THE BUTTERFLY ALPHABET
Packed away in a corner of the attic in the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History was an old Havana cigar box full of exotic butterflies and moths, one with a sparkling silvery letter “F” awaiting its future rendezvous with destiny.
That day came in the spring of 1960 when a young visitor Kjell (“shell”) Sandved, arrived at the Smithsonian to conduct research for an encyclopedia on animal behavior. The director of the museum provided Kjell with an office, and introduced him to his neighbor, Barbara Bedette, who became his collaborator, best friend, and finally the love of his life.
One day, balancing high on a ladder surrounded by drawers and boxes full of butterflies and moths, Kjell found the old cigar box. And there was the sparkling letter “F” woven into the tapestry of the wing. “We looked at this miniature design under the microscope,” Barbara recalled, “and marveled at the beauty of this letter. It reminded us of how ancient scribes lovingly embellished colorful letters in Bibles and illuminated manuscripts with human and animal forms.” Not even a calligrapher could have improved on the beauty of nature’s own “F,” Barbara wondered, “If Nature can create one such perfect letter, there must be others flying around out there. Let’s go out and find more.”
The day they found the letter was the day their lives were changed. Optimists, they decided to travel worldwide to find all the letters from the wings of butterflies and moths.
There were problems -- Barbara knew nothing about butterflies, and Kjell knew nothing about photography.
Born in Conneaut, Ohio, Barbara was a geology graduate student of Bowling Green State University and moved to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in 1954 where she specialized in evolution of seashells. Her intellectual capacity and soft-spoken nature soon brought her numerous Peer Recognition and close cooperation with Smithsonian legendary scientists such as Harry S. Ladd, on his “Mohole Project” with ongoing research on how Pacific coral reefs are created, and with Wendell Woodring with species migration during separation of the North and South American continents. Kjell was a Norwegian publisher of two comprehensive encyclopedias: ”The World of Music,” translated into ten languages, and ”The World of Art.
First Kjell had to teach himself basic photography. For two years he studied to solve problems in macro photography. Examining thousands of museum specimens under the microscope, Barbara and Kjell soon realized that faded museum butterflies were unusable. When touched by human hands of collectors, the fine powdery scale formations on butterfly wings are easily destroyed. They would have to be photographed in nature without killing them.
Kjell designed, jerry-rigged and glued together a portable “bellow” microscope with German Zeiss Luminar and Leitz Summicron microscope lenses that were adapted for extreme close-up photography with double strobe slave units. After yearlong intensive research Barbara had pinned down countries where various families, genera and species of butterflies and micro Lepidoptera were likely to be found. They were ready to travel to research stations and rainforests all over the world.
Traveling to botanical gardens, nature reserves and rainforests from the Amazon to New Guinea, they survived malaria-infested jungles, leeches and ants while photographing letters and numbers on the wings of exquisite butterflies and moths without killing any.
A surprising discovery was that the wing patterns of their night-flying cousins, tropical moths, yielded just as many attractive letters and numbers as did those of butterflies.
EASY AND DIFFICULT LETTERS TO FIND
Of all the design elements in nature, the symmetrical “O”- the circle, the zero, the eye -- is the most common. Large eyespots on the wings of butterflies scare or deter enemies. Rows of smaller eyespots along less vulnerable areas invite pecking away from the vulnerable body.
Symmetrical letters like “C,” “D,” “F,” “I” and “L,” are relatively easy to find. However, asymmetrical letters, particularly “B,” “H,” “K,” “Q,” “T” and “X,” were more difficult. Only one rare ampersand (&) was found.
By 1975 Barbara and Kjell had found enough letters in the wings of butterflies so that the Secretary of the Smithsonian, Dillon Ripley decided to reveal their discovery as a poster in his new Smithsonian Magazine using five masterly crafted central words from the American poet Theodore Roethke’s “The Far Field”:
ALL FINITE THINGS REVEAL INFINITUDE
The mystery of our life’s wanderings from beginning to end, from the smallest to the largest, seconds in geological time.
To reproduce the line above required innumerable experiments over eons of time. For each letter has been etched into the wing of a moth or a butterfly through a never-ending series of trials and errors known as natural selection. No one knew the letters could be found there in the wings until Barbara Bedette and Kjell Sandved of the Smithsonian’s perceived them. Imagine then what else there is to be seen in the wings of a butterfly or moth, or the water above a sunken tree, or in the memory of a single person.
DILLON RIPLEY, SECRETARY, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION.
With a readership of over 5 million, the publicity of the Smithsonian poster and subsequent Butterfly Alphabets promoted a new U.S. phenomenon: butterfly gardening and rearing of butterflies in our school systems.
After the success of the Butterfly Alphabet, Barbara and Kjell were greatly surprised to discover they had enough letters and numbers to create another Nature Alphabet.
“A” In a field outside Washington, DC, Barbara noticed a tiny caterpillar doing its morning stretch by straddling a fork in a tree.
“D” Diving in a Caribbean coral reef, Kjell looked down and noticed a crab forming the letter “D” with its carapace and claws.
“I” found in one eye of a fly.
“L,” “V,” “N” and “M.” On a shell found on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, Barbara could differentiate four different letters in an Olive shell. (An 18th-century conchologist had noticed this variability, naming this shell “Lettered Olive.”)
“Q” was a startling discovery. “While photographing orchids in a tree in the wilderness of Panama, Kjell suddenly found himself inches away from a coiled snake hanging from a branch. Its head sticking out sideways, the snake was the perfect letter “Q.”
“S” is formed is formed by the gracefully curved neck of the flamingo at Nakuru Lake, Tanzania.
They discovered funny faces, figures, signs & symbols and animal shapes. With the bi-lateral symmetry of some orchids, they even photographed images like tiny dancing ballerinas with flailing skirts.
The final alphabet, “Noah’s Ark”, is now close to completion
NOAH'S ARK ALPHABET
“A” Alligator with row of teeth
“B” Three bluebirds on a branch, two in love, one sad.
“C” Cat sculptured on a chiton (a seashell)
“D” Fire-spewing dragon
“E” Pink elephants with lobster claws
“F” Fox blinking an eye with chicken in mind
“G” Goat with raggedy coat
“H” Heart spun by spider (males do not spin web)
“I” A heavenly gazing inchworm
“K” Kitten in a leaf sculptured by larva
“L” Loch Ness monster
“M” Mouse looking for cheese
“N” Northern spotted owl
“O” Octopus with flailing arms
“P” Happy penguins
“Q” Portrait of a quail
“S” Soaring seagulls
“T” Tadpole swimming
“W” Jumping whale
“X” X chromosomes
It was truly Barbara who put on the magic glasses that revealed nature's hidden designs to become the architect and designer of both the Butterfly- and Nature alphabets, joining the two in the spirit of Smithson’s mandate to “Create an institution for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” We can all take delight in finding letters and numbers, symbols and signs in nature. Take your child by the hand into a field of flowers on a summer’s day, but bring a magnifying glass. Look, and then look more closely. Miniature marvels are there for all to see.