Approximately five minutes south of campus, along a road where the trees give way to open field, there’s a barn. It’s a small barn; judging by the overgrown cement foundations, the building must have been three or four times larger than it is today.
When you enter through the double doors, at first, it doesn’t look like anything special—the ground floor is occupied by tools, wood, equipment, all the odds and ends you might expect to find in a barn. But follow the barn’s owner up the wooden stairs, and you’ll discover an absolute treasure trove of natural history—hundreds upon hundreds of personally collected butterflies, too many books to count, shells, historical artifacts, photographs and paintings and sculptures, giant mineral specimens, and dozens upon dozens more unusual items, each with its own story.
This is Chris Livesay’s personal natural history collection.
I got a Bowdoin Naturalists email about two weeks ago, a signup sheet for a trip to go see a butterfly collection. Sweet! I thought. I really don’t know much about butterflies and had never given them much thought, but I definitely couldn’t pass up an opportunity to learn more and see some hand-pinned insects.
I wasn’t expecting much—maybe a few cases of butterflies in someone’s living room? And when Chris led us up the wooden stairs in his barn, I figured we’d be in a dusty attic, shivering slightly in the musty coolness of the barn air. So I was completely unprepared for the warm, well-lit little room at the top of the stairs, carpeted, neat, and yet holding enough to keep me busy for weeks. One wall was covered in books, a combination of field guides and scientific and fictional works, another with smaller shelves of more books, some of which looked hundreds of years old. Two large paintings rested against the bookshelves, and a patterned rocking chair took up one corner. A gorgeous stuffed turkey and a glass case full of hand-woven Penobscot baskets greeted us from the opposite end of the room.
I don’t know how to explain this, but the space was simultaneously crammed full of things yet clean, spacious, and inviting; the slanted ceiling felt not claustrophobic but cozy. It was like this happy combination between a museum and a library reading room.
We each introduced ourselves to Chris, a lively, friendly man who told us, adjusting his wire-rimmed glasses, that our interest in natural history was “a noble thing.” He was so kind and genuinely excited to tell us about the items he’d devoted so many years of his life to bringing under one roof. I wanted to give him a hug!
Chris also informed us that this was just one of four rooms, and I must have had such a silly grin on my face. And then it was time to see the butterflies.
In a little hallway, underneath a full collection of Joseph Conrad’s works, each housed in a handmade wooden box—”All first editions,” Chris told us—we leaned in to watch him open one of many narrow drawers.
There was a collective gasp—several beautiful butterflies, each in its own wood-and-glass box and laid to rest on an indented plaster base, lay in perfect preservation and color. Each antenna and leg was intact, no easy feat. Chris hadn’t caught these himself; they’d come into his possession. There must have been about thirty drawers like that, each holding a dozen or more individually cased butterflies.
We oohed and aahed for a while, opening drawers, until Chris led us into the next room. There, he showed us his net—a surprisingly light, telescopic carbon fiber pole that, fully expanded, reached into the next room. (A necessary tool to catch butterflies high up in trees!) After letting us hold the net and look around this new room, which held more books and paintings and a huge block of quartz, Chris pulled out even MORE butterflies! The rows and rows of neatly labeled wooden drawers reminded me so much of the Burke. He took one drawer out and laid it on the floor, telling us he had caught these butterflies on a trip to South America. We admired the brightly colored insects. “Did you catch these all on one trip?” someone asked, gesturing at the full drawer. Chris laughed, laying out as many drawers as he could in the small room. “Yeah, and ten more of these.”
We continued on to the next room after he’d given us time to observe all of the butterflies and take photos, especially the blue morphos, which were just stunning. This room seemed to be a study, with two desks and hundreds more books. The skin of some massive python graced one of the walls, and everywhere I turned there was more to look at—sculptures, baskets, some dead birds (!), a pile of unbelievably detailed negatives. I could easily have spent weeks there without getting bored!
By the time we made it to the final room, which held an impressive shell collection and other treasures, like a pot that Homeland Security had confiscated for a year and a monogrammed chest with a letter stashed in its lining, I was so overwhelmed in the best way possible.
It’s just so crazy to think about the years it must have taken for this collection to become what it is today, and equally incredible to meet someone like Chris with a tireless, decades-long devotion to his passion.
Who knows? Maybe in fifty years I’ll be sitting in my own rocking chair surrounded by books and butterflies, encouraging the next generation of students to find joy within the natural world—truly a “noble thing.”