Ilustration by Neve O'Brien

This piece received second place in the nonfiction category of the 2024 Wallace Prize.

The Vogelkop Bowerbird lives in the Arfak mountains of western New Guinea. It’s small, it’s brown, and it sounds like a jammed printer. In a jungle filled with resplendent birds-of-paradise, fairywrens, and jewel-babblers, you might think that the bowerbird would be easy to miss. But if you visited this region, you’d notice that the forest there is full of diminutive cottages reminiscent of hobbit homes. Each hut is a conical tent of orchid stems, two feet tall and three feet across, woven around the trunk of a small tree. In the front, an arched entryway opens out onto a lawn of moss. These display courts are the best place to see a Vogelkop Bowerbird. Each bower is built by a single male, and he spends most of his day arranging the ornaments in his garden. 

The decorations at each bower vary widely. Delicate pink flowers, clumps of blue berries, and iridescent green butterflies are a few popular choices, but the objects are always vividly colored, and they are always displayed in neat groups. They aren’t collected for consumption; in fact, most of the objects are inedible. They’re selected exclusively for their beauty. When a flower wilts or a fruit rots, the bowerbird picks it up and throws it away. Signor Odoardo Beccari, the Italian botanist who “discovered” the Vogelkop Bowerbird in 1872 by ordering his indigenous porters to show him the houses of the creature they called the Tukan Robon, named it the “Bird-gardener.” In a monograph describing the species, he wrote: “it is wonderful to find that the bird has the same ideas as a man, that is to say, what pleases the one gratifies the other.” Unfortunately, Beccari didn’t notice the irony in ordering his porters to shoot a few bowerbirds for him to carry back to Italy. It turned out he and the bowerbirds both suffered from the same irresistible compulsion to spend their lives collecting beautiful things.


Maishe Dickman is bald, with sparse eyebrows and a cropped gray goatee. We meet in the quiet arboretum in front of his pottery studio, which is hidden from the street by an imposing Romanesque revival. In spite of the rain, he’s wearing a plain black hoodie with white drawstrings and a pair of faded blue jeans. We exchange names as he hastily unlocks the front door. Once we’re inside, he invites me to set my wet jacket on a leopard-print armchair and flips on the lights.

The lights illuminate a room full of pottery. On a sturdy table near the door, there are six low bowls, hardening on their bats, arranged in pairs on planks of particle board; six more large saucers rest upside down on the table itself, waiting to be fired. A bookshelf loaded with a variety of finished pieces fills the back wall. There are slender ewers with sumptuous rims and elegant hilts, squat crocks with flat lids, and plump teapots with short spouts. Some pieces sport rippled blue glazes, others are furnished with palettes of bifurcated ochre and black, and one bears branching white streaks that remind me of quaking aspens on a midwinter’s day. 

There are also other things hiding among the pots. In fact, as I glance around the rest of the studio, I realize that many of the objects here aren’t even made of clay. The space above the door is festooned with six theatrical masks carved from wood that wear wild, bug-eyed expressions and bear imaginative combinations of legs, antennae, and wings. A forest of brass archery trophies sprouts from the top of a vitrine on the other side of the room. But before I have time to take a closer look at anything else, Maishe hands me a magazine. It’s an old copy of Ceramics Monthly. On the front cover, there’s a wheel-thrown platter with slips and low fire cones, glazed with a swirl of soft purples, yellows, and reds. “The cover of Ceramics Monthly is every potter’s dream that it may happen,” Maishe tells me. “I never felt in a million years it would ever happen to me.”

Maishe often doesn’t like his own pieces, but every once in a while, he admits that a “special one” will happen. In 2002, twenty-seven years into his career as a production potter, he had amassed six special ones. He heard that Ceramics Monthly was having a competition for the cover, so he hired a friend to take professional photographs of his pottery and mailed them in. A couple months later, he received a letter back. His pieces had won. He shows me one of the winners, a large, bulbous Shigaraki vase with a fluted rim that sits precariously close to the edge of a cluttered desk. Its neck is black, its body wears a striated olive-yellow coat, and its shoulder is dressed with a streaky, off-white glaze that looks like cream cheese spread over a piece of burnt toast. I ask Maishe what he admires about it. 

