This month we remember the late, great Terence McKenna. The author, lecturer, scientist and philosopher was the heir apparent to Timothy Leary, bringing more lucidity, humor and insight to spreading the gospel of the psychedelic experience than anyone has been able to muster since we lost McKenna to brain cancer in April, 2000.
While it’s always nice to recall our heroes in an online post, I mention McKenna to point to the remembrance created by his daughter. Klea McKenna’s The Butterfly Hunter is a gorgeous photography volume that documents her dad’s butterfly collection as she explains in the introduction of her book:
For four years, beginning in 1969, my father lived out an unlikely fantasy: he became a butterfly collector. (We use the term collector but that is just a euphemism for hunter.) Butterfly hunting is a conflicted activity, a desire for beauty and a small act of violence, both justified by science. Preserving something by taking its life. As a child he had idolized the Victorian era’s explorers and naturalists, in particular Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s forgotten partner in the discovery of Natural Selection. The ship carrying Wallace’s entire collection of Amazonian specimens (four years’ worth) caught fire and sank into the Atlantic before reaching Europe, and in turn history overlooked him. After my father’s death, more than three decades after they were collected, I inherited a large trunk full of butterflies, over 2000 of them. Unopened since they had been captured, each one was still meticulously labeled and wrapped in the papers he had available to him at the time: American magazines, local newspapers, letters and his own notebook pages.
I began to sift, slowly, through his collection, as though it were an archeological treasure or encoded messages from another time. Through the dates and place names I traced his course – Sumatra, Timor, Singapore, Colombia, Amazonas – and began to see how, as our parents’ children, we are each tied to the history of the events that we missed. I see him, each night returning to a small, sweaty, mosquito-netted room, sorting and labeling the day’s boon to the hum of an electric fan. Meanwhile, the Vietnam War was raging, the Nixon administration was self-destructing, student revolts were flaring around the world and he was folding the headlines of these events into hundreds of origami-like envelopes to hold his Lepidoptera specimens.
McKenna’s book is full of thoughtful images that provoke contradictory responses: If we kill something to preserve it, what has actually been preserved? Do images of the past contain the power of the events they document, and does making images of those images make that power more immediate or even further removed?
Terence McKenna was educated as an art historian and an ethnobotanist who traveled the world as a young adult seeking art, plants, psychedelic experiences with indigenous shamans, and butterflies. This book invites us to walk in his footsteps by including images of Terrence McKenna’s actual field maps and previously unpublished snapshots of the author on his adventures — a passport photograph from the period is both haunting and hilarious.
The creatures he captured for his collection are exquisite, made even more beautiful and fragile-seeming by the headlines and photographs on the papers they were wrapped in. The book opens with a speckled, golden specimen wrapped in what looks like a Tarzan comic strip from Malaysia — one can imagine McKenna himself getting a chuckle out of the juxtaposition. A handful of butterflies fall out of another piece of paper featuring a photo of Vietnam War protesters in San Francisco carrying a sign that says “Not one more dead.” A gorgeous black and red butterfly is pictured alongside the ghostly stain it left on the plain white paper it was wrapped in and we are treated to yet another symbol of the persistence of memories.
The book is very spare with each butterfly and wrapper shot against a plain white background, but it’s full of complex conversations between cultures from around the world, between the present and the past, and — most importantly — between a daughter and her father.
The Butterfly Hunter also includes an unfinished, unpublished short story about butterfly hunting written by Terrence McKenna. The book originally appeared in 2008. Buy the new printing of The Butterfly Hunter directly from Klea McKenna here.