Butterfly magic

Country Sights and Sounds
Butterfly magic

John Shelley

Dusk came early this evening, with night, black, cold, wet, and close on its heels. Trees danced and flung their least few leaves into the gloaming, and the wind blasted them, shaking them down to the root. Our big beech tree groaned ominously and shook its elderly limbs, one of which hangs precariously near the house.
A small brown something ran across the road in response at the extremity of my torch beam, and disappeared into the lank grass on the verge. Other than that, nothing moved that wasn’t driven by the gale.
I walked to the lake and cast the shaft of light across the water to see waves heaped like white-capped potato ridges. Even in the shallows the difference between peak and trough was a full foot and a half. Further out was even worse. Only once was I caught out in such conditions, when the spray had made it impossible to see and waves had tossed my little boat almost one to the other while I fought them with the oars. Tonight even the big deep sea trawlers will have left their place of work to find refuge inshore.
I flicked the torch off and sat in the closing night, on an old wooden bench with my collar tight around my neck, staring into the darkness in a sea of sound. Away in the distance, the lights of Westport and Ballinrobe showed as dirty yellow smudges under the thick cloud. I had hoped for the sky to clear, for we had been promised a display of celestial fireworks as Planet Earth moved through the debris following comet Temple Tuttle. A more friendly term for this trail of cosmic waste, and one more commonly recognised, is the Leonid meteor shower. More evocatively we call them shooting stars.291106_peacock_butterfly_15
There would be no Leonid display tonight. Under the rain-laden cloud the wind eased, as if drawing back like a living thing, ready to pounce. Then it threw itself across the land, strewing pellets of rain like shrapnel, and I was glad for the meagre shelter offered by the naked trees that surrounded my seat.
I crossed the road and ducked through the trees to the sheltered path that led to home, flicking the weakening beam back and forth, hoping to light up the eyes of badger, fox, or fallow deer, but the only living things to be found were winter moths. For the most part they flicked into view, then out again, appearing as little more than off-white streaks on a crazy, wavering course, soaring, veering and ultimately crashing out of sight into the undergrowth. We associate moths with the summer months, yet there will scarcely be a night when there are none to be found.
Back at home a log fire burned cheerfully in the grate, dancing summer colours, reds and yellows, emitting an alluring warmth. A light pattering sound came from behind the curtain, and when we looked there was a peacock butterfly, come to stay with us for the winter.
Perhaps it had come through the window last week, moved from the woodland edge by quickening frost. Or maybe it had already been with us a month or more, asleep in a dark corner or in a fold of the heavy curtains, and had now been stirred to life by the fire.
It pattered awhile, then found its way to a high corner, where it settled. We took it from there and placed it on a flower, partly to see if it would feed and partly to get it to pose for the camera. With the photo-shoot over it was glad to retire to another dark corner, where it remains, a black and brown silhouette blending with its own shadow. Now it sleeps, with its antennae folded back against the leading edges of its wings, the delicate sensory receptors that appear as crude club-ends on those long, slender appendages inactive.
Four-hundred-and-forty years ago biologist Christopher Merrett trod new ground in producing the first ever publication on the biology of butterflies. He identified 21 species occurring in the British Isles, of which the Peacock was one. Perhaps the one asleep in our lounge is a direct descendent of those he would have observed. No doubt the butterfly’s habits have changed little in that intervening period. The autumn storms will have driven them to shelter in his own house, too. He would have seen them by lamplight. Other than that, little has changed.