“Everything,” he says. He reveals that this vase is made from four separate pieces — each precisely measured to fit the others — that he joined together when the clay was leather-hard. He walks over to another special piece, a green kalpis accented with flourishes of purple and gray. “There are probably half a dozen different glazes on this piece,” he explains. Some glazes are poured on while others are applied with an airbrush; in some places, he applies almost no glaze so that the ochre color of the clay itself can shine through. Maishe tells me that he doesn’t think about the patterns in any detail before he starts glazing; instead, he chooses a color palette and arranges the pertinent glazes in labeled cups around his fume hood. Then he gets to work. 

“When I’m in that mode, in the glaze-applicating mode, if the phone rings, I don’t answer. If I get shot with an arrow, I don’t feel any pain,” Maishe says. Ceramic glazes are fickle. All glazes look similar in liquid form — the colorful minerals inside only reveal themselves when they melt and oxidize in the 2400-degree heat of the kiln — and the appearance of an individual glaze changes with the mode of application. “It’s a Zen approach to feeling and sensing when you have just enough on, and which colors, and the order in which you put the colors on the surface,” he says. 

Maishe leads me into the heart of his studio, where there are more plates and bowls hardening on towering wooden scaffolds. We walk past his pottery wheel to look at his patented sprung-arch downdraft kiln, the second of five kilns I’ll see today. He shows me his inventory of chemical colorants that make the base glazes: shelves of repurposed gallon mayonnaise jugs and metal tilt-out cabinets filled with powdered minerals like copper, cobalt, rutile, and iron. He explains vitrification and refraction and absorption. Then he offers to distract me from pottery. He walks over to a square wooden cabinet near the front door, opens it, and pulls out the top drawer. I gasp. It’s full of giant, iridescent blue and black butterflies. The next drawer holds several glittering birdwings from the South Pacific. They’re the biggest butterflies in the world. They’re also the most beautiful insects I’ve ever seen. 


Maishe grew up in the Hill neighborhood on New Haven’s west side, just a few blocks from his current studio on George Street. He was surrounded by animals from infancy. His family kept chickens and pigeons in their garage, and Maishe gathered the eggs before he left for school. On weekends, he often walked to Edgewood Park to look for snakes. One day he found a snapping turtle excavating a nest. After the turtle left, he dug up a few eggs, took them home, and hatched them himself. In fourth grade, he got a paper route with his best friend, Thomas Pepe, and they pooled their money to buy a baby alligator. They agreed to share custody, but when Thomas took the alligator home, his parents weren’t pleased — they preferred apizza — so Maishe had to scrimp and save to buy out his friend’s half interest. After that, he kept the alligator for six more years, until it finally outgrew the bathtub, when Maishe and his mom put it in the trunk of their car and donated it to the Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport. 

Around this time, Maishe’s mother began begging him to volunteer at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. She may have just wanted him and his reptiles out of the house, but she also recognized that her son loved nature. Eventually, she convinced him to go. That’s when Maishe met Dr. Charles Remington, the intellectual patriarch of American lepidoptery. Remington had been walking through the museum when he noticed Maishe, just fourteen years old, asking to volunteer at the security desk. The professor approached Maishe and asked him if he’d like to work with insects; Remington had just started a division of entomology and needed volunteers. Maishe agreed, and the two became lifelong friends. With Remington’s encouragement, Maishe started collecting insects for himself, beginning with a Monarch Butterfly, which he caught in Fort Hale Park along the shore of New Haven Harbor. 

Back then, Maishe didn’t know how to pin insects. But he took his monarch home, spread it, dried it, and attached it with Elmer’s glue to a piece of cardboard his mother had wrapped in black felt. “Before too long, in my bedroom on the wall, I had all these butterflies in contorted positions glued to this piece of velvet,” Maishe says. “I wish I had it now, my first collection, but that’s how my collecting began.” 

With time and practice, Maishe acquired a reputation for meticulous preparations. Now, when he catches a butterfly in his net, he carefully folds its wings and slides it into a smooth glassine envelope that protects the colorful scales. After returning home, he’ll take the insect out, place it on a mesh screen resting over a shallow dish of water, and cover it with a plastic Tupperware. The humidity trapped inside this homemade relaxer rehydrates the appendages and renders them pliable, which allows Maishe to pin each wing and leg into the desired position on a foam board. Then, after the insect has completely dried, he’ll take the specimen off the pinning board, glue it onto a stamped paper triangle, and affix it inside a Cornell drawer. He uses depth gauges to position every insect in the same plane and prints special measuring devices on his data labels to present them at a uniform height. 

