Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Consoling

Even before hearing from a fellow graveyard aficionado (see comment under previous post), I was pondering why it is that I am so drawn to these places. Leaving aside historical, biographical or (sometimes) aesthetic interest, what is the nature of the pleasure that I get from walking around cemeteries and churchyards? It occurred to me today that I find the experience consoling.
  It is consoling and somehow reassuring, I find, to be surrounded by numbers of the dead from former times, a small battalion of that great army that will always outnumber us*. The world of the living, in this perspective, seems merely the point at the tip of an iceberg – or, perhaps, the narrow neck of an immense hourglass (aeonglass) through which the army of the yet to be born passes on its way to join the army of the dead. Such reflections might lead some to conclude that life is futile and our individual lives are as nothing, but for me it tends to concentrate the sense of wonder that life, as we experience it, should be of such infinite significance, to lend it an even sharper brilliance against the great unknowable darkness ahead and behind and all around. A populous graveyard puts us in our place, reminding us how fleeting – and how precious – life is. That is a reminder we cannot have too often.
  Leaving aside all that, though, there are also incidental pleasures to be had from strolling in graveyards, one of which is that increasingly they are being allowed to turn at least partly wild, with the result that more native flowers bloom and more insects – in particular more butterflies – are attracted. So it was that this morning I set out for Brookwood, the vast cemetery occupying many acres of heathland near the western border of Surrey. As well as enjoying a revisit, I was hoping to see two species in particular – the lovely little Silver-Studded Blue and the once common, but now very hard to find, Grayling. On a patch of heathland adjacent to the cemetery, I had soon spotted the former – a female, rather than the radiantly blue male – and thought I might be lucky and see a good many more, but in fact that was it for the Silver-Studded Blue; it is, after all, quite late in their season.
 Graylings, however, were flying in abundance – and they were the first I had seen in years. In my boyhood, this butterfly (the only one to share its name with a fish, fact fans) was a common sight on any kind of rough stony grassland, but, for a variety of reasons, it has since then become very much scarcer, particularly inland. But here they were, dozens of them, all around me, flying in their distinctive, slightly crazy way and suddenly dropping to the ground, folding their wings and tilting them at an angle from the vertical. I had forgotten how enchanting these butterflies are, and how beautifully marked are their underwings (which is all you normally see of them, so reluctant are they to spread their wings). As they flew around me and settled almost at my feet – they seemed strangely drawn to my white chinos (another argument, if any were needed, against wearing shorts) – it was like being back in my earliest butterfly days, down by the sea at Kingsdown, where Graylings were among the first butterflies I learned to recognise. In more ways than one, cemeteries take you travelling in time.


* I believe mathematicians have calculated that the population of the earth would have to reach something like 30 billion before we came near to parity with the dead.

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