after Maria Sibylla Merian
What’s your urgent charge, if not transformation?
1. Ornate lory on branch of peach tree
After my second son was born, I slipped into a severe postpartum depression. I remember nursing the baby, staring blankly out the window at a cold gray April that refused to warm.
My best friend, who was living on another continent and whose first baby had been due the same day as my son, had lost her child suddenly—a full-term stillbirth—without explanation. I felt both lucky and ungrateful, unable to appreciate what I had and unable to console my friend.
There was a peach tree outside our bedroom window that, despite the cold, spread its fragile petals over the narrow city street.
One day, I watched a small green parrot land on a branch. It must have been an escaped pet; as far as I know, there are no wild parrots in Philadelphia. But in my melancholy state, I just stared, barely registering the strangeness. I saw it as a sign. A sign of what? I can’t remember now. Surely something dark. Dislocation? Alienation? The embattled natural world and its inevitable destruction? Something like that.
Later, I saw a reproduction of a painting by the seventeenth-century naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian: Ornate lory on branch of peach tree. I felt an uncanny flash of recognition when I looked at it, this precise rendering of the beauty I had been unable to see when it sat in front of me.
Trichoglossus ornatus: His feathers are neat arcs, like the translucent curves of keratin I bit from my son’s small fingers.
Every little thing became a symbol for a larger failing: the white thrush on the baby’s tongue, laundry piling up, the tiny socks, so ridiculous, so heartbreaking.
It’s difficult now to remember exactly what it felt like: the desperation at being unable to sleep, the sudden flashes of anger—mostly directed at my husband—when anything didn’t go as I had intended. Which, with a newborn and a two-year-old, was most of the time.
Eventually the cloud lifted, the strange hormonal weather system shifted and moved on. Eventually the spring warmed, the pale blossoms turned into soft downy fruit.
Still, it took me more than a year to feel fully like myself again. And yet my husband and I both wanted a third child. Even after R’s harrowing first year, we wanted another one. But we were both apprehensive about what might happen.
I sometimes think we moved to Brazil when our third son was ten weeks old as a way to escape this possibility. I wanted a baby, but I couldn’t bear another first year—the sleepless haze, the desperation. It was as though we imagined that by transplanting ourselves, we could elude this possibility, as though the foreign soil wouldn’t allow the depression to take root.
It feels shameful, somehow, to admit this. That it was not just adventure that we wanted, or for our children to learn another language and culture, but that the kernel of our desire was escape.
Maria Merian traveled to Surinam in 1699, at the age of 52, to draw and catalogue the exotic species she found there. But her ornate lory was painted before this expedition. She drew it from a specimen she saw in Amsterdam, in a scientific collector’s “cabinet of curiosity.” Despite the lifelike pose, the staring eye, beak poised as though to squawk or speak, the parrot was stuffed, long dead.
What did Merian think about as she studied the lifeless assemblage of bone and feathers, the scaled claws, as she placed him on a branch of Prunus persica, a temperate tree not native to the parrot’s tropical home? Was she beginning to imagine the journey she would undertake, the curiosity and desire that would pull her so far from her own origins, to the strange and beautiful continent, the magical, impenetrable landscape that would be her destination?
2. Branch of guava tree with leafcutter ants, army ants, pink-toed tarantulas, huntsman spiders, and ruby topaz hummingbird
That cold wet spring before we left, I sat on the porch glider, the baby on my lap, my three-year-old fragile and needy. My mother arrived in her hooded slicker, drummed her pink-lacquered fingernails on the arm of the metal chair.
She did not want us to leave, did not think it was a good decision. She could not keep this opinion to herself. Even when she said nothing, it was obvious in her disapproving tone of voice, the set of her jaw.
We continued our old argument in silence. The firs in the yard were beaten down by days of rain.
I didn’t know that months from then, I would sit on another porch and watch a tarantula the size of my hand make its way across the neighbor’s stucco wall. All the neighbors would come out to see, to offer commentary and advice.
Trap it in a glass jar, one said. Drop it into the mato behind the condominium.
No, said another. You have to kill it.
