Ah, the butterfly: emblem of all that is lovely, fluttering, free. Kind of makes you want to kill it with cyanide, pin it to a board, frame it, and hang it on your study wall, where its pulchritude can be an inspiration to you, if not its fluttering. A houseguest gave me a pinned and framed Common Archduke as a thank-you recently, and I was somewhat taken aback. The Archduke is like a Monarch, black and yellow and gorgeous, and I was startled to unwrap a gift and suddenly be holding one in my hands. "Wow, thanks," I said. "It's very pretty. In a macabre sort of way. It's, well, dead."
My houseguest had purchased the Archduke in Portland, where he said the shopkeeper swore that their butterflies came from a ranch in Southeast Asia where they were allowed to flutter about prettily and drink nectar until they died of old age, at which point they were gingerly picked up, pinned, and sold to people like my horribly gullible houseguest. "I've never heard such bullshit," I said, and my houseguest had to admit it seemed improbable. I've not yet located the shop in Portland, but you liars know who you are.
In Seattle, you can get your butterflies and beetles at the strangely named Big People Toys (68 Madison, 749-9016), which you might expect to be a Sharper Image-type affair but rather is full of exotic Asian trunks and chalices and knickknacks, including a scary, wondrous wall of bugs. The manager here, Val Cantu, makes no politically correct claims about how these creatures are obtained. They come from Southeast Asia, where a Chinese couple makes the final product; the wife mounts them (and presumably commits the insecticide), and the husband makes the frames. They don't speak English, so it's probably too much trouble to bother them about reincarnation or bug rights.
The bugs are morbidly beautiful and fascinating, sadly frozen and set in the center of box frames with gilt edges. At the smaller, cheaper end of the line are little butterflies like the transparent yellow-and-black Danaus aspasia aspasia female, or (as the label, for some reason, shouts) THE YELLOWGLASSY TIGER, a bargain at $28. The bigger, shimmery blue, transportingly named Morpho menelaus and Papilo Ulysses may be had as a set for $160.
But if you have reason to freak out someone squeamish with an expensive present, consider the gift of a small nightmare: the evil, horned Hexarthrtus deyrollei beetle, five or six inches of glossy creepiness that looks like it might walk out of its frame any second. It's only $136—the perfect gift for that holiday wedding where you wish you could scream "Objection!" Likewise, if you want to drop 60 bucks on your creepy little sister or boss, why not give the wonder that is the scorpion—behind glass is the next best thing to in their boot.
The most touching bug here, though, is the sad, pale Stick Insect, which looks like a praying mantis in its awkward alien spindliness. It costs $180. That this little friend was stuck through with a pin (or several; it's about a foot long) and mounted on camphor-soaked paper grieved me so much that I had to call a professional.
Rod Crawford, bug curator at the Burke Museum (www.washington.edu/burkemuseum.com) and every inch a Man of Science, was happy to reassure me that insects have no pain receptors, so they cannot in effect suffer. Crawford tries to be sensitive to the feelings of the weepy bug activist but doesn't agree with them even slightly; in the world of entomology, insects must be collected just to be identified, much less studied. And apparently in order to be viable, even obscure insect populations have to comprise a lot of individual insects, so one is not doing any damage by collecting them.
Of course, Crawford speaks of collection for science, not for the sake of a curio to display on the wall; he's all about going into the field and netting your bugs yourself. In buying insects, he says, you lose 99 percent of the fun and don't learn the collector's secrets (for example, that chasing butterflies is strictly for cartoons; in real life, you stalk them stealthily and snag them before they notice you). And, as any Buddhist will tell you, life is suffering, and killing bugs is not a good way to escape the cycle.The choice this holiday season is yours: to give or not to give the metaphysically troubling gift that keeps on giving.
Bethany Jean Clement is the copy chief and a contributing writer at Seattle Weekly.