Resting, the hatchling was diminished….It seemed like it would never move, that it would harden and die in this shriveled shape. Then, the insect stirred. Somehow, wings emerged from those wrinkled balls…. The peacock rolled and unrolled its proboscis as if sampling the air. It was fully itself, and something new. - Kim Todd, Chrysalis (2007)
In the famous first line of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect.
In the month or so after my son was born, I had a subtler – but no less startling – out-of-body experience. You would think that the physical contortions of pregnancy – the organs shifted, enlarged, squished – would have prepared me for this final transformation. But being pregnant was temporary. This was, to borrow a different metaphor from science, a bona fide state change.
By metamorphosis, I’m not talking about the truism that there’s this sharp mental dividing line between your life before and after you become a parent. Nor am I referring to the more superficial physical changes: the breasts suddenly huge and painful from nursing, the deflated sac of belly flesh that used to house the growing fetus.
No: my body felt undeniably, irrevocably altered. The experience had this uncanny valley quality – like I’d been assigned a hunk of flesh close to my previous incarnation but not an exact match. Were sleep deprivation and hormonal changes responsible for this science-fictional state? Had labor itself simply made me more aware of my body? Either way, I couldn’t quite recognize myself or feel at ease in this new form. The experience was disconcerting. A little monstrous even.
I was fully myself, but also something new.
Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717) was a German scientific illustrator, an artist and naturalist whose particular passion was the study of insects and their metamorphoses.
In Chrysalis, Kim Todd’s meticulously researched and compulsively readable biography of Merian, Todd argues for the prescience of Merian’s work. Merian died about 150 years before Ernst Haeckel coined the term “ecology,” but her approach to drawing and studying insects predicts a more holistic understanding of the natural world. She developed a style of artistic presentation and scientific inquiry that can only be described, anachronistically, as ecological. She drew insects next to the plants they ate, the fauna that preyed on them, spinning a web of relatedness and interconnection. She approached her subjects not as inert, pinned specimens but as dynamic creatures whose lives must be contextualized within their habitat.
As Todd puts it, Merian originated “an entirely new way of seeing. [Her pictures] show the butterfly not just as a decoration, an emblem, or subject of dissection, but a member of a community.”
She also sought to document change itself. She arranged the life cycle of a given insect species artfully on the page. Merian saw the cabinets of curiosity that were all the rage in Amsterdam as lifeless and disjointed. Instead, Todd writes, “The flow was paramount. She was interested in what could not be encased—the moment-by-moment shifts.”
Merian’s life story can also be told as a series of metamorphosis.
First, her marriage at 16 to a journeyman artist named Graff, over a decade her senior. This occasioned the birth of a daughter, as well as their move from Frankfurt to his hometown of Nuremberg. As a housewife and mother, Merian lacked the freedom from responsibility that enabled her to learn her father’s and stepfather’s businesses (print-making and art, respectively). Nonetheless, she became an art teacher and started selling artwork (at first more decorative than scientific) to maintain her skills and support her family. At the same time, she never stopped experimenting and collecting insect specimens. She published her first book on caterpillar metamorphosis when her second daughter was still an infant.
Then, there's her decision in 1686 to join a religious sect called the Labadists in Wiewert, Holland. She traveled with her seventeen-year-old Johanna and seven-year-old Dorothea; her husband did not accompany them. Todd notes that Merian might not necessarily have had a spiritual awakening. Or, even if she did, the move also served as an out, a refuge from an unhappy marriage. At one point, her husband sought a reconciliation, but he was forced to live outside the community’s walls, and Merian ultimately refused him.
After eight years with the Labadists, Todd moved to Amsterdam, the secular opposite of the cloistered, pious world of Wiewert. There, she began moving in both artistic and naturalist circles. She dropped her married name and returned to “Merian.”
Perhaps most striking of all, though, was her late-life metamorphosis into a naturalist-explorer. At age 52, Merian had become established in Amsterdam, financially and emotionally independent, with one daughter married, another grown. Yet, she chose to break with her life in Amsterdam, in favor of a physically and financially risky trip to Surinam with her younger daughter Dorothea. She journeyed to this South American country – and settled there for two years – to study insect metamorphosis in situ. She went on dangerous excursions into the rainforest, drew on the local wisdom of Amerindian and African women, whose lives were structured by the plantation slavery of this Dutch colony.
Letters detailing Merian’s business transactions and her study books of scientific observations have survived the centuries, but we have little record of her interior life. Merian’s attitudes toward her children and even her faith remain undocumented, inscrutable.*
And, certainly, there are elements of her biography, like the baroque guild rules that organized her youth in Frankfurt, or her decision to join the Labadists, that feel impossibly strange.
But something about her life still resonates across the expanse of time and place.
One source of connection might be family planning as a key element of her ability to transform herself throughout her life. Merian had only two children, spaced a decade apart, at a time when women typically had an average of 10 or 12 pregnancies by age 40. Her internal motivations are, once again, opaque, but it’s clear that Merian took control of her reproductive life at least in part to escape from the cycle of pregnancy and nursing that shaped many of her contemporaries’ adult lives during those decades.
Another is her risk-taking and restless activity right up until her death. As I’ve learned from Merian’s story and others' while researching this blog, the timelines for women’s creativity and creative output often look different than men’s. Late middle age, far from being a time to slow down, can be a time to pursue passions without compromise, to take risks, to contribute with renewed energy, because one’s mental and physical resources are not diverted to the business of domestic life.
Merian’s story is a reminder that our lives and identities can – and do – change. In our strict adherence to a script, our insistence on a coherent sense of self, we might lose out on possibilities for growth and transformation. These could be radical transformations but also more subtle shifts, like the caterpillar’s molts, the shedding of new skins.
Beyond the human scale, though, Merian’s life and work also illustrate how art can morph into science, changing science in the process. She demonstrated the value of an artist’s eye brought to natural observation, the rigor and focus of scientific questions that made her art more than ‘decorative.’ Her interdisciplinary and ecological perspective is one that we would do well to mimic as a species. Merian's life can be read, too, as a call to transform our way of seeing – and being – in the world.
*There are possible traces, though, of these intersecting identities of naturalist and mother. Like Merian’s description of the pupa in her first caterpillar book as resembling “a swaddled infant.”