They don’t kill people, said someone else. But they bite. And their hairs get into your skin, and it itches.
The small crowd assessed the situation. This one sipping a beer, that one holding a broom propped against her side.
In Merian’s painting, the spider rests atop the bird, one black stiletto to the throat. The bird is still, her eye open, as though lying back for a routine procedure.
I couldn’t decide if I was the tarantula, the threatening, possibly dangerous curiosity—or the bird, pinned on my back, docile and immobile.
In the painting, the yellow-skinned fruit hangs below the branch; above, another tarantula emerges from its egg.
The past births itself, black-bodied, pincers poised, from its casing.
That day on the porch with my mother, I thought of Henry Walter Bates, the nineteenth-century naturalist, who’d explored Amazonian Brazil. (Yes, I fancied myself in the spirit of Bates and Darwin and Merian, fearlessly exploring the wilds of South America. Never mind that we would live in a walled condominium ten minutes from the mall, on the outskirts of the fourth-largest city in Brazil. Never mind that the most exotic representatives of the natural world would be shaggy papaya trees in ditches by the highway; the beaches, littered with beer cans; and the ocean, alternately rough and docile, implacable and inviting.)
I imagined myself a latter-day Henry Bates, traipsing through the rain forest in his wide-brimmed, net-draped hat and greatcoat, kneeling to observe the leafcutter ants. In Salvador, I too would stoop to watch the ants transport bright petals from the jambú and flame acacia, little pink and red flags, a delicate confetti parade, through the sand of the playground where the kids played.
Here, in Philadelphia, it seemed nothing could hold my interest. Nothing was vivid enough. I needed to escape, needed the difficult beauty of an absolutely foreign place to wake me up. Somewhere where even the smallest details could enthrall me, draw me into their amazing, implausible true story.
For example: the leafcutter ants that, it turns out, chew the bits of leaves and bring them to their ant hills, where they cultivate a kind of fungus which they then consume. They practice a form of agriculture, intentionally creating the conditions to grow the fungus.
My mother, both selfishly and out of genuine concern, wanted me to stay. But she was powerless, as I was powerless at the mercy of this impulse, this deep need.
Think of Henry Bates, dogged and earnest, following his tiny guides across the jungle floor, all those years mistakenly imagining the ants gnawing the foliage into little jagged-edged umbrellas to protect their young from the rain.
3. Roots of the cassava with rustic sphinx moth, caterpillar and chrysalis of tetrio sphinx moth and garden tree-boa
Somehow I did escape. The third time, the depression did not pull me in with its suffocating grip, its taunting, unsolvable riddles.
I don’t know what it was. The year of bright weather, tropical sunshine that burned off any pretense or self-pity. The distraction of working, the escape of leaving the baby every day for five hours with Dete, our competent and loving nanny. The dried placenta pills, little ash-filled talismans that I swallowed every day for months until they ran out.
I liked feeling purposeful. I was impervious and thick-skinned and sturdy as the woody-stemmed cassava roots my husband brought back from the market every Saturday.
Dete would peel them with a big knife, removing the bark-like covering to reveal the white flesh inside. She hacked these into smaller pieces and boiled them until they were soft, pulling out the tough, fibrous threads.
Cassava is the starchy, tuberous root of a woody shrub in the spurge family. In Brazil it’s called mandioca, which translates as manioc. It is a staple in much of Brazil, a workhorse of a crop, with one of the highest yields of food energy per cultivated area of all food plants. Cassava does well on poor soils and with low rainfall and is a perennial that can be harvested year-round as needed.
We ate the root, boiled, soft white hunks spread with butter, or mashed, like potatoes. We ate it as a thickener in pirão, a sauce for crabs. We ordered it at beach stands, fried and salted and served in cardboard boats. I fed it to the kids in biscoitos de goma, little round cookies that dissolve on the tongue. We sprinkled it on every meal as farofa, a gritty white or yellow flour.
Tapioca also comes from manioc root. It’s commonly used in Brazil as a type of flour. It’s used to make thin, chewy pancakes called beijú, which are sold on the street. Sometimes Dete stirred tapioca into the cuscús—a steamed cornbread—or added it to a cake.
