Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The French have a way with butterflies


I have just spent a fortnight in a farmhouse in the Normandy countryside where the garden was full of butterflies. There are more butterfly species in France than in Britain – more than four times as many, something like 250 as compared with fewer than 60 here – and there also appear to be simply more individual insects, as the French countryside seems not to have suffered quite the battering inflicted on the natural world in Britain by intensive farming. The roadside verges were overflowing with splendid wild flowers, agrimony, betony, yellow toadflax and even glowing blue cornflowers, which in Britain are virtually extinct; there were red squirrels, roe deer and green woodpeckers in the wood across the road and hares in the fields, and my wife saw la fouine, the beech marten, run through the garden.

The owners of the house where we stayed, unusually for France, are butterfly enthusiasts and have planted a hedge of different varieties of buddleia, the butterfly bush; and its attractive powers have had the effect of making the garden even more of a lepidopterist's theme park. When I walked into it, the buddleia held red admirals, small tortoiseshells, two peacocks, several gatekeepers and meadow browns, a painted lady and, to my intense delight, a swallowtail; the next day it held six swallowtails all at once, an eyepopping sight virtually unbeholdable in Britain, and my butterfly cup was overflowing, if that's not too weird a mixed metaphor.

Watching all this ephemeral winged beauty set me wondering how the Froggies, God bless them, saw it themselves, and I began to investigate French butterfly names. Some are very similar to ours: the painted lady, for example, is la belle dame, the small tortoiseshell is la petite tortue (the little tortoise), and the peacock is le paon du jour (the "day peacock"; the "night peacock", le paon de nuit, is what the French call the emperor moth).

But others are very different. The red admiral is a good example. In French it is le Vulcain, the Vulcan, and the image of the god of fire, heaven's armourer, is certainly very apt for the insect's flaming scarlet flashes against an inky black background. Another stirring name is what the French call the comma: Robert-le-diable, Robert-the-devil, a figure from medieval mythology whose name was given to the Duke of Normandy who was William the Conqueror's father; but how the connection arose I have no idea.

Many French butterfly names, in fact, come from mythology, especially classical: the gatekeeper is l'Amaryllis, the name of a shepherdess in Virgil, the speckled wood is le Tircis, the name of a shepherd in a La Fontaine fable, and the wall brown is la Mégère – Megera, one of the Furies, which is arresting, but seems a bit of an over-the-top label for such an inoffensive basker in the sunshine.

Some names are simply descriptive. A fritillary in French is generally a nacré, which means a mother-of-pearl, and refers to the pearly spots on the underwings of many fritillaries, although one of my favourite butterflies, the silver-washed fritillary, is charmingly called in French le tabac d'Espagne, the Spanish tobacco, presumably for its burnt orange coloration.

Other names are puzzling. The orange tip is l'aurore, the dawn, which is pleasing, and the brimstone is le citron, the lemon, which is obvious, but why is the clouded yellow le souci, the care, or worry? And why is the purple emperor called le grand Mars changeant, the great changing Mars?

I didn't see any of these latterly mentioned species, but I did catch sight of something exceptional and not to be seen in Britain. We made a day trip to the Loire and visited Chenonceau, perhaps the most stunning of the châteaux, with its white arches spanning the River Cher, and there in the 16th-century garden of Diane de Poitiers, which left me, by no means a garden enthusiast, gobsmacked at its loveliness, I saw a great flapping yellow-and-black-striped thing. It was, in English, a scarce swallowtail, which is a pretty lame name, I contend, for such a grand insect; in French it is le flambé, the flaming one, which seemed far more appropriate, and in keeping with the Renaissance magnificence which was all around it.

But the English know how to name moths

It is interesting that the French do not differentiate, in the way that we do, between butterflies and moths. Although there is an official word for moth – phalène – it is hardly used, say my French friends, and little known. In French, butterflies are papillons de jour, day butterflies, and moths are simply papillons de nuit, night butterflies. My own feeling is that this misses something about the difference between these two sets of closely related creatures to which the English sensibility is alive; you can sense it perhaps in somewhere like Thomas Hardy's poem, Old Furniture, where Hardy envisions the long-gone people associated with the old household objects around him:

On the clock's dull dial a foggy finger

Moving to set the minutes right

With tentative touches that lift and linger

In the wont of a moth on a summer's night

Creeps to my sight....

Moths are less immediately attractive but more mysterious than butterflies; their existence has another flavour, and they are more than just butterflies from a different part of the timetable. This is perhaps one of those small empirical differences of which English culture takes note and in which French culture is not remotely interested, having much more important concerns, such as Post-postmodernism; but I think they're missing something.

For further reading

'Guide des papillons d'Europe et d'Afrique du Nord' by Tom Tolman et Richard Lewington, translated and adapted by Patrice Leraut (Delachaux et Niestlé, Paris)

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