Vicar of Amazon – by Howse

Vicar of the Amazon, The Reverend Arthur Miles Moss, in the footsteps of Alfred Russel Wallace. By Philip Howse.  Published by Butterflies and Amazonia.  Hardback ISBN 978-1-7398856-0-1  eBook ISBN 978-1-7398855-1-8.  243pp.


It was only in the last twenty years that a series of coincidences occurred to the author that the life and works of The Reverend Arthur Miles Moss is told in this book. Moss was born in 1872 in Liverpool, raised in his formative years in the Lake District, went to Cambridge after Darwin and was ordained Deacon of Chester the year after graduation. He was already a keen lepidopterist when he went up to University, a keen painter, played on the huge organ in Kendal Parish Church and published an appreciation of poetry. This was a typical multi-talented Reverend of the time who was a keen lepidopterist. In 1901 he was a Norwich Cathedral, still collecting in his spare time, publishing items in The Entomologist, and in 1902 he went on a Grand Tour including a butterfly collecting expedition to Switzerland.  The Lake District and the Cambridge hinterland set the scene for his love of the great outdoors, and it is no surprise that much of his collection of pinned butterflies and moths, and ‘blown’ caterpillars are in the Kendall Museum; his note books of that period were lost.

The Rev. Moss was posted to the Amazon in 1907, yes, the whole of the Amazon was his ministry, a vast area from the mouth of the Amazon in Belém (known then as Pará) to the Andes, most of the Amazon being Brazil. He was granted free passage on ships up and down the coast and across the Amazon to Peru, some 60,000 miles of navigable waterway was his parish.   Moss was there for almost 40 years and he even had an organ with him.  He had followed in some of the footsteps of Darwin in the Beagle down the west coast of South America 70 years earlier, whilst issues of yellow fever and plague still persisted in the various ports of call.

Moss was an industrious chap. Prof. Prance, Former Director of Kew states in the Foreword, that he has been to most of the places that Moss had been too, had noted the many plants that bear Moss’s name and noted the various herbarium specimens in various locations, and lamented that the once almost pristine rainforest that Moss went have now been logged-out, Belém now has over two million people. Moss’s church is still there.  So Moss was not only a capable field botanist but a lepidopterist which is the main subject of this book.

A rediscovered cache of over 100 watercolours of insects from the Amazon were found by the author in the Natural History Museum, many of them now used in this book. The author is Emeritus Professor Phillip Howse from the University of Southampton and is the author of many award-winning books colourful on butterflies. Mimicry is brought finely into focus throughout with colour photographs showing caterpillars and butterflies next to animals of the rainforest that they have intimately mimicked, for instance the Dynastor butterfly that looks like the head and shoulders of a piranha (he had an obsession with the butterfly) whose caterpillar has projections that mimic eggs, and the pupa looks like the head of a snake, or the Great Silkmoth whose distal parts of its forewings are snakelike, or even the small hesperid pupa that also looks like a snake ‘a terrifying’ pupa of Bangalotis erythrus.   Moss was also smitten by the stunning vermillion and blue Agrias claudia and went on many expeditions to find it. Moths as wasp mimics with warning colours, hawk-moth caterpillars that also mimic snakes, or bizarre lantern bugs, or owl moths with ‘eyes’ a common disguise across the living world were the subject that caught his attention. Or, the dramatic ‘monkey slug caterpillar’ looking just like a tarantula. The Amazon is like this: biodiverse, bewildering and inextricable.

There is some discussion in the book on the veracity of natural selection then and now, but deep in the hot-spots of the Amazon rainforest species diversity is so prolific that natural interactions are highly likely to evolve when species are living, and trying to stay alive when living cheek by jowl. We are talking millions of years ago, so evolution has had plenty of time to make subtle changes that are beneficial.  Moss’s notebooks are filled with illustrations of camouflage in caterpillars and pupa, a subject explored later by the celebrated expert on colour in animals Hugh Cott.

Moss travelled high in Peru, collected a small moth (which was eventually found to be new to science, 80 years later – thanks to Claude Lemaire working in the Natural History Museum). This was a land full of adventure. His train was boarded by ‘brigands’, one person shot dead, but he survived. He was known in Peru as a pioneering naturalist. Today naturalists ‘do’ the Manu trail in Peru because it is still a hot-spot for biodiversity.

The famous rainforest explorers Wallace and Bates had been in the Amazon in 1845 and employed slaves as cooks, but slavery was abolished when Moss was there in 1912.  Moss was always fascinated by the process of metamorphosis and bred quite a lot of species out. He also caught and sold materials for collectors and sponsors in Europe, especially Lord Walter Rothschild, Miriam Rothschilds uncle.

Working at the edge of the un-exploited rainforest Moss was amazed at the sheer quantity of moths that came to light, in some case they were so thick on the ground that bins of them had to be taken away when the streets were cleaned.  He recalls the travel observations of Theodore Roosevelt and his son in the Amazon, and the paintings by Margaret Fontaine, and of course the travels and discoveries of Richard Spruce. There is also a nod to Nabokov. The Amazon is a large area, and still is a large area over which many have travelled and few have written natural history travel books.

The author has brought us a delight to the eyes on part of the extensive work of this English vicar in the Amazon even if he was always catching butterflies rather than tending his flock. The book demonstrates that it has been intensely researched in both the UK and South America much to the benefit of the reader. There is much history of entomology woven through this important work.  It is certainly a good read that should be in all rainforest themed libraries.    There are appendices, further reading and an index.