If ever there was a paradigm-shattering natural history book, Mariposas Nocturnas by Emmet Gowin is it. Newly published by Princeton University Press, the sumptuous coffee-table volume is both a ground-breaking photo guide to over 1000 species of beautiful nocturnal moths of South and Central America, and an exquisite high-art feast for the eyes, supremely worthy of display in your home.
A 15 year project by famous photographer Emmet Gowin, not only does Mariposas Nocturnas showcase gorgeous, little-known moth species (many never before photographed alive and in their full splendor), it presents them as both individual treasures of stunning beauty, and as part of a greater community of breathtaking gems. What really sets this book apart, however, is its physical entirety. The whole book is a jewel. Arranged as graphic art, in carefully designed blocks of 25 photos per page, the final form evokes an Andy Warhol feel (but without the colorizing or distortion). The design of the book is luscious, the quality impeccable, the end result spectacular.
Every photo of a living moth is designed with an artist’s eye – including having each moth set on a complementary background – making the experience both rewarding of close inspection and inviting as a whole, as an object of beauty to cherish.
If anything, the amazing beauty of the physical book might overshadow the equally engrossing and intimate narrative, for instance Gowin’s account of watching the development of an A. Citheronia reglis pupa from earth-dweller to night flyer (pg. 116).
“Perhaps I had a bit of a mother’s instinct, because once the caterpillar had buried itself deep into a bucket of compost, I moved the bucket next to my computer table. About a week later, while at my computer, I thought I heard the slightest sound and turned to see that my Citheronia regalis had wiggled itself up to the surface and was struggling to free itself from its useless caterpillar skin. A pupa now, its form had completely changed, and its still-soft shell was a light yellow orange, rapidly turning to a rich chocolate color as it hardened. Apparently eyeless, it nonetheless had “eye spots,” and I believe it behaved as if it could sense light. (Many naturalists have observed that buried pupae rarely emerge until the rainy season has truly begun. There seems to be a perception at work here.) It gradually turned even deeper brown and its pupa case hardened further, but it could still move. It buried itself again the next day in the same soil, where it would spend the winter, finally emerging in late June of next year. I particularly wanted to mention this very surprising and touching performance, as it was so completely unexpected.”
So on top of the visual and tactile pleasures of Maripoas Nocturnas, there is the literary journey. Do take time to actually read this book while you marvel at the spellbinding photographs.
The author, who has spent a lifetime documenting family and the plight of the Earth with true sensitivity, does not disappoint. And he gently brings what we can hope Humanity as a whole can start to bring to our relationship with our struggling living planet.
Respect, empathy and compassion.
It seemed fitting to take this large volume outside, to the Sassafras tree in the front yard, partially felled by Hurricane Irma. It seemed fitting to honor both the book and the special, medicinal tree by taking photos for this review against the sculpted bark, in the grass and dappled light, as the hot sub-tropical sun heated the moist air of this warm September.
Sadly, this monograph may end up being a requiem, since it might be the first and last times humans are able to see many of these living jewels. Deforestation, pollution and other human activities are destroying the remaining great forests and other highly biodiverse realms of Brazil, Bolivia, French Guiana, Ecuador and Panama, with devastating consequences for the rich array of life on the planet.
Profound, pertinent and a balm for the soul (while also being a wake-up call), Mariposas Nocturnas is a true treasure that deserves to be read and cherished by anyone with any heart, scientific curiosity, fascination with life, love of nature or passion for art.
See the trailer for Mariposas Nocturnas by clicking this link.
For more information on Mariposas Nocturnas, Moths of Central and South America – A Study in Beauty and Diversity, by Emmet Gowin, click here.
Review by Cathy Taibbi (AKA Birdpond)