Still, as with pottery, Maishe reserves his highest praise for others. He tells me about the personal collection of Mike Thomas, one of his friends and a global authority on dragonflies. “If you’re into bugs, you look at it and you drool,” he says. “The preparation is so beautifully, meticulously prepared. Every leg on every specimen is in the exact same position. It’s just extraordinary. It takes time, but in the end, it’s worth it.” 

I think Maishe’s collection deserves equal praise. I’ve never collected insects, but I have a lot of experience with them because I once worked as an unpaid intern at a butterfly house in Missouri. I thought that the specimens inside his cabinets looked more vibrant and colorful than any living butterflies I’d ever seen, and I spent three months during the COVID-19 pandemic watering plants in a theater-sized greenhouse filled with four-thousand tropical lepidopterans. Maishe tells me that he feels morally obligated to maintain this exacting aesthetic standard. If the insects have to die for his collection, he says, then the least he can do is make sure they look really good. 

Many scientists don’t see it that way. Academics tend to view specimens as evidence that certain organisms existed in certain places at certain times, as representative samples within a physical catalog of global biodiversity, or as source material for DNA sequencing. These are valuable applications in a world where climate change is rapidly shifting the distributions of some species and driving others extinct, but this rigid, scientific outlook doesn’t leave room for beauty. It emphasizes quantity over quality instead. 

As a result, some people in the Peabody still scoff at Maishe because he openly approaches collecting with an artist’s eye and an artist’s sense of appeal. He admits that he isn’t interested in identifying every insect he captures by studying the shape of the genitalia under a microscope, and he refuses to collect insects that show up in his net with tattered wings or missing legs — he tells me he lets them go so they can mate and make perfect ones for next year. But Dr. Remington saw the advantage of having someone on his team who approached insects from an aesthetic perspective. “Charles was the ultimate scientist,” Maishe says, “and he appreciated the fact that I saw things other scientists didn’t see.” Over the past sixty years, Maishe has traveled the world collecting insects and discovered dozens of species. Seven of these carry the specific epithet dickmanii. They’re literally named after him. Maishe doesn’t describe them himself — he leaves the technical work of species identification to the “real” scientists — but he’s humbled when his colleagues honor him with a name. In his lifetime, he estimates that he’s donated 10,000 insect specimens to the Peabody Museum alone. Still, he always keeps the two or three most pristine specimens of each species for himself. 

Why? Earlier, when he showed me a few drawers from his insect collection, he’d pointed out a tray of small butterflies that were pinned upside down. The surfaces of their upper wings, he explained, bore simple patterns of black and white, but the underneath sides were painted with a variety of amazing colors. “A lot of these color combinations are things that inspire my color combinations, like the rusts and the browns and the ochres,” he said, waving his hand over the glass lid of the Cornell drawer. “I’m not trying to copy a butterfly pattern, per se, but some of the colors are, to me, very inspirational. And that’s what I do. I open this and go, ‘ah.’ I’ve seen these a thousand times, but they’re beautiful.” 


In high school, Maishe excelled in math and science, and audited Dr. Remington’s biology lectures at Yale, but he also loved drawing — at school, he looked forward to his shop classes the most. He wanted to study architecture at Yale, but in the 1960s, Yale didn’t offer architecture classes to undergraduates. Plus, Yale forced freshmen to live on campus, which his family couldn’t afford. Instead, Maishe studied industrial design at the University of Bridgeport. Each semester, he took an intensive class specializing in a different material. He decided to take ceramics his sophomore year, even though he had never worked with clay. When he sat down at the wheel, he fell in love. “I was always, from childhood, kind of a hands-on, hands-dirty kind of person. And it was just so gratifying to take a lump of mud, take a lump of clay, and form it into an object, into a shape,” he says. After graduation, he worked at an industrial design firm in New York City for five years, saving his money and taking graduate-level courses in kiln architecture and glaze chemistry on the side. Then, while visiting his parents in New Haven, he saw a for-sale sign in front of an old Victorian home. The price was ridiculously low: $52,000 dollars for the house in the front and a carriage house in the back. Two weeks later, he paid for it in cash.

