I had a friend, Adrienne, who seemed as delicate as the butterflies she studied. Some beings keep their secrets well hidden.
Adrienne and I both studied leps—Lepidoptera—she, butterflies, and I, moths. Through the microscope we examined wings, heads, legs, and trunks, looking for scales and spines that might distinguish one species from another. We dissected lep genitalia, looking for secrets of species identity. First we’d cut off the abdomen with sharp, thin forceps; then we’d soak it in a solution to dissolve the body tissue; and finally we’d clean it with our forceps, fine brushes, and hypodermic needles filled with water until we obtained aesthetically pleasing chitinized structures in their natural glory.
Many of our specimens had been dead for some time—animals stored respectfully in museum drawers after having been collected by entomologists of days gone by. Some specimens had been collected much more recently, and the tissue in their bodies took longer to dissolve. I preferred that my animals came to me long dead.
In general, female Lepidoptera have the less interesting reproductive structures—or the more subtle. It is the males who have the flashy gadgets. There is a theory that suggests that some species ensure they don’t mate with other species by means of the males and females possessing close-fitting reproductive parts; the theory is referred to as the lock-and-key theory of reproductive isolation. At one time, Adrienne was terminating butterfly copulations and dissecting the mating pair to examine just how the pair’s structures interlocked. Adrienne found the esoteric world she had chosen to explore fascinating.
Adrienne was a rare specimen herself—a black female in a traditionally white male field. Adrienne softly crossed barriers that had tended to isolate, perhaps in search of a world that would insulate. She delved into the world of butterfly form, classification, and evolution; there was Zen in the dissecting, art in the illustrating, and creativity in the intellectual pursuit. And from it all, Adrienne hoped to reconstruct what had been in order to explain what is; the past would elucidate the intricacies of the present. The evidence was in chitinized structures, in fragments of DNA.
But Adrienne was not happy with the intricacies of her present. Perhaps she did not find her place, her relationship. Perhaps the grace of forms left her wanting for perfection. Adrienne, quiet and soft spoken, curious and determined, ended her life.
Those of us she left behind sorted through the interactions and conversations we had and didn’t have with her, trying to reconstruct the history, searching for some truth, some understanding, looking for a story that satisfied our needs.
Once I completed a dissection, I would place what remained of the moth—its head, thorax, and wings—back in its box and closed the drawer. So much life is lost in its pursuit.