…an entirely new way of seeing. They show the butterfly not just as a decoration, an emblem, or a subject of dissection, but as a member of a community. The reader encounters not merely an object to be examined but a drama of miniature proportions.”
Merian’s fealty to representational integrity—her insistence on uniting subject and setting while connecting developmental stages of her subjects’ life cycles—was, although commonplace today, unique in her time. Collectors in Merian’s era compiled their specimens in “cabinets of curiosities” that, for instance, placed a turtle half emerged from its egg in a disembodied human hand. Merian’s paintings integrate species and stages of life on the basis of how they would interact without a human observer, making the subject of her illustrations the organisms and the spaces between them, the forms of life and their activities in the world.
Todd’s attraction to Merian’s ecological perspective and her decision to tell Merian’s story meant trading engagement with the outside world her subject embraced for immersion in laborious historical research. On her next project, she hopes to spend some time imitating Merian.
“All I know now is that I want to get out of the archives,” Todd says, “and do some first-hand observation.”
Kim Todd will read from and sign copies of Chrysalis at Fact & Fiction Friday, Feb. 2, at 7 PM.