Science journalist Wendy Williams, perhaps best known for her New York Times bestseller The Horse, turns her attention to humanity’s long-standing love of butterflies, those “flying flowers” that inhabit the natural world and have long inspired poets, artists and avid, obsessive collectors. The idea for this informative, thought-provoking account was sparked after Williams viewed thousands of astonishing butterfly specimens collected over a century and now housed at Yale University. Curious, she embarked on a two-year quest to investigate not only the insects but also our fascination with all things Lepidoptera.
Williams is a consummate storyteller, and her narrative seamlessly integrates scientific facts with vivid portraits of characters as colorful as the butterflies that intrigue and inspire them. While some, like Charles Darwin, are household names, readers will also meet lesser known historical figures including Maria Sibylla Merian, whose artwork and observations provided scientific evidence of how a caterpillar emerges from its chrysalis to become a specific butterfly, and 19th-century Colorado homesteader Charlotte Coplen Hill, a mother of seven who discovered an incredibly detailed butterfly fossil.
Williams also teams up with researchers and citizen scientists to explore threats to butterfly populations, including monarchs, whose life cycles are dependent upon milkweed. She retraces the work that led to the discovery of monarch overwintering sites in Mexico and delves further into the decline caused by habitat loss, climate change and other factors.
While the news for butterfly populations is sobering, Williams urges us to never give up the work of conservation. She advocates for “the joining together of countless people of many different nations, across generations, in a united effort to protect at least one small joyful piece of the natural world to which we belong.” The Language of Butterflies is more than a small contribution to this crucial effort.