Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The love that dare not speak its name – butterflies
Michael McCarthy, formerly the Independent’s longstanding Environment Editor, now its Environment Columnist, is one of Britain’s leading writers on the environment and the natural world. He has won a string of awards for his work, including Environment Journalist of the Year (three times) and Specialist Writer of the Year in the British Press Awards in 2001. In 2007 he was awarded the Medal of the RSPB for “Outstanding Services to Conservation,” in 2010 he was awarded the Silver Medal of the Zoological Society of London, and in 2011 the Dilys Breeze Medal of the British Trust for Ornithology. In 2009 McCarthy published Say Goodbye To The Cuckoo (John Murray), a study of Britain’s declining migrant birds.
Thursday 24 May 2012
Butterflies are back. For me the greatest blessing of the return of the warm weather this week, after that sodden April and that glacial most-of-May, has been that butterflies are once more on the wing and visible. I walked out of the house on Tuesday morning and bumped into a holly blue almost immediately. What a boost to the spirits that was.
Like many insects, butterflies need ambient temperatures of about 14 or 15 degrees centigrade (and an absence of rain) before they can warm themselves up enough to fly, and the lack of those conditions for six weeks and more has meant a miserable dearth of orange tips, brimstones and the aforesaid holly blues putting out their bunting for the spring.
Missing them so keenly, in fact, has brought home to me how I am drawn to butterflies more and more each year, till the feeling is almost one of passion and I begin to wonder if I should keep quiet about this. For although a passion for butterflies would have been deemed an entirely acceptable sentiment a generation or two ago, now I sense it would be considered Curious, if not downright Suspect, and being a nervous sort of chap, and anxious to fit in, I wouldn't want either of those labels appended to me.
For a start, professing such an enthusiasm runs counter to the prevailing tone of our age, which is subversive. We like statements to be wry, knowing or ironic, we like them to be cool, so something as pathetically simplistic as an open admiration of natural beauty is just asking to be shot down, from within an attitude of mind heavily influenced, I would guess, by the rise of stand-up comedy.
Further, I think that admiring beauty has become itself suspect. Beauty is regarded as elitist: why bear it such tribute when so much more of the world demands our attention?
"The only beauty's ugly," pronounced Bob Dylan, setting the tone for the counterculture, and this is an attitude which today would be patted on the head with approval across a wide swathe of society.
Yet I can't get away from it. My feelings for butterflies are intense, and I have been trying to work out why. It's partly a delight in colour and the way evolution has allowed butterfly wings to be broad canvases on which so much colour is boldly painted, often in dazzling combinations.
For example, if you take a small tortoiseshell, its wings are predominantly orange, yellow and black, but if you look closely you will see that along the trailing edge of both the forewing and the hindwing is a line of dots of the purest lilac-blue, and I have known and loved those dots since I was a boy of seven, simply because they are beautiful.
But it's not just colour. It's something to do with the fact that these dazzling paintings, these sensational designs, are living, as we are; and even more than that, they are mobile and freely wander the world. Wandering paintings. Blooms of the air. Usually chanced upon, usually in the sunlight, so the observer feels doubly blessed. And they are seasonal, and they are ephemeral, making us all the more aware of the great cycles to which we too belong.
I definitely feel nervous admitting all this stuff, though. I don't want to be thought of as a loser. I don't want to be considered some weird old codger. I want to be cool, I really do, I want to be like you, I wanna be like you-hoo-hoo, I wanna walk like you, talk like you...
It's just that sometimes to deny what you feel is to deny the essence of yourself, it's to deny life. And there's no denying that, with the butterflies back, I am rejoicing.
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