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For the love of butterflies

Book>> Butterflies on the roof of the world • by Peter Smetacek • Aleph • Rs 499

By Anindita Bhadra
Published: Friday 31 May 2013

image“One sunny morning, as I was wandering about alone, my heart leapt when an Oakleaf came and settled on the path a few feet away. I dashed back to the house, grabbed the nearest net and ran back.... The net billowed as I swung it, but at the last moment, it struck a stone on the path. There was a flash of orange and blue as the Oakleaf made off, and I was left with the net. The disappointment nearly broke my two-and-a-half-year-old heart before mother intervened and requested father to make a net more suited to my infancy.”

Peter Smetacek grew up among the meadows of Bhimtal and Nainital in a family of foresters and lepitopterists. Their family estate in Bhimtal, Jones Estate, was a haven for the local flora and fauna that flourished in its hills and valleys since his father bought it in 1945 till a massive forest fire nearly destroyed it in May 1984. In planning re-growth of the lost forest, Smetacek sets out on a journey to discover the true meaning of “forest”. Butterflies on the roof of the world is a vivid and engaging narrative of this journey that traces the story of Peter’s rendezvous with butterflies and moths in particular, and nature in general. The anecdotes and experiences that the author speaks of are as vivid as the images of the red breast jezebel and rajah brook’s birdwing on the cover. The informal, personal tone of his narrative draws the reader into the folds of the Himalayas amid the flower-strewn meadows shimmering with butterflies.

Peter’s father began collecting moths after spending 25 years catching only butterflies. The family soon caught up with his passion, greedily awaiting moths that flocked to the over-ripened fruit traps. In 1980, Peter returned home from school and was met by the shocking scene of walls lined with empty boxes. An attack by museum beetles had reduced most of the carefully arranged lepidopterans in Bederich Friedrich Smetacek’s collection to dust. This event shaped the destiny of Peter, who decided to rebuild the collection, and in process emerged as an undisputed expert on Indian moths and butterflies. He ends the chapter “Drunken moths” with a modest claim: the Smetacek collection is the fourth largest Lepidoptera collection in the country in terms of species, with over 2,000 of the roughly 12,000 butterfly and moth species believed to inhabit India, as well as type specimens of over a dozen new butterflies and moths that I have described.

image“Peter caught one male on 30.11.72,” said a note in red on the margin of Butterflies of India by Charles Antram. This was about a rare find—a Spot Puffin male, which he was allowed to record in the book that described the species. This added to Peter’s enthusiasm for butterflies at the age of seven, a passion that has been his companion for life. His passion has not been limited to capturing and cataloguing of lepidopterans, but has led to many studies on the behaviour and ecology of these species. Yes, there are scientific names of moths and butterflies in every chapter, but for one who does not share the enthusiasm of the lepidopterist, these can be ignored as Peter’s mother (herself a butterfly enthusiast) did.

Smetacek is an engaging storyteller and has a subtle sense of humour, and his memoirs are strewn with interesting anecdotes and facts. In traversing the miles of mountainous terrain with him, one sighs at the life he leads, following his passion, living his dream. “If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one to hear it, does the tree make a noise while falling? Would I involuntarily scream? Would anyone hear it? Far below me, life moved on; it all seemed surreal.” These lines in the Prologue gave me goosebumps, and I was happy to think that tussocks had held and the young Peter had not ended up in pieces in a valley, his mouth full of chocolate; otherwise I would not be reading this book.

Anindita Bhadra is with the Behaviour and Ecology Lab, Department of Biological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Kolkata

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