Friday 6 June 2014


A fine, sunny morning, and the train drew to a halt by a patch of waste ground outside Selhurst. I've watched this patch with more or less attention through many years of travelling to and from London, and seen its vegetation grow up and be cut down (or burn). At present it is carpeted with brambles, dotted with patches of cow parsley, hogweed, willow herb, hawkweed and ox-eye daisies, and above them elders, buddleia bushes and saplings of ash, birch and sycamore. And this morning, right by my window, a bright and beautiful Small Tortoiseshell was taking nectar from the bramble flowers, batting off the competing bumble bees (which seem to be more abundant than ever this year, in contrast to the honey bees).
  The Small Tortoiseshell (so called to distinguish it from its larger Continental cousin, a rare visitor to our shores) used to be so common that we took it for granted. In  my boyhood, if you saw a butterfly and it wasn't white, it was most likely a Tortoiseshell; even the larvae and pupae were common sights in the nettlebeds. Since then, the species has declined dramatically in the South, apparently as a result of parasitic attack - but in recent years it has been fighting back and numbers are definitely building. Perhaps, now that it is less common, we appreciate the Tortoiseshell's beauty more...
 In Nabokov's Ada there is a discussion of the butterflies depicted in Bosch's triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. One is a correctly painted female Meadow Brown; the other a far from correct Small Tortoiseshell: Bosch 'evidently found a wing or two in the corner cobweb of his casement and showed the prettier upper surface in depicting his incorrectly folded insect'. That would also explain the faded colours of those stray wings. In his Butterflies in Art, Nabokov declares that 'Only myopia condones the blurry generalisations of ignorance. In high art and pure science detail is everything.' He is surely right.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful thistle on which the inverted butterfly has settled.