I remember eating tapioca pudding once or twice as a child. It was more familiar to my parents’ generation, though. It came as a powder in a box, to be mixed with milk and stirred on the stove.
My mother’s mother did not cook. She did not learn her mother’s recipes for matzo ball soup or gefilte fish. She played solitaire and talked on the phone with her aunt Sylvia. Some days she did not change out of her nightgown until the afternoon.
As far as my mother knew, there was no name for it, this cloud that hovered over her childhood. It was not talked about or acknowledged.
But on good days, my grandmother dressed the baby in her doll-like bonnet and pushed her down the quiet suburban street in the boat-like stroller. She sang along with Frank Sinatra on the radio. She stood at the stove, spoon in hand, pouring the My-T-Fine powder into the pot of milk, watching it congeal magically into pudding.
On those rare afternoons, my mother, walking in from school, greeted by the unmistakable smell of scalded milk and singed sugar, would feel her six-year old heart rise with expectation and relief. She would drop her backpack and eat bowls and bowls of the sweet, creamy pudding, her spoon sinking through the delicate white skin that formed on the top, each mouthful a multitude of chewy pearls.
Maria Merian’s painting of cassava reveals the roots with the soil removed, stretching up to the stem and lower leaves of the plant. A section of one root is carved out, cradling five moth eggs. But the scale is distorted; using the manioc plant as a yardstick, the caterpillar would be a foot long; the moth would have a wingspan of an impossible eighteen inches. The boa, coiled around the stem, its back calligraphed in a black-inked language, is miniature, not close to its actual length of six feet.
I wonder if this was how my grandmother saw her life: the hours at home with children or while they were in school, stretching to an interminable length, or somehow shrunk to a manageable dimension by the cigarettes and coffee and endless game of solitaire.
I wonder if Merian imagined the New World she explored as a sort of life-sized, open curiosity cabinet—the decorative detail, the moth’s delicately hinged wing segments. Or a vanitas, Latin for emptiness, a word used to describe the paintings of skulls and models of skeletons displayed alongside the curios in seventeenth-century Amsterdam.
Each skeleton was intricately constructed: this one clutching a suitcase, that one tucking a handkerchief into his lapel. Another played a Bach cantata on a miniature violin, the bow a taut-strung artery.
The curiosity cabinets themselves were an elaborate form of vanitas, a collection of life—stuffed birds and mammals, pressed plants and flowers—yanked from their natural habitats in far-flung corners of the globe and put on display, highlighting their beauty and strangeness, their immanent mortality.
And yet I keep returning to the moth in the upper left-hand corner of the painting. Her wings are a beautiful pale gray, her extended proboscis coiled, reaching out toward the cassava, and curling back in on itself, forming the figure of a musical staff. She hovers, tongue-tied, her protruding compound eyes fragmenting the world into a fanciful and frightening kaleidoscope.
4. Gummi Guttae Tree with White Witch, Cocoon, and Caterpillar of Hawk Moth and Drops of Resin
I watched my glistening chrysalis belly split, and insect legs climbed out, wings unfolding their wet parchment. When I was pregnant, I had these recurring dreams: the unimaginable birth, the unseen being emerging.
In Merian’s painting, three stages exist side by side: the bulbous yellow egg clinging to the bark; pearled ellipsis of a caterpillar; and the moth, indifferent apotheosis, her slim legs, her coiled tongue seeking nectar.
As though each moment exists in its own cocoon.
And I thought how my friend who had lost her first baby, now back in the States, raising her second daughter and pregnant with a third, must have experienced this. Every time I called her, the line staticky across continents and time zones, I heard the anxiety in her voice. Each moment for her was full of dread.
I imagine she must have wished to return to that blissfully unaware first pregnancy and also felt the impossibility of returning—felt this cyclical idea time to be an abstraction, and a cruel illusion.
You can only go forward. You can’t go back.
I remember how he swam in my body, blind and instinct-driven as a silkworm, with its ocelli that detect only light and shadow.
Then, more than sleep’s torn leaves, more than the small mouth spinning colostrum’s silver thread from me, I longed for the moth’s needle-fine antennae, the imago’s self-sufficient ecstasy.
