Sunday 18 April 2010

Ups and Downs

The most glorious spring day yesterday - warm sunshine, not a cloud in the sky, the blossom of cherries, plums and thorns at its blazing best, violets, primroses, windflowers... The kind of day that makes you feel glad to be alive (interjection from Beckett: 'Aw now, I wouldn't go that far.') The kind of day to make a Fotherington Thomas ('Hullo clouds, hullo sky' he sa) out of anyone - perhaps as well my spirits were a little dampened by fatigue and the onset of a 'cold'. However, this time (unlike last) I made it to the downs, and was rewarded with - well, with all of the above, and the call of the chiffchaff, and some early flying butterflies: a red admiral, several commas, a few orange tips, whites large and small - and, most numerous of all, peacocks, which were also flying in the suburban gardens. However numerous they get, peacocks can never seem ordinary. Their markings - those brilliant peacock's-tail eyes against brick red, contrasting with the subfusc subtleties of the underwings - are about as spectacular as it gets with British butterflies. It's idle to speculate on how the peacock ended up so extravagantly decorated, with a piece of bravura illusionism that seems above and beyond any conceivable function. The orthodox evolutionist's answer is always the same: it is so because it is adaptive. 'Eye' markings on butterflies are said to direct the attention of birds and other predators away from the vulnerable body, towards the more expendable margins - which seems plausible, though I wonder if there is much observational evidence for it. No doubt the apparent excesses of the peacock butterfly's wing markings are, like the peacock's tail, the result of the most boldly patterned having the most breeding success. Yet many butterflies seem to get by perfectly well with nothing much in the way of 'eye' markings, and as many seem to thrive on drabness as on showy displays of colour. Never mind - the instinctive and appropriate response to the sight of a peacock butterfly is surely wonder. That will do.

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