It Started With a Snake

It started with a snake. We were in the “summer zoo” aka a spare room where my cousin,  like many biology teachers was overseeing the care and feeding of the classroom animals.  I was holding a pine snake, an unexpected privilege.  I was enthralled, my father was aghast and my slightly younger brother afraid, but masking it with a snide remark “ Ewuew, she will hold anything: she even collects bugs! 

My cousin Ruth, totally nonplussed, smiled and asked my siblings if they would like to pet the snake…. No takers! 

Later, after lunch Ruth took me aside and asked what I was collecting. With great excitement I described the contents of my nascent insect collection, including my latest find, a large pale green moth with long tails.  Reaching up Ruth took down a book and showed me an image of a Luna  Moth. This was followed by a glass topped box filled with pinned and labeled butterfly specimens. As she explained the methodology, I noticed that the topmost label of each specimen was not in English. It was Latin, considered then and now as the universal scientific language which means that all animal and plant  names can be universally read by researchers. Before the family visit ended Ruth quietly told my mother  to check the mail in a week or so. 

Left: Harlequin beetle in Riker box with data tag. Right Latin book

Two weeks later when I got in from school my mother told me I had mail?! Mail? Neither mail nor phone calls were a norm for children. It was a package from Ruth. Surrounded by my curious  siblings I gingerly opened the package….insect pins, a spreading board,  tweezers, sample labels and last, but not least a book on insects. Included was a letter with detailed drawings and instructions on how to build an insect  collection.  As I examined this treasure trove my brother and sisters  drifted off..nothing of interest for them. 

Soon my father got in from work. After getting an explanation from my mother he examined  my  gift. He clearly was not thrilled at this event but appeared to accept it. Then he  called the other children  and sternly told them they were not to touch any of these objects or my collection under any circumstances.( My small collection was housed in a dress box lined with corrugated cardboard, a few mothballs and stored under the bed I shared with one of my sisters.)

   The not so side story here was that Ruth was not only the first woman in our extended family to go to college but already had two degrees, was an active member in the Civil Air Patrol and had not married… yet. She was truly suspect and not infrequently commented upon. Yet with a smile in her voice Ruth managed to slip around the confining family behavioral expectations as she energetically pursued her interests. 

Unconsciously, I noticed.

Fast forward two years later; another visit, this time in late summer.  Ruth’s  proud but somewhat defensive father “told”  her to tell us about her latest research trip…to the AMAZON. 

Silence. For what seemed like forever you could hear every bee buzz, bird chirp and jingle of the ice cream truck in this Philadelphia suburb..

With somewhat restrained enthusiasm Ruth began to describe her adventures: the vastness of the river, the villages,  the heat, humidity and the glorious varieties of plants. With mounting elation;  ten foot high Heliconia, tree sloths, iridescent butterflies, parrots, armadillos, twelve foot ferns and buttressed rooted trees.  

She took a breath and reached for some Riker boxes: beetles: rhinocerous, staghorn, harlequin.

More variety of beetles than one could imagine, large and larger with huge sculptural appendages, extreme antennae and mesmerizing colors and patterns. Ruth explained when, how, and why she had collected these specimens for her biology classes. The lessons were to go beyond anatomy and wander into diversity and acceptance and value. 

As we were leaving Ruth handed me a Riker box with six perfectly preserved and labeled beetles. (You know the drill by now.) Again, I was mesmerized, younger siblings marginally interested, and my father visibly resigned.) I have cherished this gift and moved it with me numerous times. More than a bit bedraggled and over forty years later I still have a few remnants to share with you.

Not a big surprise that three years later when I selected my high school classes Latin was on the list. No room in my schedule for secretarial classes. I wanted to be an entomologist. 

Didn’t happen..”girls”…’ were not welcome in the sciences. 

On to plan B ..Art. Art then nature: climate change, species decline, deforestation, all major environmental issues. 

Moving forward Ruth was always with me. Much to my delight, over  the decades  my studio practice and my ongoing interest in entomology have been supported by grants from The Geraldine R Dodge Foundation and the New Jersey Council for the Arts. Each event leading to another opportunity. So yes, I did go on rainforest expeditions, rode a camel or two, and as “The Artist in the Rainforest” met some amazing people around the world.  

 As you can see from the attached images  my longstanding interest in insects and biology is evident both conceptually and physically in my work.

With my cousin Ruth in a Costa Rican rainforest circa 1993

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