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Rainbow Dust

Three Centuries of Butterfly Delight

Wit a New Preface
Like fluttering shards of stained glass, butterflies possess a unique power to pierce and stir the human soul. Indeed, the ancient Greeks explicitly equated the two in a single word, psyche, so that from early times butterflies were not only a form of life, but also an idea. Profound and deeply personal, written with both wisdom and wit, Peter Marren’s Rainbow Dust explores this idea of butterflies—the why behind the mysterious power of these insects we do not flee, but rather chase.

At the age of five, Marren had his “Nabokov Moment,” catching his first butterfly and feeling the dust of its colored scales between his fingers. It was a moment that would launch a lifetime’s fascination rivaling that of the famed novelist—a fascination that put both in good company. From the butterfly collecting and rearing craze that consumed North America and Europe for more than two hundred years (a hobby that in some cases bordered on madness), to the potent allure of butterfly iconography in contemporary advertisements and their use in spearheading calls to conserve and restore habitats (even though butterflies are essentially economically worthless), Marren unveils the many ways in which butterflies inspire us as objects of beauty and as symbols both transient and transcendent.

Floating around the globe and through the whole gamut of human thought, from art and literature to religion and science, Rainbow Dust is a cultural history rather than merely a natural one, a tribute to butterflies’ power to surprise, entertain, and obsess us. With a sway that far surpasses their fragile anatomy and gentle beat, butterfly wings draw us into the prismatic wonders of the natural world—and, in the words of Marren, these wonders take flight.

320 pages | 18 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Biological Sciences: Biology--Systematics, Conservation, Ecology, Evolutionary Biology

History: Environmental History


“British nature writer and conservationist Marren remembers the butterfly collecting of his youth as a life-changing encounter with nature. Such an intense response to butterflies is not uncommon, and the author examines the emotional appeal of butterflies to naturalists, artists, novelists, and collectors during the past three hundred years. . . . Marren is a master of concise, elegant writing, and this passionate, personal work is not only a fascinating cultural study of these creatures but also an example of superb nature writing. . . . Highly recommended for all nature enthusiasts.”

Library Journal, starred review

“A prizewinning British wildlife writer reveals the special place of butterflies in our imagination and cultural life. . . . Marren has a firm grasp of history and biology, filling his narrative with vivid accounts of interesting events and encounters with writers, illustrators, hobbyists, and scientists. With an easy style, the author considers butterflies in art and literature—from ancient manuscripts to Vladimir Nabokov and John Fowles—and even advertising. . . . This is not a field guide or a natural history but rather a celebration of butterflies with a note of sadness over the decline of these creatures. . . . An erudite, engaging book.”

Kirkus Reviews

“Marren’s Rainbow Dust is a history of butterflies in Great Britain. By this we mean, of course, a history of humans and butterflies. (What is with all these Brits writing about nature? There’s a strong elegiac tone in these works, as well as celebration, as well as inspiration to do god-damned better, mates!)”

Backyard and Beyond

“An elegantly written and superbly researched account of how the human bond with butterflies has changed over centuries.”

Patrick Barkham | Guardian, Best Books of 2015

“To and fro, the book flitty-floats, elegantly, intentionally, like a butterfly between blooms. . . . He’s a genial, entertaining guide, is Peter Marren. . . . Butterflies have found their champion. Is Rainbow Dust worth a flutter? Oh, absolutely.”

John Lewis-Stempel | Times

“A subtly brilliant cultural and scientific history of lepidoptery, interspersed with vignettes from Marren’s own life in the field.”

Barbara Kiser | Nature

Rainbow Dust is Marren’s love letter to the butterfly. . . . His passion is infectious. Beautifully written and thoroughly researched, Rainbow Dust is a truly marvelous book.”

Sophia Waugh | Telegraph

“As charming and colorful as its winged subjects.”

Financial Times

“Reveal[s] the fascinating world of these winged jewels.”

Stephen Moss | Guardian, Best Nature Books of 2015

“Marren’s Rainbow Dust, a captivating cultural life of . . . butterflies, is crammed with such fascinating stories. The real reason for those bright colors? One scientist chewed on this for years—literally.”

Martin Jones | Guardian, Readers’ Books of the Year 2015

“[Rainbow Dust] is the distilled essence from a lifetime’s reading, looking, and taking pleasure in butterflies.”

Mark Cocker | Guardian

“[A] superbly distilled statement on our . . . obsession with butterflies. . . . Marren is insightful on all this psychology, but he is equally adept at exploring our scientific investigations of butterflies. . . . What is most fascinating about Marren’s history of butterfly science is the range of personalities that were devoted to collecting them.”

Mark Cocker | Spectator

“Good nature writing like that in Rainbow Dust . . . will inspire us to get involved.”

New Scientist

“Whether you know a lot or a little about butterflies, this is an essential read.”


“Marren’s book is stunning: as stunning as the first red admiral on a June morning.”

Resurgence and Ecologist

“[A] must read. . . . Marren’s celebration of butterflies explores their natural history; role in art, literature, and science; the melancholy catalogue of lost species and the measures being taken to conserve these most beautiful of creatures. Their very names are redolent of an English summertime: Clouded Yellow, Chalkhill Blue, and the rare Purple Emperor.”

Daily Mail

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Painted Lady
1. Meeting the Butterfly
2. Chasing the Clouded Yellow
3. Graylings: The Birth of a Passion
4. Gatekeepers: Collecting with Jean Froissart, John Fowles and Vladimir Nabokov
5. Lady Glanville ’s Fritillary
6. At the Sign of the Chequered Skipper
7. The Golden Hog or The Wonderful Names of Butterflies
8. Seeing Red: The Admiral
9. Fire and Brimstone: Butterflies and the Imagination
10. Silver Washes and Pearl Borders: Painting Butterflies
11. Endgame: The Large Blue and Other Dropouts
12. The Wall or How to Protect a Butterfly
13. Envoi: Aurora or the Daughter of Dawn
Appendix: British Butterflies

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