5. Branch of banana tree with caterpillar and moth
When we returned from Brazil, we went to Florida for a few days to visit my grandparents, who were ailing. My grandmother, at eighty-two, was beginning to forget things. She shed memory like a cocoon, a casing she no longer needed. She looked constantly confused, slightly damp, fragile.
“Who does he look like?” she asked again and again of my youngest son. “He’s adorable.” She stooped to squeeze his round cheeks. “Who does he look like?”
We sat on the balcony, which overlooks the ocean. Wrought-iron coffee table and chaise lounge, an orchid’s coy nod. A potted banana tree, fan-leafed and brash. Musa sapentium: the tree of knowledge.
The most recent events rolled off of her like water off the banana’s glossy leaves. What we’d had for lunch, the phone call she’d made this morning. But she could still relate how at twenty-two she had walked the streets of Basel, nine months pregnant with my mother. People had turned to stare and whisper. Pregnant women did not go out in public in Switzerland in 1950, at least not in the German part of the country. But with her dark hair, her enormous belly, her eyes daring them to pass judgment, people assumed—correctly—that she was a foreigner.
My grandmother turned her face to the sun, her tinted glasses glinting, the frames bejeweled.
The story trailed off. I could tell she’d lost its thread. But I was glad for it, this small reminiscence she’d spun from her memory’s increasingly tenuous silk.
Already, my youngest son was walking, learning to speak. I held his hand to keep him from going to close to the balcony’s railing. He was no longer the tiny, squalling bundle we’d taken to Brazil a year ago. “Who does he look like?” she asked, reaching again for his plump cheeks.
Below, the intercostal was mangrove-thick and shallow, the drawbridge’s rise and fall like suspended breath. I closed my eyes and imagined a moth emerging, wet-winged, from the copse’s splayed ribcage.
“He looks like his older brothers,” I said. Then, “Maybe like his grandfather.” Then, “I don’t know. Maybe just like himself.”
I tried to answer each question as though it were a new question. Which, to her, it was. I tried to imagine seeing the world this way: anew, and anew, and anew. It was exhausting.
In Merian’s painting, the plant is in fruit, also in flower, petals curled back to reveal the banana heart. There is a sense of abundance, of the constantly unfolding life story of plants and animals—so ordinary, so beguilingly complex.
Three life stages of the moth, Automeris liberia, are depicted simultaneously. The adult, its wings adorned with eyes, hovers above the branch. She is poised as if to leave, as though she could float off the page, a flutter of dun and burnished gold. For all her openness, her hinged glory, you wouldn’t guess her related to the feathery green caterpillar on the blossom, or the tight-swaddled, oblivious cocoon.
6. Sea purslane and Surinam toad (Pipa pipa)
Earth, isn’t this what you want: to resurrect
in us invisibly? Isn’t it your dream
to be invisible one day?
Even now, my two-year-old wriggles into my arms, trying to nurse. I stroke the rough patch of scalp beneath his curls, where his amphibian brain remembers.
The midwife toad, pipa pipa, carries her young inside the skin of her back: her body a miniature nursery, IVs pumping.
The Orinoco’s sweet water pushes her along, the river at the border of this country where I lived once, briefly and intensely, the river silt-washed, silvery, and the clutch of froglets, swimming off.
This poem appeared in Indiana Review 34.1, Summer 2012.
Anna Cabe (Nonfiction Editor): Ekphrastic essays can be difficult to read apart from the works of art they’re drawing from, but Eleanor Stanford’s “Metamorphosis: Six Studies” manages the tricky balance of both engaging Maria Sibylla Merian’s pioneering scientific illustrations of Surinamese flora and fauna and examining Eleanor’s own experiences with motherhood, escape, and memory.
Eleanor Standford is the author of three books of poetry: Bartram’s Garden, The Book of Sleep, and the forthcoming The Imaginal Marriage, all from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Harvard Review, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, the Georgia Review, and many others. She was a Fulbright fellow to Brazil, where she researched and wrote about traditional midwifery. She lives in the Philadelphia area.