Turning the old carriage house into a studio required a lot of work. He hired a friend to wire it; his dad helped him build his first kiln. He even convinced the city to temporarily close George Street to run a gas main into his backyard, although Maishe suspects they only did it because they knew they would make their money back. Maishe produces between 5,000 and 10,000 pieces a year — mostly tableware like plates, bowls, and mugs — and each piece has to be fired twice: an initial bisque firing, to harden the clay, and a second glost firing to vitrify the glaze. This consumes a lot of gas. “One time, I shut the studio down for a renovation and I didn’t do a firing for about four or five months,” Maishe tells me. “The gas company called me and sent a representative over to find out if I needed anything.”

While he refurbished the studio, Maishe also labored to make the property feel like a home. When he bought the place, a crumbling asphalt parking lot filled the yard, but Maishe wanted a garden. He also wanted to lose weight, so he went to the local hardware store, bought a pickaxe, a sledgehammer, and shovel, and started busting up the pavement by hand. After he’d filled six giant dumpsters with rubble, he ordered thirty dump truck loads of topsoil and started his garden. When his kids were born, he planted dogwood saplings in their honor. Now the trees are forty years old, and they fill the garden with beautiful white flowers each spring. 


One week after my second meeting with Maishe, I’m in the bowels of the Peabody Museum, sticking pins in the skin of a Common Yellowthroat: a small, North American wood-warbler with an olive-brown back, a cream-colored belly, and an eponymous yellow throat. When I’d told Maishe I prepared avian specimens for the Peabody’s collections, his eyes lit up. Just a week prior, he’d heard something crash into his window, and he’d found a dead bird laying on the ground outside. He’d thrown it in a Ziploc bag in his freezer, meaning to give it to Kristof Zyskowski, his friend and the manager of the ornithology collection at Yale. When I told him I worked for Kristof, he gave it to me. I took it back to the museum and prepared it myself.  

Although I consider myself a biologist — unlike Maishe, who identifies as an artist — I share his philosophy in preparation. I compare skinning birds to surgically extracting the candy from a candy bar: I make a tiny incision along the sternum with a scalpel, peel back the skin with tweezers, excise the soft tissue with scissors, stuff the “wrapper” with cotton, and then sew the “wrapper” back together. In the end, it should be impossible to tell I’ve tampered with the packaging, but when Kristof taught me to skin during my freshman year, I struggled to meet this standard. I’d tear the skin or stain the feathers with blood; once, I accidentally cut off an entire tail. Now, hundreds of skins later, Kristof sometimes jokes that my skins look better in death than the birds looked in life. Still, I’m rarely satisfied. I like to walk through the collection to study specimens prepared by previous generations of naturalists, noting postures and proportions I want to emulate in my own craft. Kristof says that scientists tend to preferentially use the prettiest skins for their research. This makes sense; whenever I open a drawer, my eyes naturally gravitate toward the most beautiful specimens. I swell with pride if any of them are mine. 

Some visitors to the collection have a different reaction. Elaina Foley wrote in the San Antonio Review that she was infuriated and distressed by the sight of hundreds of cotton-stuffed bird bodies in the Peabody Museum. In her essay, Tenderness and Rot, or Why I Should be Allowed to Burn Down the Peabody, she argues that preserving the birds in this way strips them of their right to decay, objectifying them and asserting human hegemony over the natural environment. Is she right to claim that natural history collections are inherently problematic?

When I ask Maishe if he’s been criticized for collecting insects, he leans back from his potter’s wheel, wipes his muddy hands on the green towel draped over his left leg, and tells me about an incident in Trinidad, when a group of American birdwatchers admonished him for killing insects he’d caught in his net. On other occasions, guests at his annual open house have complained about the trays of insects he sets next to pieces of pottery they’ve inspired. When people are critical, Maishe listens, but he doesn’t make excuses. “That’s just what I do,” he prefers to tell them. “I’m sorry you don’t agree with it.”

