Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Two lives on one quest for British butterflies


It's not often that you're brought up with a start, right at the beginning of a book, but here's an insight from the first page of a new volume on butterflies which did that for me. "For most of us," writes the author, "butterflies are bound up with childhood."

I felt the shock of recognition in reading that, and even more in the sentence that followed: "Many of our earliest and most vivid memories of a garden, a park or flower will feature a butterfly, and perhaps, our pudgy hand trying to close around it."

That was certainly the case with me, in a hot August long ago, when I was seven and my brother was nine, and we had been sent to live with an aunt and uncle as my mother was seriously ill and my father was abroad.

In the front garden two doors away was a buddleia bush, and that August it was crawling with the bravura quartet of late summer British butterflies – the red admiral, the small tortoiseshell, the peacock and the painted lady; glittering in their colours, their scarlet, their velvet-black, their salmon-pink, their amethyst.

Every morning when I was let out to play I would run to the buddleia and gaze up at these dazzling creatures and long for them, and perhaps because of the time in my life when they appeared, something in me has longed for them ever since, and I have known, in a way you can think pretentious or just plain silly – but I have known it with the certain knowledge of a child – that for attracting them, the buddleia was a plant of power.

The new book's author, Patrick Barkham, encountered his butterflies at a similar time in his life but his attraction to them was founded not in the absence of parents but in their presence: he inherited his father's love for lepidoptera. Maybe "inherited" is the wrong word, as it was not something passed on automatically in the genes, but rather in his father's enthusiasm, companionship and friendship for his small son, who accompanied him on butterflying expeditions.

Early last year, Patrick, now a feature writer on The Guardian, decided to bring his own enthusiasm to some sort of apotheosis by seeing every species of British butterfly in a single summer, and his book, The Butterfly Isles, is the narrative of this undertaking.

And here's an uncanny thing. At the same time as Patrick was doing it, so was I. The chances of a Guardian writer and an Independent writer deciding, simultaneously but entirely independently, to pursue every British butterfly in a single summer must be infinitesimally small, but that's what happened: I wrote a series for this newspaper about my own search, and we invited readers to join in what we called The Great British Butterfly Hunt.

Patrick and I were aware of each other's activities, but we never actually met, although we saw several species in exactly the same place, and reading his book I realised how close our paths came to crossing: I saw the large blue, for example, at Green Down in Somerset on 15 June, and he saw it at Green Down on 16 June; and I saw the Lulworth skipper at Lulworth Cove in Dorset on 23 July and, once again, he saw it in the same place the following day.

We eventually met not long ago and laughed about it ("it feels like we spent last summer in a parallel world," he said) and as you might imagine, I was fascinated by his account in The Butterfly Isles. He did better than I did, for although we both managed to see in one summer all 58 species which breed regularly in Great Britain, he went over to Ulster to see the one which makes the total 59 for the United Kingdom as a whole, Real's wood white (only discovered in Ireland in 2001); and in October, he managed to see a rare and lovely immigrant, the Queen of Spain fritillary, for a grand total of 60.

His account is beautifully written and enormously entertaining, full of curious pieces of butterfly lore; I for one certainly did not know that you can tell the sex of a small tortoiseshell by tossing a stick gently in its general direction – if it's a male, it will rise up to attack the stick. (Patrick calls it "the Labrador of the butterfly world").

But it is more personal aspects of his quest which give depth to the book, such as feeling fed up with the whole business (which he terms "butterfly burnout") or the loss of his girlfriend, tired of being a butterfly widow, or his personal struggle between wanting to be Cool – he's a Guardian feature writer, after all – and wanting to pursue butterflies, which he worries is extremely Uncool, certainly for someone of his generation. Eventually the butterfly-desire wins out, even to the extent of bringing himself to use binoculars and risk the ultimate horror of Looking Like A Nerd.

For this, the influence of his father, the ecologist John Barkham, is responsible: the enthusiasm he inspired in his son proves stronger than mere fashion or peer-group pressure. But it becomes clear as the story unfolds that he gave Patrick much more than just his passion for lepidoptera, and ultimately, the book is about that: it is a splendid and accomplished account of all of Britain's butterflies, but it touches something deeper as a tribute from a son to his father, thanking him from the heart for a very special childhood.

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