Shutterbug: Finding beauty in the smallest of things

It’s an overcast Sunday afternoon, and I’m interviewing Marian Lyman Kirst in her kitchen while she makes thumbprint cookies. With a frustrated grunt, she starts scooping jam into the shortbread saucers lined out on the cookie tray between us.

“I really wanted to have these in the oven before you got here,” she sighs.

Lyman Kirst is almost intimidatingly well put-together: her hair is coiffed, her make-up is immaculate, and her wardrobe is a perfect blend of modern and vintage pieces. She has been described as a “girlie-girl.”

The kitchen is just as stylish, and cozy to boot. It’s warm and bright, and the aroma of flour and sugar smells like a hug from your grandmother. The whole house has an eclectic, mid-century modern vibe—a cabinet of curiosities as curated by Jens Risom or the Eameses. Lyman Kirst is wearing an honest-to-god apron, and diligently ensures my drink is topped up. Her husband, Michael Kirst, pops in for just a second to grab a beer from the fridge before heading back to the living room.

It’s very nearly a portrait of 1950s domestic bliss.


Danielle McCracken

Bug photographer Marian Lyman Kirst on top of the Rims overlooking Billings.

Except my hostess isn’t June Cleaver (or even her modern equivalent); my hostess is Marian Lyman Kirst. Which means that, along with avocados and bananas, there are rubber cockroaches in the ceramic fruit bowl. It means that, as soon as the cookies are in the oven, she’ll scour YouTube to find that video she was telling me about—the one of the golden wheel spider cartwheeling down the sand dunes of the Namib Desert. And it means that we’re going to spend a good chunk of the next hour discussing botflies, scorpions, ants, spiders, and other “creepies.”

Because Marian Lyman Kirst is an entophile. Which is to say, she’s unabashedly enthusiastic about arthropods, and has made it her mission to share that passion.

Lyman Kirst, a Billings native, wasn’t always into bugs. As a child, she was especially wary of arachnids. But, as the daughter of Jennifer and Tom Lyman (she a former professor of botany and environmental science at Rocky Mountain College and he a GIS/GPS engineer for the EarthScope Project), young Lyman Kirst was taught to appreciate the less overtly majestic aspects of the natural world. She recalls growing up in the Indian Cliffs subdivision of Billings, and the house guests who would invite themselves in to her family’s home if the doors were left open.

“My brother and I would be watching some sci-fi movie in the basement, and a wind scorpion or a giant wolf spider would wander in,” she says, smiling fondly. She tells me that her dad’s reaction to this type of intrusion was instrumental in instilling an appreciation and empathy for the creepies.

“He would say, ‘How about instead of killing it, we capture it and take a closer look?’ Eventually I was able to touch them myself. And they were just as cool as anything in the sci-fi movies we were watching.”

After graduating from Billings West High School in 2002, Lyman Kirst went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. It was during this time she happened to catch BBC’s “Life in the Undergrowth,” a nature documentary series focused on invertebrates, written and presented by Sir David Attenborough. This proved to be catalytic for Lyman Kirst.

“It was amazing,” she says. “They magnified the insects, so they seemed like ‘real’ animals. No one other than my parents had ever portrayed creepies in that way. They (Attenborough and BBC) raised insects to the same level of interest as the other animals who got the BBC treatment. And I decided I wanted to contribute to that.”

To that end, she went on to earn a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

“I wanted to work on environmental and wildlife conservation issues, particularly those dealing with Montana’s large freshwater fish,” she says. She was (and still is) especially taken with pallid sturgeon, and wrote her undergrad thesis on their recovery in the Upper Missouri River Basin.


Marian Lyman Kirst

Golden tortoise beetle, Yellowstone County, Montana.

Her husband recalls an anecdote from when they were first dating, in which Lyman Kirst showed him a picture of a sturgeon, “prefaced by, ‘This is the cutest animal I’ve ever seen in the world.’”

“I wasn’t expecting anything actually cute,” he says, “Because I already knew she was crazy, but she showed me the weirdest-looking, armor-plated, whiskered fish. So. That was interesting.”

Despite differing opinions of what constituted “cute,” they married in 2010, and Lyman Kirst’s plans changed. Her husband took a job in rural China, and so the couple relocated.

Which is how Lyman Kirst found herself a housewife in China, bored out of her mind. She says the adjustment from graduate student to housewife in a foreign country was difficult. With more free time on her hands than she knew what to do with, she turned to insect macro-photography as a hobby—a way to stay sane and pass the time.

“I more or less tricked her into having to go over there,” Kirst says jokingly. “But once she got over there, and we got her a good camera, she started discovering things she couldn’t have previously seen at that scale.”

In 2011, Lyman Kirst returned to the United States for a yearlong term as an editorial intern and then fellow with High Country News, a biweekly newspaper, based in Paonia, Colo., that covers much of the West. Jodi Peterson, a senior editor with HCN, describes Lyman Kirst as having the ability to balance a “careful observation” with a “respect and appreciation” for her subjects.

“When she came to HCN as an intern,” Peterson says, “she said she wanted to write ‘about bugs, fish and insects—and make David Attenborough proud.’ I think she achieved that.”

In 2013, Lyman Kirst attended BugShot, a workshop focused on macro-arthropod photography, in Belize, where, in a dark, wet cave (and with the help of a few head lamps), she had the opportunity to hold and photograph her favorite-ever arthropod: the tailless whip scorpion.

“It was the greatest time I’ve had doing anything. Ever,” she says.

She credits the combination of wanting to bolster what she taught herself in China, Peterson’s encouragement, and her experience at BugShot with finally pushing her to pursue a master’s degree in entomology. She and Kirst moved back to Billings in 2014, and she has spent the time since working toward that goal via a distance-learning program with the University of Florida, while honing her photography skills and continuing to do freelance science writing.


Marian Lyman Kirst

Eyed elater (click beetle), Yellowstone County, Montana.

Which explains why the office in their otherwise magazine-spread worthy home looks a little like a mash-up of photography studio and a high school biology lab (albeit a very chic lab.)

One thing that everyone who knows Lyman Kirst seems to agree on is that her enthusiasm for bugs is contagious. Even her portraits convey a love and appreciation for organisms that most of us would instinctually squash.

“(Lyman Kirst) has an eye for finding that beauty and fascination in the smallest of things, and sharing it with others,” says former Boston University classmate Julia Darcy. “[She helps] people see nature in an entirely new light.”

Which is Lyman Kirst’s hope: that her work will encourage people to slow down and observe the world around them.

“When it comes to insects and their kin, there are always opportunities to make interesting, sometimes even original discoveries,” she says. “Unlike large mammals, or even birds, insects and spiders are hugely abundant and far more diverse. So the opportunities for observation and discovery abound, and are not reserved for people with thousands of dollars to travel to exotic destinations.”

She’s right. A cursory Google search for “insects discovered in 2015” brings up an average of two news items a month. People who study such things estimate there are potentially 10 to 20 million species yet to be discovered.

It’s an exciting time to be an entophile. And it’s this sense of excitement and curiosity that Lyman Kirst is trying to convey with her photographs. To that end, much of her recent work has focused on arthropods from right here in Yellowstone County.

“A veritable outback of bizarre exists right here in Montana, in your backyard and, potentially, even your house,” Lyman Kirst exclaims during our interview, hands waving over the fake cockroaches and fruits. “That, to me, is so damn cool.”

Marian Lyman Kirst currently has a photo gallery at High Country News, and you can see more of her work here

This article originally appeared in the July issue of Noise and Color, a monthly journal of entertainment and culture, published in Billings.

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