Advent Calendar of Witches, Day 18, Maria Sibylla Merian

Behind door number 18 is Maria Sibylla Merian, the great botanist and first ecologist, who discovered and documented insect metamorphosis in the 1600s. She had to be very careful about her reputation, because there were many who still believed in witches and their power to take the form of butterflies and spoil the milk. She kept her laboratory of silkworms and caterpillars very secret.

Kim Todd’s biography, Chrysalis, is my source for information on Merian’s life and influence. Todd’s writing has also been an important model for me for how to imagine and then write feminist histories. I’m very excited she has a new book about women journalists, Sensational: The Hidden History of America’s “Girl Stunt Reporters” coming out this spring.

Maria Sibylla Merian’s first book was about caterpillars. She was a most unusual artist and a most unusual scientist for how she painted insects on their host plants. Because her plants were always surrounded by their pollinators, she is called the first ecologist. Even as a girl who had been given a present of a silkworm, it was dangerous and must be kept secret, this interest in things that creep and crawl and grub. Before she discovered metamorphosis, it was thought the flying things spontaneously generated or were tormentors sent up from Hell. She had to be cautious with her propriety – butterflies were still believed by many to be transfigurated witches doing the devil’s work to sour the milk. It was the end of one mean age, everyone so hungry or afraid of being hungry again, and the beginning of another; she would have been foolish to think herself safe from the accusations of those who feared witches, those who feared women, and those who feared science. 

Her second book was a lavishly illustrated monograph on the flowers and insects of Surinam that included footnotes on the uses of the plants, including those that were used as abortifacients. There was a kind of peacock flower she drew with its stamen uncurling like a luxurious tongue licking butterflies right out of the air. The yellow cheeks of petals buttercup their way around the seductions of vines. The rich depth of those seeds – crushed they make the richest ink in the world.

“The Indians, who are not treated well by their  Dutch masters, use the seeds to abort their children, so that their children will not become slaves like they are. The black slaves from Guinea and Angola have demanded to be well treated, threatening to refuse to have children. They told me this themselves,” Maria Sibylla Merian wrote in her footnote to the portrait of that beautiful flower.

In 1647 in every ditch and byway of Europe there were plants growing that you could have used to prune back the abundance of your body, but you’d have had to catch a witch-in-butterfly to get the recipe. In the footnotes to a book of pretty flower engravings this woman’s secret, revealed in such plain terms, is very great and dangerous.

She didn’t know much Latin. Women had no occasion to learn it. She used instead the names the indigenous people used and footnoted each flower with the uses the indigenous people knew. She does not name her sources for any of this knowledge, though that source was likely an indigenous woman, likely enslaved, likely someone who could have benefitted from a share in those royalties that granted Merian the freedom to live her life with more freedom than most.

Maria Sibylla Merian had the revolutionary idea a plant was not an object you picked out of the field, but a point of intersection for pollinators and predators and fruit and weather. She might have extended this ecology even further to include the human societies that grew up around them.

She might at least have left us a name. A woman with no name and no story is holding out a flower. I don’t know this woman. I have tried to imagine her. I have tried to imagine being her. To be human, after all, is to look at each other and imagine how it would be. But then again, maybe we are not so capable of everything we imagine ourselves to be. It could have been any of us, but it was her who lived her life, her who died that life, her whose name the botanist never once bothered to write down in a footnote or journal or dashed-off letter. Most likely it was her secrets so carelessly given away. 

The Bird of Paradise is one of the most vibrant blossoms to spring out of this earth – its crimson tongue, the ocher of its petals. The seed makes the darkest ink a blank page has ever swallowed.

Published by Kathryn Nuernberger

Kathryn Nuernberger's latest books are THE WITCH OF EYE (Sarabande), an essay collection about witches and witch trials coming out in February 2021, and RUE (BOA, 2020), a collection of poems about plants historically used for birth control and pissed off feelings about patriarchal bullshit. The End of Pink (BOA 2016) won the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Her collection of lyric essays is Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (The Ohio State University Press, 2017). A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, American Antiquarian Society, Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, H. J. Andrews Research Forest, She teaches in the creative writing program at University of Minnesota. Recent work appears in 32 Poems, Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, Gulf Coast, Paris Review, The Southern Review, and Waxwing.

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