I also ask Maishe how he situates collecting within his ethical framework. “With a lot of guilt,” he responds, looking down at the unfinished mug resting on his potter’s wheel. The wet clay glistens under the fluorescent lights overhead. “I have actually released very, very rare insects because at the moment of sticking them with a hypodermic needle, or throwing them in a jar of cyanide, I felt something,” he says. When Maishe was seventeen, he was a world-class archer who competed at the U.S. Olympic trials. But his father, a World War II veteran, was a sworn pacifist, so he’d never gone hunting. When he finally shot a deer with an arrow during a hunting trip with friends from high school, he was taken aback. “It was a god-awful bloody mess,” he tells me. “The deer was in an enormous pool of blood, and it didn’t make me nauseous, but I just thought to myself, ‘why did I kill you?’” 

The same feeling sometimes confronts him when he kills an insect, but he rationalizes it. He thinks that bugs are incapable of feeling fear. Their blood is a different color. But he swears that he’ll never shoot a vertebrate again. That doesn’t mean that he won’t collect them. A Turkey Vulture, a Barn Owl, and a Sharp-shinned Hawk are mounted on the walls of his studio, and there’s a boar skull nestled between two vases on his bookshelf. He found all of them in the trash outside the Peabody Museum, but Maishe likes them. He thinks they’re beautiful.


After I’ve finished skinning the Common Yellowthroat and set it in the fume hood to dry, I walk back into the collection, find a drawer labeled Amblyornis inornata, and pull it out. On the acid-free paper there are two Vogelkop bowerbirds. Their feathers are browner than I imagined; one has a bullet hole in its bill. 

I pick one up and turn it over in my hands, but my eyes eventually wander toward its neighbors. On the same shelf, there are two birds labeled Sericulus bakeri. These are Fire-Maned Bowerbirds. Both specimens are male, and they have jet-black bodies with large yellow patches on their wings and luscious orange crests that pour down their backs like torrents of lava. Unlike Vogelkop Bowerbirds, male Fire-Maned Bowerbirds do not arrange colorful gardens in front of their bowers to woo prospective mates; instead, when the drabber females visit their bowers, they display themselves. 

In The Evolution of Beauty, ornithologist Richard Prum argues that these elaborate courtship rituals are both products of sexual selection. In each species, he says that females have aesthetically remodeled male behavior and plumage by choosing to mate exclusively with males who satisfy their subjective aesthetic preferences. This doesn’t explain why female bowerbirds have aesthetic preferences in the first place. In many other bird species, courtship rituals are extremely utilitarian. Among terns, a group of acrobatic seabirds closely related to gulls, females require prospective male suitors to feed them small fish as tokens of their devotion. Male chickadees must shower their female partners with seeds. In each case, the benefit to the female is obvious: she can spend less energy foraging and redirect that effort toward laying bigger, healthier eggs. So why on earth do female Vogelkop bowerbirds prefer museums instead of buffet lines?  

Psychologists have often asked the same question about humans. When Odoardo Beccari ordered his porters to shoot the bowerbirds, he didn’t want to eat them. He wanted to stuff them with cotton and sell them as specimens to Italian museums. To his surprise, his indigenous porters were equally enthusiastic about hunting birds for their feathers. Long before the first Europeans arrived in New Guinea, Papuans were using the plumes of bowerbirds and birds-of-paradise in ceremonial headdresses, amulets, and shields, and Beccari actually had to ask his porters to spare a few birds so that he could watch them interact with their bowers. Beccari thought that his Papuan companions wore primitive clothes, worshipped primitive gods, and lived inside primitive mud huts that “did not follow the example of the Amblyornis,” but they treasured fancy feathers just as much as the most sophisticated Italians. Both cultures were united by their obsession with beauty.

What makes beauty so desirable? Beccari was still sailing back to Italy when a German physicist named Gustav Fechner offered an answer. In his book Vorschule der Aesthetik (which translates to Preschool of Aesthetics), Fechner wrote that the perception of beauty was determined by a mental threshold of pleasure. Sensory experiences that surpassed this threshold were aesthetically pleasing; experiences that fell below the threshold were not. 

Today, psychologists still don’t understand how sensory organs translate external stimuli into sensations of pleasure, but modern neuroscience has established beyond doubt that pleasure is essential to the perception of beauty. In the past ten years, multiple studies have shown that the same neural pathways associated with substance-use disorders are also active when individuals look at beautiful objects or hear beautiful sounds. Beauty is a drug, and all sensory beings are addicted to it. Throwing pottery and collecting butterflies simply makes it easier for Maishe to get his fix.