Butterfly thoughts transport me

It is hard to say when I last saw a butterfly. The fruit of city-dwelling, perhaps?

I'm not sure, though, that it is just that. Butterflies may be almost as rare in the country now. Agricultural insecticides have radically contributed to the rarity of many kinds of wildlife. The destruction of hedgerows in Britain, to make larger fields, has widely obliterated habitats. Where have all the butterflies gone?

Some rural inhabitants take to urban life. Foxes, for instance. Our own local population increases in number and cheek every year - untroubled by sporadic bursts of ire from the canine classes. Some species of birds operate pretty successfully, too. But butterflies do not, as far as I can observe, take well to the notion of existence in the metropolis.

It's a truism, though, that you sometimes find what you are looking for, and are more likely to see something you expect. Could it be that my eyes need butterfly training? It might be worth a try. When I settled down in rural Yorkshire in the 1970s, I found that wherever I went I continually encountered hedgehogs, but never at home.

I'd just come back to England from living in the eastern United States. A popular car sticker in American ski areas was "Think snow." So I "thought hedgehogs."

Soon they were virtually knocking at my front door. At night, strolling over the dew-wet, darkness-deep fields, I now had a new hazard to foot-placement. Once I almost tripped over a whole family of these delightful, prickly creatures. I spotted them with my flashlight just in time.

And just last week, here in Glasgow, I was bemoaning the absence from our garden of a favorite kind of bird, the wagtail. I'd spotted only one in 20 years. Two days later, I looked outside: There, on the damp paving stones, was a wagtail doing what, true to their name, wagtails do.

But butterflies? Now is hardly the time of year for them, though sometimes in winter, in a cobwebby corner of a house or shed, you used to come across a Tortoiseshell or a Peacock hibernating like a tattered toffee wrapper. Or even one fluttering dustily against the window glass, unseasonably energetic.

In the dim winter days, thinking butterfly is a pleasantly contrary pastime, even if the chances of seeing one before April are remote. It is a foray into bright recollections.

It was my elder brother, smitten with birds, animals, and insects, who ensured that, from the moment I was conscious, I was conscious of butterflies - of their names and markings, and above all of their enticing color schemes. He chattered incessantly about them, and I saw no reason not to drink it all in. I also saw no reason to question his insect-collecting methods: These utterly fragile, powdery-winged creatures - the marbled whites, meadow browns, orange tips, and clouded yellows - ended up as rows of meticulously mounted specimens in protective cases.

It never entered my head that this arrangement might not be precisely what the butterflies had in mind. Or, for that matter, that such collecting might be discouraged, in just a few decades' time. Attitudes change.

I also had no reason to doubt that the exquisite, delicate intricacies and panache of color and pattern, the bars and bands and speckles, veins and splotches, were not meant entirely for my own visual pleasure. (Actually, I still half believe they are.)

But it is by no means dead specimens that come back most vividly. My brother once somehow obtained a swallowtail chrysalis (or was it a caterpillar first?) and kept it carefully until the magnificent butterfly emerged.

Few metamorphoses are more exhilarating to witness. The discrepancy between packaged dullness and an airborne brilliance as weightless as a rainbow, is breathtaking.

Today, the British Swallowtail is confined to a small habitat in the east country. Efforts are being made to conserve it. Some observers believe it is slightly on the increase.

Other butterfly memories return as inextricable associations with certain places. The violet panicles of the Buddleia bushes in our Bingley garden, for example, with their potently honeyed scent, were the irresistible late-summer haunt of Red Admirals (so-called, though actually they are red, black, and white).

The little Holly Blue belongs, for me, in the seaside resort of Scarborough. Here, every summer, we spent our childhood holidays. We rented a small beach hut - though actually it wasn't on the beach at all. It was up the cliff. To reach the beach, we climbed down steps and rocky paths of municipal design.

It was among the parks-department plants and rocks that edged these steps that the holly blues fluttered and settled. If an entomologist were to challenge my identification of these butterflies, I might well collapse under hard questioning. I think my brother must have told me that's what they were. Now, looking in books, I have some uncertainty. Perhaps they were Common Blues?

Richard Adams, the author of "Watership Down," told me in an interview that, walking in the country, it isn't the law that you must correctly identify everything you see to appreciate it fully. I take heart from this. I remember a spectacular haven for butterflies in Norfolk. It was a low-lying field, with large park trees - as if it belonged to some wealthy estate. Butterflies were everywhere, but I couldn't now name a single species we saw. Nor could I say precisely where the field is, or when this took place.

All this memory-jogging reminds me that I did see a butterfly not very long ago. Maybe two years back.

I suddenly caught sight of the splendid wings of a Tortoiseshell sunning itself on a brick wall. It was magnificent. The late- afternoon sun bathed wall and insect. With wings spread flat, it was utterly relaxed. Absorbed in the warmth. It might as well have been on the Riviera.

But it was not.

Its surroundings were tawdry and urban. It was a neglected, dirty Victorian warehouse wall, facing onto railway lines. And the only reason I saw and then spent 10 long minutes studying it, was that the train in which I was supposed to be traveling into Glasgow's Central Station was at an unexplained standstill. Public transport delays are not always disadvantageous, it seems. I was granted "time to stand and stare" - well, sit and stare, at any rate.

And when we did eventually jerk into slow motion once more, I felt I'd had a rare experience. Here, perfectly unruffled by hammering trains and bursts of people, was a lone, gorgeously colorful member of the Nymphalidae family, living it up in the middle of a city.

An aristocrat at leisure.

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