The Illuminating Beauty of Moths
Wings of Paradise: The Great Saturniid Moths
Paintings and Text by John Cody
The University of North Carolina Press
72 illustrations, $60
I consider this collection of color moth paintings and essays an almost perfect book.
Blame my personal biases only partly for this view. I am an artist, and have been an amateur lepidopterist - which puts me in perfect company with John Cody, author and illustrator of "Wings of Paradise."
I have even sent away for moth pupae from dealers, as Cody has done innumerable times, to watch furry Cecropias hatch and spread their immense wings.
So this audience-of-one has a natural affinity for this book; but everyone to whom I have shown it agrees that the detailed, lifelike paintings and miniature personal essays comprise a magically delightful package. I therefore wish on Cody an audience of many thousands.
Cody's approach to nature - and his underlying purpose in publishing the paintings that started as a modest private hobby - is another good reason for "Wings of Paradise" to be widely successful. He passionately believes in mankind's responsibility for the preservation of life on Earth, and in the innate value of every magnificently adapted creature in every niche of the ecosystem, and by his rigors - collecting and nurturing live specimens, traveling worldwide to see these moths in their natural settings, avoiding the release of exotic species into the North American environment - and by his artwork, he has demonstrated his profound respect for nature.
This respect is brightly focused in the objective lens of these Saturniid moths. Roughly 70 of the 1,500 species of the Saturniid family are shown in the book. These large, robust, furry moths, found in an astonishingly wide variety of habitats, are also becoming endangered in many places. Where once they were abundant, now they are rare.
Some saturniids do well in cities. Others, comfortable in chaparral or desert or woodland, are threatened by development. Acid rain is taking a toll on the saturniids' habitat in the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee. Rampant deforestation is threatening species in Madagascar, the Himalayas, Brazil, and Indonesia.
The natural fires that maintain certain scrub and moorland ecosystems - home to some saturniids - are discouraged by new suburbanites, who often don't appreciate that they are changing the processes that produced the beauty that attracted development in the first place.
Cody himself does not claim to be an entomologist. While his paintings are anatomically accurate, and his observations illuminating, this gap is filled in the book by a nice foreward by Richard Peigler of the Denver Museum of Natural History.
Dr. Peigler writes, "We can only hope that [Cody's] art will continue to bring widespread awareness and cause the average person to care about loss of tropical rainforests and to take time to observe the beauty in their own backyards (and some fine large saturniids do live in many backyards in North America)."
The book itself is organized in approximately the chronological order of the paintings themselves. The moths are shown in flight or perched with their wonderful furred feet on plants rendered with equivalent exactness.
Each full-page color plate faces a more-or-less brief essay telling about that species, that specimen, or a personal anecdote from Cody's lifetime of collecting and painting (his vocation is psychiatry). They range from instruction in art, to biological fact, to the truly hilarious, as with Cody's description of the unscientific "IQ" rankings he gradually assigned to various species which he raised in his studio.
The most touching of these blurbs recall Cody's earliest fascination with the great moths, and his efforts as a boy of thirteen to raise caterpillars and paint the adults that hatched from their cocoons.
And a favorite bit - from adult years - is the story of having put live specimens in the refrigerator to force dormancy. The covered bowl was inadvertently put out for guests. "One of the visitors opened it and green ruffled wings popped up. 'Oops, wrong salad,' said Dot [Cody's wife], whisking it away. 'I'm saving that for later.'"
But the recurrent theme of this elegant book is best expressed in these words of Cody's:
"My primary purpose ... is an artist's purpose. My aim is not to create a visual treatise on foodplants or moth physiology. My message to the viewer is simple: Observe the beauty of moths; be concerned that they are dwindling; do what you can to see that our planet suffers no further poisoning and impoverishment. That's what I want to get across."
He succeeds brilliantly.
* John Van Pelt is the Monitor's art director.